It happened. I failed the “black” test. My hair stylist and I were chatting while she was taking a break from retightening my locs. I made a funny quip, and she extended her palm so that we could partake in the standard Black American handshake. In what was most likely the longest three seconds in the universe, I stared at her hand in befuddlement, trying to figure out what she was doing. By the time I realized that this was the handshake, it was too late. I tried to recover with some weird amalgamation of a fist bump and a high five, but the damage had been done. I had revealed myself to be the Carlton to her Fresh Prince.
I replayed the scene over and over in my head during my walk to the train. How could I have been so oblivious to an obvious cultural norm? This set off a mini existential crisis where I came to one of my greatest philosophical epiphanies: I’m uncomfortable around black people. This is a peculiar realization being that I am also a black person.
But you see, my stylist embodies a certain Harlem black cool I’ve always been told (by white people) that I lack. Every time I walk into the black barbershop where she does hair, I feel like I’m going to be “found out.” In my mind when other black people see me, they’re thinking: “She may look black, but she’s not black black, if you know what I mean.”
Where does this discomfort come from? And why do I think of Blackness as a test I am doomed to fail?
Like most psychological problems, it all began in my childhood, specifically the eight years I spent living in all white towns in rural Wisconsin. If there was one phrase I heard more than “nigger,” it was “You’re not black.” Talk about irony.
Sometimes it was phrased as a “compliment,” meaning you’re one of the good black people. But other times it was meant so white people, whose sole interaction with black culture came through the distorted lens of racist media, could assert their own twisted version of blackness over me.
“I’m blacker than you because I know more Tupac songs than you.”
“You’re not black. Your lips aren’t even that big.”
“You’re not even that black. Look, my ass is fatter than yours.”
“I know so many white girls that can gangsta walk better than you.”
“You’re not black, you can’t even dance!”
It didn’t surprise me that Rachel Dolezal truly thought she was black. I’ve long known that, for many white people, being black is simply checking off a list of well-worn stereotypes.
I always brushed off those comments, because I knew I was black enough to be called “nigger.” I was black enough that white people stared at me everywhere I went in those lily-white towns. And I was black enough to be accused of stealing during shopping trips.
But if you hear something enough, it can seep into your unconscious and start to guide your decisions. Somewhere along the way I started believing that I wasn’t black enough, whatever that meant. This is the clusterfuck of all realizations: Racism made me uncomfortable around my own people. Ain’t that some shit?