I often feel as though I am on the edges of Blackness, despite my experiencing physically embodied Blackness. When I look in the mirror, I see dark brown skin, tightly curled hair, a broad nose, dark brown eyes: things that are unmistakably coded as Black. It feels largely skin deep, however: I don’t feel culturally Black enough, especially around Black Americans who did not have recent immigrants from Africa, Latin America, or the Caribbean in their families.
My relationship to Black American culture is, and always has been, complicated and turbulent. My maternal family—except for the youngest uncle, who was born in New York—immigrated to the US from Trinidad in the 60s. My paternal family is Black American, but I was comparatively less close to that side of the family, so my idea of intergenerational Blackness is shaped by the experiences of my immigrant family, not my American-born family who moved up north during the Great Migration of the mid-20th century. My experiences of comfort foods, of family sayings, and of how Blackness is expressed—or not expressed—stem from being the child and grandchild of immigrants.
Like many immigrants wanting to gain respectability in a new country, some of my maternal family aligned themselves with White-defined respectability, rather than the Black Americans who superficially looked like them, but spoke a different dialect and carried themselves differently. Some didn’t, and had stronger pan-diasporic Black cultural identities, but they’re not the ones that raised me. Internalised racism and a desire to seem palatable to White people pushed my mother, and to a lesser extent my father under her influence, toward spurning African American Vernacular English, sneering at Black people who saw their race as being a defining aspect of their identity, deeming themselves more enlightened because they preferred White Republican candidates over Black Democratic ones, letting their White friends complain to their faces about “reverse racism,” and unthinkingly repeating worn-out right-wing canards quoted straight from Fox News about how we Black folks just can’t take responsibility for ourselves and need to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton don’t speak for us, those damn race-baiting radicals. I absorbed many of these toxic attitudes as a child and as a teenager, and though I’ve undone much of it in adulthood, I still have a complicated relationship with how Blackness is performed by Black Americans.
It was almost as though I was supposed to be a “person with Blackness,” rather than “a Black person.” It didn’t help that things were compounded by certain people at school—and in one case, my maternal aunt’s then-boyfriend—who accused me of “talking proper” or “actin’ white.” If I acted more Black, then I’d deal with my mother’s wrath being brought down upon me, but if I acted in a way that seemed less performatively Black, I would find myself ostracised by other Black youth.
Of course, I gravitate toward certain people, or music, or writing, or art without any conscious design behind the process. The things I like are black things because I am black and I like them. Knowing that intellectually, however, doesn’t dispel the sneaking suspicion that I am doing it wrong. That my comparative lack of performative Blackness severs me from the rest of my community.
I feel like a fucking Oreo. An interloper among real Black people.
I don’t deliberately avoid other Black people, and nor do I deliberately avoid things traditionally associated with Black Americans. I do, however, feel deeply awkward in spaces that are implicitly delineated as Black American spaces—in contrast to ones involving the entirety of the African diaspora—because of this feeling of “not being Black enough.” That I’ll come in, and they’ll expose me as a fraud and accuse me of actin’ white. Such spaces wouldn’t be explicitly coded as Black American spaces, but the mannerisms and cultural references would be.
I feel as though I’ve been thrown in this country without the “Black People’s Manual.” Well, except for the part about being terrified for your life because yet another police officer has shot an unarmed Black man.
There is a constant knife-edge fear, a metallic tingle in the mouth, of the other intersections in my life interfering with this: Will they accept me as a queer, autistic pagan along with being Black? I have been burned by the Black church—by which I mean the American Protestant strain of Black religiosity—and its rampant homophobia and transphobia, but I would be foolish in the extreme to conflate one cultural institution with the entirety of the race.
I want to find spaces where I can deal with the complexity of my racial and cultural identity. I want to move from the edges of Blackness toward the centre without changing who I necessarily am. I want to find community that uplifts, commiserates, and sustains, rather than one that pushes me aside.
I’ve gone through this with my relationship to autism; would that I could find the same peace with my racial identity.