“But, I don’t think of you as being Black. You’re just Lisa!”
Yes. That’s been said to me, more than once by more than one person. And I’m supposed to smile and let it go. Heaven forbid I verbally challenge someone who is already challenged by my very existence. I don’t fit their understanding of what it means (to them) to be… you fill in the blank, so I’d better start explaining myself in a hurry. It is imperative that I make sense to them or else they won’t know what to do or say.
That simple phrase, “I don’t think of you as (again, fill in the blank)”, is not a compliment. Do you not think of me as Black because you like me but you don’t like Black people? Do I not look or act like the Black people you’re familiar with (like the criminals, gangsters, rappers, or welfare queens portrayed in the media)? Are you afraid that knowing me will cause you to have to readjust the way you see the world? Saying that you don’t think of me as Black, or anything else that makes you uncomfortable, says less about me and more about you. It tells me you live in a very insular world that doesn’t include people that aren’t like you. It tells me you’re afraid of certain groups of people. It tells me that you enjoy a certain feeling of superiority because you aren’t like “those people”. It tells me that you are not only ignorant, you are willfully ignorant. You don’t get it and you are totally okay with not getting it.
It also tells me that I’m the one who has to change or conform in order to be okay with you.
Why? Is that fair? I have to contract myself into a little box rather than your having to expand your understanding to get me, and that’s okay?
I’m not claiming to be perfect, not by a long shot. I have character flaws that are mine to deal with, but they come from my being human and not from my being Black, female, etc. There’s stuff I need to improve — just like there’s stuff you need to improve. We are connected by our humanity. In that, we are the same.
Perhaps it is naive of me to believe that the world is a better place because we are all different. I for one can’t imagine a world that is all one race, one gender, one religion. I love this beautiful world of ours because it is a many colored quilt. We are better for our differences, not worse. The variety within human existence should serve to broaden our acceptance and understanding, not to narrow it. I believe we are all God’s children. Perhaps we don’t all understand each other, but God understands us more deeply than we know ourselves. He draws no comparisons and sees no distinctions. He loves us perfectly and accepts us completely. We have much to learn from that example.
So why can’t we accept each other as we are? How can one group of people justify calling themselves correct and condemn everyone else to either a life of conformity or exile? Who are we to do that? It’s not a question of right or wrong, moral or immoral. It’s about being secure enough in ourselves to believe that there’s room for many points of view. It’s about not being threatened by the “other”.
When you tell me you don’t think of me as being Black, you deny a huge part of who I am. I am a Black woman raised by Black people. My experience of life has not been one of membership in a privileged majority. Even the most economically challenged and uneducated White person can enjoy the privilege of being White, while there are Black men with PhDs who still can’t get a cab in NYC or face violence or death at the hands of the police. Don’t get it twisted: I am a highly educated person, trained to play an instrument at a level achieved by only a very small percentage of the population. Yes, I speak like an educated person and not in some stereotype of Ebonics that you’ve seen on TV. As a Black woman, I have learned to live in and navigate the world of the so-called majority. As comic Dave Chappelle says, all Black people are fluent in two languages: hood and job interview. I am of two worlds by necessity. But I am a product of the people and culture that nurtured me.
It is amusing to me that folks think that I am some sort of anomaly. Nope. There are tons of other folks like me, more than you would think. We read Shakespeare and enjoy the creative and scientific disciplines, but we also enjoy the ways and traditions of our people. I love Beethoven and Brahms and Bach, but I also really love Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”. I have a Masters degree from Juilliard, but I can still appreciate the creative artistry of Usher, Pharrell, and Beyonce. I love ballet. I love Klezmer. I love African dance. I love the music, art, and scholarship of the whole world because I am a citizen of the world. My vision is broad and all encompassing and none of it frightens or threatens me.
I only fear evil, and that can be found anywhere at any time. There is no one culture or tradition with a monopoly on evil.
So, don’t tell me you don’t think of me as Black. It only makes you look bad. Expand the way you think to include all that you don’t understand. Believe in people, not in stereotypes. Look for the good in everyone, but don’t look for everyone to be like you in order to be good. Embrace me as your sister and don’t ask me to be anyone other than who I am. Don’t try to “figure me out”. Just accept me and love me. It’s just that simple.