By Sharai Sims
I have started a new phase in my life. I am a black woman, 22 years old, and living in rural Minnesota, where assimilation is a must for social acceptance. For so many years, I thought I was accepted because of my light skin and the ability to flat iron my hair so bone straight that you never saw my nappy roots at the nape of my neck. I thought it was the traces of whiteness in my family line that separated me from the other black kids. Just as ambiguous as my looks, I couldn’t be placed nor did I try to limit myself when moving through social crowds and groups. I was accepted seamlessly.
Because of the necessity I felt to assimilate, I never acknowledged the things that were actually setting me apart: my humor (black), my style (black), and my insight (black).
When I was a sophomore in high school, I remember a party that my white friends were throwing. At the party, all the popular girls (there were about nineteen of us) wanted to do a group shirt saying “sophomore class of 2012.” Funny, I was actually flattered to be considered a) popular and b) the only black person invited, even though our whole school was pretty diverse.
The party took place at my friend’s mansion on Lake Minnetonka. I had never seen a house this big. She had an elevator, movie room, and sauna. The house was so big you could get lost inside. Furthermore, she had a cabinet filled with every snack you could dream of! The snack portion is key for me; my intersectionality includes welfare stamps and free lunch, hoping for a generic brand of Oreos to come my way. In my mind she had it all, so why would she want to be friends with me? I lived in a two bedroom townhouse in the city, my mom just lost her job, and I damn sure didn’t have anything to give but my time and friendship. To me, it was embarrassing to be accepted into a group of affluence, secretly knowing that my social-economic standing and way of life, if exposed, could ruin our friendship or at least strain it. My facade of privilege and acceptance would become unveiled. For those reasons I tried to hide my low-income life. I always requested to be dropped off and very rarely did I have any of my white friends come over. I was ashamed of my blackness. I didn’t want to confront the realities of my poverty because being poor isn’t cool. Shopping at thrifts stores is cool, but not actually being able to buy name brand isn’t.
But, I was in. They accepted me and enjoyed my company, I guess. I thought it was because I was “not like the other black girls.” But the reality was I didn’t have name brand clothes and shoes or straight hair and cupboard filled with snacks. I was their semi-black friend. I was the friend who used too much Ebonics and slang that they had never heard. The loud friend who told jokes, the friend who they asked to teach them the hottest dance moves (crank dat soulja boy). I was different. I was black.
At the time, I thought, “Wow, I’m so lucky to be hanging out with them.” Secretly, though, I didn’t want anyone to drive me home that wasn’t black. I didn’t truly feel accepted in this group because I couldn’t even ask for the things I needed. I remember in high school once, my mom lost her job. She wanted me to sign up for free and reduced lunch. This saving my mother a huge hardship would have benefited our household. Because of my stubbornness and yearning for acceptance, I strained myself because I felt like I should pay because paying is what everyone does. In my mind I thought I had to assume the same responsibilities. Without acknowledging that I was DIFFERENT, meaning I needed things basic things I wasn’t getting.
I remember leaving that party, exhausted. Completely exhausted from “entertaining.” I was so black that even when I tried to fit in with the white kids I was still too black. It wasn’t enjoyable for me. I spent so much time trying to be well-received that I forgot about why they wanted me there in the first place: I wasn’t accepted, I was entertainment. I was cool because I was black. I was cool because of black culture. I was cool because I didn’t judge them because of what they had or didn’t have. I was cool because I was raised in a black home where we’re too loud and sometimes too real. I was cool because of my history.
“I spent so much time trying to be well-received that I forgot about why they wanted me there in the first place” Tweet this Quote
It was never about the white parts of my aesthetic that made me beautiful. It was my full lips and round brown eyes and high cheek bones, all black traits. It took me moving to a rural college in Minnesota, where being black is like seeing dirt on white snow. To radically embrace my blackness; to truly free myself, to be unapologetically black. In this space, I realized the power and influence that I had naturally was a gift, that my lived experience in the world gave me skills and culture, as well as a powerful voice. I no longer felt the strains of needing to fit in. I don’t know if it was time or reflection, but being at a college where everyone is the same makes you want to be different. I had a professor when I got to college who affirmed me by saying “your lived experience has taught you things.” I never thought a teacher would acknowledge me as already possessing talent, gifts, and knowledge, with an untold story to tell. Although I am surrounded in a sea of whiteness, I have never loved my blackness more, being able to absorb the light I chose to only reflect the best parts of the darkness while on my journey to discovery.