Maintaining Identity

Whenever going into a space where I know that I’m going to be one of the few black faces, I always think of myself taking two separate paths. The first is a path where I completely  overcompensate for the fact that I am in a predominantly white space. I amp up everything about me that makes me black and, all of a sudden, I become the spokesperson for the entire black race. The second path I imagine myself taking is the opposite. My speech pattern becomes more enunciated, I try to refrain from using any type of slang or AAVE (African American Vernacular English), my hair becomes straighter, my voice becomes more apologetic, and I turn my nose up on the things I grew up with.

The truth is it would not matter whether I decided to just go into this new space as myself, because people would just see me as one or the other. Either the person is the Oreo or from the ghetto. There can often be an urge to put opposing labels on people as if they can be one of two things. This is an oversimplification that allows people to classify others and thus understand them. Either you’re a pessimist or an optimist, a Jackie or a Marilyn, or an “oreo” or “ghetto.” These terms have always been present; they’ve just evolved. In Spike Lee’s movie, School Daze, they were high yellas/wannabes or jigaboos. In the end both oreo and ghetto have bad connotations. If you’re ghetto, you’re poor, probably a criminal, and chances are, you can’t speak “correctly”. If you’re an oreo, you’re a sell out.

There are some people who believe that the only way to make it in this world is to assimilate or adapt and blend in to a situation. You have to become the person you resent. As my roommate once said during an ongoing discussion about the education of black people at a historically black college, “The world isn’t black.” This meant that as soon as any student who has gone to a HBCU (Historically Black College or University) graduates, they are in for a rude awakening when they find out their education is less useful in a predominately white country.

There is this idea that black culture isn’t valid in mainstream society. It’s okay when a person is trying to be entertained. It’s innovative and original when a white person imitates it. But heaven forbid a black person talks in AAVE outside of their neighborhood or goes to a job interview with dreads or a natural hairstyle with a curl pattern any higher than a 3C.  The way that a person relates to the world must change in order to be successful and respected. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule: A black person can be successful without changing every aspect of them, but it is difficult to find such a person, especially when so many black people are taught that they only way they can be successful in life without going into the entertainment business is if they change the way they talk, act, dress, etc.

One problem with this idea is that we are often conditioned to think this by the people in our communities. My relatives and parents often encouraged me; they told me that the way that I saw “black folks” act in the hood is no way to act around white people. I suppose they thought that maybe if I acted as if I were white, then people would respect me more. Changing yourself is also encouraged from members of the white community. In school, if I were to act a certain way, say a certain thing, or dress or do my hair in a certain way that would suggest that I was black — other than my skin tone of course — I was given weird looks or deemed “ghetto.” In a society that has taken the culture of so many people away and conditioned them to think that the whiter the better, richer, prettier, and more important you are, it is understandable that the members in their communities, especially the elders, would believe and tell their children and grandchildren that they aren’t significant unless they attempt to try to achieve the standards set up by the dominant population: white males.

The ongoing question seems to be is there a balance between home life and professional life? Is there any way to have an individual identity in a place that is a white majority? These questions are difficult to answer, and there seems to be a general consensus that it has to be one or the other. Either you are an oreo or you’re ghetto. Either you’re successful, or you are constantly struggling to make ends meet. Maybe the norm shouldn’t be that white is right. And in order to change this, we need to start challenging this ideology instead of conforming to what society wants us to believe. Not only do black people need to challenge what we have been conditioned to think for hundreds of years, but everyone needs to challenge what we think of being not only successful, but just normal. We need to challenge the idea that black and normal are two different concepts. This will only happen when people start to confront their psyche and subconscious in order to change how we think and the messages we send others. Only then can we move into a more positive direction on the identities of ourselves and others.


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