Defining Blackness

I get to decide what it means to me

by Christina Oxley

One day in my 10th grade American Literature class, we read Fences by August Wilson. My teacher said to everyone, “We will be reading this play aloud in class. The main character, Troy, says the ‘n’ word many times, so I’ll just say that you guys have the choice to decide whether or not you want to say it.”

That’s not what you say to a bunch of White kids, I thought. I attend a predominately White private school, and I was the only Black student in the class.

One particular kid’s hand shot up to read as Troy, and I knew something horrible was about to happen. The hard R’s of the word pierced my ears as he spat out the slur over and over again, without a single hesitation. My heart pounded and my body went numb. I felt sick, but I just sat there, frozen. I wanted to disappear. I felt some eyes glance over at me, but for the most part, the rest of the class seemed unfazed.

This White boy took advantage of the opportunity to say a hate-filled word without repercussions. I always feel outnumbered in my school, but in that moment I was truly on my own. I knew that no one else in the room felt the way that I did. When class was over, I ran to the bathroom and cried.

Just One of the Black Girls

Before I began attending a predominantly White middle school, I didn’t think much about my identity or how it was being shaped by my race, ethnicity, and the society around me. I didn’t realize at the time that I was internalizing society’s idea of what it means to be Black, which is to feel apart from and less than White people. Then I started attending my middle school’s Black affinity group, which taught me to recognize the ways that race influences so much about my life.

I started to pay attention to the number of times I saw on the news that an unarmed Black child, like 12-year-old Tamir Rice, had been killed by police. The teachers leading the affinity group taught me that microaggressions—like teachers and peers repeatedly calling me by the wrong name because they don’t see the handful of Back girls in the school as individuals, or classmates touching my hair without asking—as well as bigger racist incidents, like what would happen the day we read Fences, didn’t just happen to me. These dehumanizing experiences were a daily reality for Black people in spaces like my school. My friend was even accused of plagiarism once because his White teachers didn’t believe he could excel academically.

My mother sent me to private schools in Manhattan because the quality of education was significantly lower at the predominantly Black public schools in our Brooklyn neighborhood. But my history classes mainly focus on Europe and White American war heroes. Black history is taught for a single week in February, with the same incomplete overview of slavery and the Civil Rights movement repeated every year. There is nothing in between the two, as if Black people had ceased to exist for an entire century.

In high school, I stopped being Christina and became “one of the Black girls.” The same teachers who mixed us up in class posed with us in photos for the diversity page of the school website, and put us on the front lines in basketball because they assumed the Black kids were the best at it.

Coddling White Feelings

Racial stereotypes dictated how I was expected to react to any situation at school. For example, in my sophomore year, my friend and I confronted some White boys in the cafeteria for using slurs and other racist language.

“Using the ‘n’ word is inherently racist,” I tried to explain. “It automatically makes school an unsafe environment for me. You’re White, so you cannot say that word. It has a lot of history behind it and it is blatantly disrespectful to use it when you know how harmful it is.”

Everyone just stared at me. Then some started to laugh and make side comments: “Why is she so angry?” “Why is she attacking us?”

“I’m serious,” I said, my voice rising with frustration. But as I grew visibly upset, I just drew more blank stares. These boys were in the wrong for making me feel unsafe, but I felt like the odd one out—like I had committed a crime by making them uncomfortable. It frustrated me that they didn’t understand why I had a right to be angry, and that they felt attacked when their behavior had had the effect of attacking me.

Afterwards, I went to the only Black dean out of the four deans in the school. She is also one of the three Black faculty members there. She told me that as a Black woman, I would always have to remain calm in the face of this kind of adversity, just as she had learned to do from working in predominantly White independent schools for over 20 years.

“This school wasn’t built for people who look like us,” she said. “And when you react in anger, it makes it easier for them to justify wanting you out of it.”

At first I wanted to challenge her advice, but then I just sighed and nodded because I knew it was true. Still, hearing this didn’t make me feel any better: My White peers are allowed to dehumanize me with no consequences, but I’m not allowed to be angry?

After the debacle in the cafeteria, one student even told me that I should have been “nicer” and “more calm” because my actions only perpetuated their stereotypes of me as an “angry” Black woman. But why do I have to coddle White people and care about their feelings more than anyone in this school cares about mine? Why do I have to sublimate my emotions to make others feel better about their racism?

