The Quantifiability of Blackness

Once upon a time, I worked at a Macy’s call center over the holiday season in the credit granting department. My duties involved fielding incoming calls from customers who were standing in the store, furious and humiliated because their card was being declined. This could be for any number of reasons: they’d missed a payment, they’d maxed out the card, they’d failed to provide adequate validation, you name it. However, nothing prevented these people from assuming that you personally did not want them to be able to shop, despite whatever you may say to the contrary. One evening, shortly before I quit, I received a call from a woman who was livid that her teenage daughter was not able to use her card in the store because she wasn’t listed on the account. Curiously enough, the woman seemed to believe that we were not allowing her daughter to use the card because she was black. Trying to abide by our training and “connect with the customer,” I attempted to point out to the woman that we would not do that, and that I, in fact, am black. Lo and behold, the woman, with no evidence to go off of other than the sound of my voice, claimed I was lying to her before hanging up on me.

Now, it’s curious: this is by far not the first time this has happened, and most likely will not be the last. When I was a teenager working at McDonald’s, I had multiple customers come through the drive-thru and express their surprise that I wasn’t white. Black people have always had a reaction of sorts to me- that I am not as black as they are because I don’t “sound black.” But really, what does it mean to “sound black?” Is blackness quantifiable based off the sound of your speaking voice, or is it a summation of a lifetime of experiences that no one else on earth has any right to comment on other than you?  I bring this issue up now because it seems to be more prevalent than ever, and it’s something I feel no one will ever actually address. Colorism is addressed regularly by folks all over the spectrum- but no one discusses how we treat people who don’t sound the way we expect them to sound. Case in point: Real Housewives of Potomac. In season one, we are presented with several black women, most of whom are light skinned, all of whom are either subconsciously or consciously trying to look white. Most of them had blonde hair; several of them wore blue contacts. All of them carried themselves in such a way as to let you know that they believed they were smarter than your average bear- actively trying, as it were, to be less black. In the second episode, however, they met a new housewife- and promptly went to town on her for not being black enough. She was light-skinned, like most of them were. She had a full head of natural hair, however, and her vocal patterns did not follow theirs. The other housewives ganged up on her, calling her a THOT and claiming she’d spent too much time around white people. Of course, they didn’t do this at the actual party they were at- this was all in the interviews. At the party, they settled for underhanded, catty comments that they could argue she was reading too much into, had she said anything. In short, they came at her indirectly, lest they be called out on their behavior and asked to explain themselves. Having been in this situation myself many a time, it’s very easy to assume that because no one says anything that can be directly interpreted as offensive, that if I feel ostracized or put down that I’m crazy, or overly sensitive, or that I need to check something about myself- in reality, these women are extremely insecure in their own blackness, and when they meet someone who is comfortable with themselves, their voices and their God-given natural hair, they feel the need to denigrate them and make them as insecure as they are.

However, the issue of “Black Enough” doesn’t begin or end with how one speaks. Let us again venture back down the wormhole of personal experience: at a previous job, in a conversation with my black coworkers, I was told that I’m “not a real black person” because I haven’t read The Coldest Winter Ever by Sista Soulja. Now, I’d never heard of The Coldest Winter Ever, and had said coworker recommended it without feeling the need to complete erase my experiences as a black person, I may have been open to actually reading it. But no- she brought it up like that, and then, for our annual Secret Santa present swap that year, felt the need to buy both The Coldest Winter Ever and the sequel for me- I guess to help me along in my quest to be more black (I have not read either one to this day, mainly, I will admit, out of spite). How dare she question my blackness, like I haven’t existed on this planet for twenty- plus years on this planet being the only black person in the room, being made to feel my otherness by everyone around me? How dare anyone call into question your heritage because you do not have the same cultural touchstones as them?

This, however, is far from the worst experience I’ve ever had with another black person erasing me- one day, my little nine year old cousin called me a “skinny white bitch.” I don’t know why this bothered me to the extent it did, and honestly, still does. Perhaps it’s because someone with the same blood and family history as me saw me, knew me, and still felt that they could say something like that to me without regard for anything we shared. If we share the same family, the same origins, if my grandpa is your grandpa and my cousins are your cousins, if you are black and if I am black, why would you feel as though it’s okay to call me a skinny white bitch? Not only that, but she was a child. What are we teaching children about blackness if they think it’s okay for them to meet someone who doesn’t fall into their narrow stereotype of what blackness is and say something like that to them?

The truth is, blackness is not now and has never been quantifiable. Blackness is not how you speak. Blackness is not the shade of your skin, the color of your eyes, your hair texture, or anything you can ever possibly change about yourself. Blackness is a family history of understanding that we were brought to this country against our will and that we have had to pull together to carve out a place for ourselves. Blackness is knowing that ALL men are created equal, and fighting for that equality every day, in the streets, at work, in our schools and at home. Blackness is understanding that we are part of the great diaspora, and as different as we all are, our differences are our commonalities- and if you believe that blackness is anything you can measure, you need to check yourself. Am I not black enough? Or are you insecure in who you are?  

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