In a recent article, Where is My Black Boy’s Joy, I wrote about the pervasiveness of white culture and it’s toxic nature in making small black children doubt themselves and their worth. After I finished the article, I went to my sounding board (my younger sister/best friend/confidant) and just really dug into the turmoil I was feeling at seeing my child having an identity crisis. As my sister and I discussed our hurt and isolation of being the lone chocolate chips in a sea of vanilla at our elementary school, we couldn’t help but note that despite the feelings of otherness, we never went as far as to want to be white. This realization ate me up. What had I done differently as a mother that my mother had done? How had she immunized us to the very plague that was ravaging my son? And then I remembered my younger brother. Same school as my sister and I and the same parents and yet the desire to be white. What was is that made little boys more susceptible to the lure of whiteness?
Recently, I read an article about how black boys can negotiate their blackness in ways that black girls cannot in white suburban schools. Where black girls are deemed loud, black boys are deemed cool. The ability to negotiate blackness and be accepted seems to be the downfall of black boys when navigating white spaces. This is evident in the Ta-Nehisi Coates article I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye. Kanye West was, disputably, one of the biggest superstars of our generation and beloved by black folks. What we loved about Kanye beside the dope fashion sense and the unrivaled musical talent was his candor. When Kanye West stood in front of the world on a televised Hurricane Katrina Benefit and said that George Bush didn’t care about black people, we praised his awareness and his courage to speak out. This man was not an industry puppet. What we have seen in subsequent years is a black man who has bartered his coolness in exchange for whiteness. Coates asserts that Kanye wants white freedom and I couldn’t agree more. Kanye and countless other black men mistake their acceptance into white spaces by way of coolness as an ability to relinquish blackness in exchange for whiteness. Non-passing black women are not ever fully accepted and, therefore, never prey to the assumption that they can ever attain whiteness. But why? Outside of being perceived to have a bad attitude or being loud, what shields black women from the delusion of believing we can be white?
As, as it turns out, our crown is also our shield. Intense discussions with my sister proved that the one thing we had that my boys did not was a constant reminder of our blackness every day in white spaces. For non-passing black women, be it a source of consternation or pride, our hair is a constant indictment of our blackness. From an early age, black women spend hours at a time getting their hair done and being prepared to go into society where people will either ask them unreasonable questions about their hair or try to touch it. We learn, first from our hair, that who we are is not understood and that our space is not respected. We learn early on that our hair will be scrutinized by both our black and white counterparts and that it will be othered and, in most cases, considered bad. This constant racialized awareness is why my sister and I were never able to be tempted by whiteness. Our hair would never allow us to ascribe to white supremacy. For black boys it is different. They are afforded some access and, subsequently, believe they can endeavor to have it all. Non-passing black women are never allowed at the table so we must reconcile early on that whiteness, with all its privilege, can never be ours. In that way, our crown, both defines us and defends us, shielding us from the identity issues that often plague our male counterparts.
I do not know how I am going to help my child reconcile that although his blackness will afford him coolness in white spaces, he will never be a white man or fully allotted white privilege. I still do not know how to rebuild what has been undone by internalized racism. I do know that I love my child and that we have a lot of tough conversations ahead of us. I’m just reeling from the thought that the very thing that made me feel undesirable in my youth and early adulthood is what inoculated me against the siren song of white privilege.