YC-Art Dept.

A Truly Safe Space

Experiences like these made me realize that every day I have to prove that I am worthy of being in that space alongside people who don’t see me as equal to them, whether they realize it or not. But over the last two years, with the support of Black peers who have gone through the same thing—like the dean I spoke with, Black classmates, and others I’ve met through social media and diversity conferences and organizations—I’m learning how to combat the institutional and interpersonal oppression I face every day.

I’ve also found pride in being Black despite the societal message that I shouldn’t. I’ve started to embrace my natural hair and dark skin, and to express this pride through my writing and art. I’ve gained a sense of unity and community with other Black people, and I see Black art and culture in a way that I hadn’t been able to fully appreciate before.

For example, two years ago I went to Afropunk, a music and arts festival featuring the work of Black artists. People of all genders wore afros and afro puffs of all colors and sizes, twists, beaded braids, bantu knots, and locs. As a Black woman, it was reassuring and validating to be around thousands of other beautiful and confident Black people. In that safe space, I felt seen, and being there brought me an overwhelming sense of pride. After a life of being disrespected, ignored, and neglected because of my Blackness, I was finally able to see it in a positive and beautiful light.

Since a young age, I have been put in majority-White environments that remind me I am Black — and that define Blackness narrowly. In the era of American slavery and the long period of racial segregation that followed, the “one drop” rule determined what it meant to be Black. No matter how you identified, if you had one drop of “Black blood,” you were considered Black and therefore deserved to be enslaved and treated as less than human.

Though we live in a different time, this “one drop” idea still lingers in the way we think of Black identity. Many people today think that everyone who is Black experiences poverty, that we all speak and act in the same way, or listen to the same music. For example, some, like the teachers at my school, assume that because I am Black, I can’t express myself well, or are surprised at how “articulate” I am when I speak in public. One repeatedly asked who helped me with a writing assignment. When I said that I had done it by myself, this teacher said, “Well, I just didn’t know you could write so well!”

Black Individuality

Many people believe that all Black people share the same opinions and experiences regarding race. This plays out constantly in my life, like when a teacher has asked me to explain to my class how Black people feel about being called “Black,” as if I am a representative of my entire race. Or when the whole class stares at me and waits for me to respond to a question the teacher poses about race.

It is easier to isolate and discriminate against people when you don’t recognize them as individuals with their own unique thoughts, opinions, and emotions. The idea that Black people are less than human, which is a legacy of slavery, can also be internalized within the Black community, and be detrimental to our own self-image. When the concept of Blackness is flattened into a set of stereotypes, we aren’t allowed to live up to our full potential as people. We need to be able to celebrate our Black identity and decide for ourselves how to live in it, rather than letting it decide how we live. Race is a social construct used to give and limit power to different groups of people, so I can reclaim power by defining my identity for myself.

I’ve decided that I don’t have to conform to this one-dimensional caricature of what it means to be Black. I don’t have to settle for less in life because others think that’s all I deserve. I can be ambitious, driven, and hardworking, unlike the stereotypes of Black people as “lazy” or “uncivilized.” I can be vulnerable and feminine just as much as I can be “strong” and independent. I love to write and I appreciate art. I love indie rock music as much as rap. I have a genuine love for learning. I allow myself to be all of these things, because it is who I am. I don’t have to stay in the box that others have put me in based on my race. My identity doesn’t limit me. I get to decide who I am, whether that conforms to what anyone expects or not, and I find that liberating.

Christina’s Black Identity Book List

Christina writes about finding pride in being Black despite the societal message that she shouldn’t. Here are some of the books that helped expand her ideas of Blackness.

Between The World And Me
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
In the form of a letter to his teenage son, the author examines America’s racial history and its present-day reverberations.

The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic
Edited by Mahogany L. Browne, Idrissa Simmonds, and Jamila Woods
An anthology of poems by more than 60 writers about Black girlhood and womanhood.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
By Malcom X, as told to Alex Haley
The activist tells the story of his life.

Brown Girl, Brownstones
By Paule Marshall
The daughter of immigrants from Barbados finds her own identity growing up in 1930s and 40s Brooklyn.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir
By Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele
One of the founders of Black Lives Matter describes her journey to activism.

I don't have to conform to this one-dimensional caricature of what it means to be black.
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