by Jenna Gray ’19
Did you grow up or attend school in a largely white, suburban neighborhood where you had the only drops of melanin for miles?
Have you tried shopping for makeup and only been able to find foundation in shades of “tan,” “a bit tan, but only for the summer,” and “slightly darker than Casper the friendly ghost?”
Was your ancestors’ history largely neglected in your schooling, perhaps unless teachings involved their enslavement?
If any of the above questions resonated with you, do not fret: What you have felt constitutes a cultural, emotional phenomenon. An anecdote from the field may explain this situation best, so let me take you back to a campus club meeting, the one that inspired this article.
The people around me are nice enough. No one is visibly offensive. They’re quirky in that educated, liberal, voted-for-Obama, chunky-retro-glasses-wearing kind of way. They even offer snacks!
There was no “Whites Only” sign when I walked through the door, but there may as well have been one—with an addendum: “we truly believe ourselves not to be racist—a few might call us color-blind—but if you’re a person of color you’ll probably be more comfortable elsewhere.”
Their practices aren’t intended to make me feel uncomfortable. They didn’t come out with some sort of “anti-safe space” statement or say anything blatantly racist. Even so, there’s something suspicious in the air—in the seemingly innocuous things they say and the way they present themselves—that makes me feel like I don’t belong. I don’t understand the references they make, and I don’t find their jokes funny. I try to search for the unspoken element that brings them all together and leaves me questioning myself. Perhaps it’s how they were raised or other activities through which they all know one another. Maybe I haven’t spent enough time with them. Maybe it’s something else…but years of feeling alienated from white culture and white-dominated spaces qualify me to classify their practices as a “white people thing.”
My melanin meter is silent as I frantically try to detect where the rest of the colored folks are in this room. I yearn to exchange a glance that says “Was that supposed to be a joke?” or “Can you believe these white people?” with someone who understands my feelings of alienation and discomfort. Remember the phenomenon I alluded to earlier? This is it, and it’s called “too black for this.”
Being too black for this can strike in response to circumstances from the seemingly trivial to the emotionally wrought. I might find myself feeling black and attacked at a party when white people are violently jumping and fist-bumping to EDM, when I’m in a sea of people wearing Vineyard Vines and salmon-colored shorts, or when I’m eating unseasoned chicken. In such instances, humor helps heal my pain. Other times, humor can do little to alleviate the bitterness, heartache, and sadness that fill me when I hear the racist ignorance that comes from people’s mouths or feel isolated in spaces that are supposedly for everyone but warmly welcome only white people. Subjection to a life as the single fudge drop in a gallon of vanilla ice cream, surrounded by peers who actually think it’s okay to refer to me as “chocolate,” has taught me that being too black for this isn’t just about surveilling a room and noticing that your pigment makes you an outlier there. It’s about feeling like your hair texture, skin color, and visible and cultural blackness are a problem–and eventually liberating yourself by learning that systematic racism and white supremacy are what’s actually problematic.
Being a black person in a white-dominated world is uncomfortable, confusing, and marginalizing. I question my value and belonging in a society in which black artistic achievements are undervalued and murders of black people result in viral, painful-to-watch videos on social media but not justice. I cling to my blackness because I know the world doesn’t want me to. When I’m in a white-dominated space, I feel as if I have to suppress parts of myself—my soul, my thoughts, and other traits colored by black—to avoid the discomfort that results from the mark of “other,” of too black or not white enough. Even in seemingly harmless spaces like campus club meetings, I feel as though “the white way” is the only way, and any comment or gesture I make that hints at my blackness will be undervalued or misunderstood.
By now, you may be thinking that none of these problems are actually related to my race. But even if I am just imagining all this, that’s the thing about being black. I see the world through a racial lens because that’s how the world has conditioned me to see everything. Second grade was the first time when my white peers taught me that I am black. Since then, I have unlearned racist myths and combatted internalized racism that the world loves to force-feed us black folks. However, even though I love and take pride in it, my blackness still affects how I think and navigate every space I enter.
This isn’t to say that I feel too black for every space populated largely by white folks. However, I often become hypervigilant, waiting for the moment when my blackness becomes salient in a more than just visible way. With my mother and her family being white and living in a predominantly white area, I’ve spent most of my life around white people (see photo accompanying piece for Michael Oher in The Blindside-reminiscent Christmas card). I don’t exclusively seek out people of color with whom to be friends, yet most of my friends are such. I’ve wondered whether or not I have “enough” white friends. I’ve worried about the assumptions people make about me because I’m often seen only with people of color, if not all black people. We’re drawn together because we can relate to one another’s upbringing, interests, experiences, and sense of self. There’s less explaining to do, so “friendships of color” are often less emotionally taxing: I can say to my friends, “I was the only black person in the room” and immediately, empathy and validation pour through.
I know everything isn’t black and white, and there are plenty of gray areas where my melanin and surroundings don’t conflict. New England Clam Chowder, for example, is just white enough for me. With exclusion I’ve felt in the past in mind, I go on being my black self, even in a world that can’t handle my blackness in all its glory. Although the world may sometimes feel too white for me, I affirm myself with the knowledge that I—Jenna Gray, with my blackness and all—am more than enough. I have too much pride and determination to be held back by people who wear salmon colored shorts anyway.