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What Does it Really Mean to Be Black?

All my life my friends always thought it was funny that I didn’t “act black, talk black or dress black”. I always found it funny they decided I should act a certain way based on my race. I heard those comments since I was about 8. In an almost all white school system, the children around me wondered how I could be so “different from other black people?”

It was like I was some huge exception to them that they couldn’t figure out. Most of my life I found it to be amusing that people were so surprised by my articulation and my preppy style – but recently I began to wonder, if by speaking well, dressing nicely, and being smart people thought I wasn’t “black” enough, then they are saying those things mean white. So by this definition, black people should be poorly dressed, poorly educated, and lacking proper grammar. I mean, that’s really all those people were saying to me: you’re too proper for your race, you’re different and you don’t fit the mold.

As a young girl, surrounded by white students until my senior year in high school, I have to admit that sometimes I was happy to fit in with the white students rather than to be ostracized for being black. However, now that I live in the city and attend the 11th most diverse University in the nation, I’ve realized that the idea that to be proper was to be white was a notion fed to me by whites who did not know many black people. When I was growing up, most of the black people I knew were my mother’s family, so the kids I went to school with likely only knew black people through the media and the news – and we all know the negative portrayal blacks receive in the media. Looking back on my childhood, it disturbs me that my friends and classmates gave me a sort of approval nod for not being the image of a black girl they’d heard so much about. That acceptance from them caused me to try and suppress my African American roots for years. For the most part, they made me feel that it was okay to be black as long as I didn’t act black.

That brings me back to my fundamental question of what does it mean to be black? There is language in society that needs to be changed. People need to understand that races are not the determining factors of a person’s character. The color of a person’s skin does not decide the type of clothes they choose to wear or the music they listen to. Their race also does not limit their ability to learn the same information as other races, nor does it make them an “exception” to their race if they are successful.

The problem I found when I was growing up was that I didn’t know enough black people to look up to in the media – I only knew of historical figures who seemed god-like and “untouchable”. Today, I feel we have a similar problem. People subconsciously associate a race with the images they see in the media: black women are supposed to be loud and angry and Latinas are supposed to be sexy and have an attitude. I feel that the image of a hardened, grammatically incorrect, and thug-like character in America has been accepted as “black”. Because the American psyche will not change, it is up to blacks to take control of the image we put out in the media. The voices of people like the activist Bakari Kitwana and Maya Angelou need to be heard as often as the voices of Lil Wayne and Nikki Minaj. That is not to say that I do not like the characters of Wayne and Nikki – they are both creative individuals; however, if these are the majority of the images being put out, blacks will continue to be associate with a certain lifestyle and image.

I say this because it is people like Kitwana and Angelou who make me proud of my race. They make me feel special and important in America and the world as a whole. They create a sense of energy within me that makes me want to show the world just how great our race is. I know this feeling I get from listening to them speak is not unique to me. I hope more artists and activists will emerge with similar powerful messages – even if they can’t change the whole image of blacks in America, they will at least give a sense of pride and belonging in young people like me.