I am black enough that people notice and want my opinions on black things they're trying out. I say this because I live in Seattle, a city full of very liberal, progressive, open-minded, down-to-earth, washed-up hippie, white people. That wasn't an insult in any way to Seattlelites. I have lived in this city most of my life and I love it here, and I love the people here, and I am severely defensive when people try to tell me why the Northwest is stupid. It's not. It's beautiful, and if you don't believe me, you should leave.
But, Seattle is a white city. Despite what Shonda Rhimes and the bevy of black doctors that run Seattle Grace/Sloan Grey Memorial/Mercy West Hospital would have you believe. (I'm also not slandering Shonda, who I believe is a genius.) Seattle is white like gluten-free, vegan option, law-enforced composting white. And, for the most part, so am I.
I live in a primarily white neighborhood, went to primarily white elementary, middle and high schools, was raised by the white side of my family, and I compost. Regularly.
But I am black enough.
What a weird thing to have to say. "I am black enough." What does that even mean?
When I was in high school, I went to a program at Carleton College which I lovingly referred to as Black Camp, but which was actually a college prep program that happened to be for minority students. I spent two weeks in Northfield, Minnesota with 51 other black high school students reading about the Harlem Renaissance and taking pre-PSAT exams. And I was completely intimidated and spent most of the time wishing I could go home and turn the whole thing into a funny story I'd tell sometimes at dinner parties.
I looked like I belonged there, but I felt in my heart that I did not. At all. These kids are blacker than me, I thought. They are black in a way I don't understand, I thought. They are black on purpose, not just by accident like I am. And one night, during a mediated conversation about blackness, I said these thoughts out loud.
I think I said something along the lines of "I guess I'm black but... I don't act black or talk like a black person. I'm essentially a white kid permanently masquerading as a black kid." If I had been in my living room in Seattle with my white friends, everyone would have laughed and agreed. Because we were 15 years old, and we grew up in Seattle, and we would have no idea what we were really laughing and agreeing about. But in that room in Minnesota, no one laughed. I was in a room full of kids who were proud to be black and who had spent years being told they weren't really black because they were smart. Because they wanted to go to college. Because they would deign to come to program like this one and prepare for college applications as sophomores in high school. And the idea that they held these aspirations made them "white." It delegitimized their race. The race that in every other situation in their life would be waved in their face. What a fucked up system.
For a while after I said whatever I said, no one spoke. And then one kid asked, "Okay, but what does that mean? You're black. You are. It's not really up for debate. You. Are. Black."
In that moment I remember thinking, "No, you don't understand what I'm saying." But what he said was true. I am black. I am also white, but I am black enough that people notice and they want my opinion on the new rap album they bought. On the book they just read about race. On Ferguson. They want me to tell them if it's okay for them to say the N-word, and if not, why not. And if so, why and when, and where and around whom. They want me to weigh in on behalf of the slaves whenever there's a discussion on the Civil War and they ask me if I celebrate Kwanzaa and what is Kwanzaa and who made it up and what's the cornucopia for?
And it is weird. To be black enough, but not to be stereotypically "black". It is weird because it puts you in the bizarre situation of discovering new forms of racism that no one even knew were there! And you think: WOW! I am the fucking Lewis & Clark of racism! I am in uncharted waters! And then you think: and it fucking sucks! No one should know about this, it's so disappointing!
You find out the sad fact that everyone is racist. White people who want to touch your hair and black people who scoff at you when you say you don't know what a texturizer is. You find out that you are racist, that you categorize different parts of your personality as black or white. That you brag about knowing Lil Wayne lyrics when people give you a hard time about going to an Ivy League school. Everyone has this idea of what black is, and of course they know it's not that, and they're not going to put you in a box where your race defines you, because they know you as a person, but also wouldn't it be fun if you were a little more, I don't know, sassy? And you don't know if you agree with them or not.
I do not know what the answer to any of this is. I still don't know how I want to think of myself on the color spectrum, and I don't know what to feel about so many horrible things in this country that affect me deeply and yet are so far away from my own life experience. I don't know. What I do know is something that everyone around me has known for a long time. It is not up for debate. I'm black. I am.
I. Am. Black.