Race and color are complicated issues that all people struggle with, whether they know it or not. Being accepting of everyone is something that everyone thinks they do, but in this society, it must be a conscious effort. You have value and so do I.
Recently, I watched the documentary, Dark Girls. This doc discusses colorism and internalized racism and while I feel very fortunate in that I have never experienced the extremes of self-hate and outside ridicule that many of the people in the documentary experienced, I finally admitted to myself what I had once felt about myself and the ideas that once colonized my mind about color. As a child, I didn’t give very much thought to my skin color. I was what I was. I do, however, remember thinking, as a teenager, how much easier my life would be had I had lighter skin. The black characters you saw on TV had lighter skin, recording artists had lighter skin. It was as though, the lighter your skin and hair was, the more desirable you were. I remember using words like “bronze” to discuss my skin color, as though it made it sound better… more acceptable. I remember coming back from Jamaica and my step-mother teasing me for how dark I had gotten while there and while I never had a desire to be white, I saw my “blackness” as a weakness. I was smart, well mannered, spoke clearly, but I felt others saw my blackness as a weakness and so did I. I can even recall a recent occasion when I showed a white friend of mine my yearbook photo and he said, “Wow, you were so much lighter then, what happened?” And while I recognize what’s wrong with this question, it no longer has the affects on me it once did.
When I was in college I had a very close friend and one day we were studying together and suddenly he stopped and he said, “you know, we could never be best friends.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, I always saw my best friend as looking more like me…”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re going to make me say it… I just always imagined my best friend to be white.”
And it was at this moment that a flood of thoughts came to my mind. Do people really think this way? Do I think this way? Why?
When I was younger, I didn’t have very many black male friends, as most of the black males I went to school with teased me for “sounding white” or for being gay. I’m not saying I never had a black male friend, but most of the black males I came in contact with, I had a negative relationship with and that molded how I went about life. The black men I encountered in life were more likely to police me, my behavior, appearance and habits.
It’s similar to how gay men are often friends with women… especially at a young age. 1) Women are less likely to bully you. 2) Women are less aggressive in nature and more accepting.
This same logic determined who I socialized with as a young black person. Why would I even try to hang out with the black boys, when they are the ones threatening to cause harm to me, pushing me in the hallway and calling me a faggot as I walked down the street and calling me “white boy” because of the way I speak? I found that I felt more comfortable around men of other races. Really… any race other than black. Black women were pretty much always accepting of me, I had one black girl make fun of me in middle school, her name was Danielle. I can’t remember exactly what she said to me, but I remember the next day she apologized by writing me a note that said something to the affect of: “I’m sorry about what I said the other day, I don’t care if you’re gay or not. Whatever floats your boat. You’re a cool guy” (accompanied by an illustration of a floating boat).
Overall I felt a need to distance myself from black men, a need to not be in their company. But, this wasn’t from a dislike of “black men” in general, I’m a black man, but rather a need to eliminate the potential for violence that seemed to be a trend for me.
Being Black In Public
As an adult there is certain behavior I am very conscious of, for example addressing everyone in the room during a conversation. I learned, at what age I’m not sure, that if given a mixed group of people, one is more likely to look at the white person(s) of the group when speaking and this bothered me a great deal. I couldn’t fathom why people would not look at me when they spoke, they would look to my white friend or whomever. But, what made the matter worse is that I realized I DID THE SAME THING. I was a teenager when I discovered this and I was utterly disgusted with myself. How could I be doing this thing that I hate? That behavior was learned. No one consciously taught it to me, but I learned it. And it’s bad enough when people of other races behave that way, it’s terrible when you, a black person are doing the same thing. It was an eye opening moment. A moment when I gave deeper thought to how I thought about race and how I interacted with black people and frankly… white people.
Whenever there is another black gay man present, I feel this sort of anxiety that I am expected to be attracted to them or talk to them or… I don’t know what, but it bothers me. Not that I wouldn’t want to talk to them… there’s just this unspoken obligation. If ever I talk about being single, there’s always that white person who says, “What about Rashad?” And you think to yourself, “Rashad? I have never thought about him in a romantic way in my entire life, why would she even suggest that?…. Right! Because he’s the only other black person she knows.” It disgusted me that people thought that I would automatically be attracted to the only other black guy in the group. As though I decide who I am attracted to by race alone. Why can’t I like John? Or is it that you think John wouldn’t like me? These are the thoughts that went through my head. And while I, of course, have been attracted to and seen black men, there is this sort of rebellion that happens, when you get tired of being pushed into this separate box, this separate corner and as an adult it can be difficult to navigate.
