I was raised by a Black family. I go to a Black church. I live in a Black neighborhood. I did my undergrad at a Black college—finishing my master’s degree at one, too. Teen Girl has been educated in schools where White students are welcome, but none ever enrolled. We are surrounded and cushioned by Blackness aplenty. I never saw anything wrong with it. I still don’t. We celebrate, enjoy and appreciate other races, cultures and communities but, when it’s time to come home, we revel in our own. The other day, however, she brought up an interesting point during an otherwise fruitless conversation about her plans for New Year’s Eve.
“Last year, I hung out with you and your friends like I was one of the ladies in Waiting to Exhale,” she snarked in her teenage drawl. “This year, I want to spend the night at Beth’s house. Like a cultural exchange.”
Beth is her one White friend, a girl she met at summer camp at a very ritzy and very privileged private school in a very monied section of the city. My child was there on a let’s-make-a-conscious-effort-to-be-more-diverse scholarship. That wasn’t the official name, of course, but it surely was the intention. Female. Check! African-American. Check! Single-parent household. Check! And, according to their old wealth and upper income bracket standards, we’re also considered po’ folks, so check for that too, thank you very much. The costs of camp are no joke, so if it wasn’t for that come-up, homegirl would’ve surely spent her days schlepping through the Janelle Harris You Gonna Be Anything But Lazy Internship Program. We were both thankful it didn’t come down to that.
Beth, on the contrary, was there on the strength that her parents could afford to send her on a whim simply because she decided at the last minute she wanted to go.
I don’t begrudge the girl her money or her privilege. She was unknowingly born into both. I do resent her effort to counter it by trying her darndest to pretend her way into Blackness based on what she absorbs on reality TV and World Star Hip-Hop. Between her fledgling Ebonics, her little colored, cornrow-wearing boyfriend and now a friendship with my daughter who, bonus! has dreads and lives in the ‘hood, she is a certified carrier of the storied Black pass. She’s all set.
Skylar thinks my apprehension about their new girlfriendom is the rearing of some sort of reverse discrimination. “You don’t like her just because she’s White,” she accused.
I sucked my teeth. “Oh, on the contrary,” I retorted. “I suspect she only likes you because you’re Black.”
That girl has my blessing to be friends with as many people who represent as many differences as the wide world offers. I just don’t want her to do it at the expense of being the token Negro friend for folks who just want to live the vicarious life for curiosity’s sake. Everybody wants to be Black until the cops come or the paychecks are cut. Then it stops being hip and trendy. It becomes an inconvenience.
Blackness is a finely woven silk garment. It’s a glorious, enchanting aria. It’s a struggle at times, but a lovely one. I made a very conscious effort to surround my daughter with the beauty of it until I felt like she was old enough to have a solid understanding of her greatness as a woman of African descent. That meant being careful about what she played with, what she read, what she watched on TV. There were no Disney flicks in our house until she was almost 10 because it doesn’t take much to internalize the not-so-subtle messages when a character’s name is Beauty and she doesn’t look a thing like you. I wanted her to love herself and her people before society beat her over the head with all of its ugly stereotypes and prejudices.
She doesn’t think about being Black. She just is. Maybe she’ll reflect on it more deeply when she gets older. She’s certainly been exposed to enough of the conversations between me and my “waiting to exhale” circle of thinking-and-analyzing sistagirls, her godmother and play aunties. There’s never too much of feeding, teaching and exposing our kids to their culture. A strong backbone holds a head up high. When I watch her in her most unsuspecting moments having a love affair with her skin, her natural hair—really, her whole Black self—I feel confident that she won’t just take whatever the world gives her as she steers her own course. She won’t let this Beth and the other ones she’ll encounter tell her who she is. She’ll already know for sure.
Janelle Harris is a writer, blogger and editor, and the owner of The Write or Die Chick , a boutique editorial services agency. She’s also a single mother, a proud Washington, DC girl and a longsuffering Kanye West fan. Chat her up on Facebook or Twitter.