I feel as though my romantic existence is very complicated in that I grew up with mostly white people and it’s not the race you learn, but a culture. if that makes sense, that is not exclusive to white people, but is common amongst them and because I was sort of brought up around this culture it’s where I find myself drawn to for better and worse. It’s like… young, white, liberal, cool kids move to a city… they want to live in a neighborhood where other young, white, liberal cool kids live. People who dress like them, listen to the same music as them, etc. My situation feels extremely complicated in that, I can get with a lot of the music and style and whatever of the young, white, liberal, cool kids, but I’m not white… and dating in that can be, but is not always, difficult. I remember when I first got OkCupid. I messaged a few guys I thought were cute and who also loved Golden Girls, Meryl Streep and Beyonce (Every gay man ever) and for the first time was met with things like, “Sorry dude, I’m just not into black guys.” And it has been one of the hardest things not to internalize. To know that there are people who find that I have zero sexual capital… that they can’t even go on a date with me, because I’m not white. And that added to my stress about other black men. It made me afraid that I would somehow go from being the oppressed to becoming the oppressor, so I policed every decision I made regarding black gay men. If I thought to myself, “Oh, he’s not very cute” or “I don’t really find him attractive.” I would beat myself up about it. Why don’t I think he’s cute? Do I not think he’s cute because I’m consumed by society’s standards of beauty like all those white men who “don’t date black guys?” or am I just not attracted to him? If I didn’t find a white guy to be attractive, I didn’t give it a second thought, but if it was a black guy, I fought to figure out why…. to make sure I could never become like those people I encountered and it gave me so much anxiety and stress.
I even remember there being a thought that if I dated a black man… would I exist to the world? There are eyes in this world that will recognize me first and there are eyes that will recognize someone of another color. I’m so used to being in interracial situations in general, that the thought of being in a monochromatic situation almost scared me. If we’re both black, who is the waitress going to look at? If we’re both black, we’ll become the black couple that all the white people say really uncomfortable things to in jest and won’t realize how wrong it is. I remember having these thoughts and being so ashamed that these were my thoughts. How did these ideas get in my head? How do I get them out? Does anyone else feel something similar?
I remember feeling the most empowered when I dated men from out of this country. It was like they saw me differently. They were clearly aware of my skin color, but it didn’t seem to be in the same context as Americans. So many of them thought I was just so beautiful… and they would tell me and I would think to myself, “No American has ever said some shit like this to me.” Why is that?
My mother helped to complicate my view of myself and other black people. My mother is black and very, very beautiful and she is what one might call, bougie. She thinks she is the best thing on earth above all else. Especially above other black people. There is this idea my mother created that we are different from other black people, better. We are more attractive, more intelligent and have more class and this is something that I never consciously bought into and actually found to be a strange and yet, it still affected how I went through the world. According to my mother, she is better because of her hair… she has “good hair”. I am better, because I have “good hair” of course my mother would be sure to let me know that my hair is not as “good” as hers… but still better than the rest. These things affect how you feel about yourself and other people. I’m especially aware of the hair privilege, as at times I relax my hair and of course white people don’t know the difference, but I still get the “straight hair privilege”. I am visible to white people. When my hair is straight, they see me. And for whatever reason, I can “pull it off.”
The saddest part about internalized racism is that it comes from a place of seeking visibility. In society, there are things that make you less visible to the world, to white people, to black people, to all people and everyone just wants to be part of the world. To be treated like they matter. The hardest thing to learn is that no matter the ways you don’t reflect society’s ideal… you still matter and that you are perfect just the way you are and YOU DON’T HAVE TO CHANGE YOUR APPEARANCE. It’s so hard to learn and being surrounded by white people on a regular basis who are so much part of this system that devalues people of color, but are so unaware of it, makes things so difficult. I constantly have to remind myself that I matter, that I am fine the way I am and who cares if these people don’t value me… I value me. I have value and so does every other person on this planet, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, color, religion, weight, beauty, abilities…. they all matter and I fight every day to make sure that I don’t put myself down, disrespect myself, doubt myself OR ANYONE ELSE ON THIS EARTH for these things.
It’s something that everyone thinks they do, but in this society, it must be a conscious effort. You have value and so do I.