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But You’re So Smart, You Can’t Be Black

Hope Wabuke is a writer based in Southern California. Follow her on Twitter @HopeWabuke.

“You’re not Black enough,” they always say to us.

My older sister has a new story. It happened yesterday. Just having earned her graduate degree in marriage and family therapy, my go-getter sister had promptly invented a therapy game. She was at a convention showing off her prototypes when a fellow Black woman walked up to her and harassed her. “You don’t have enough Black people in your ads,” she said.

Now, I have seen my sister’s product, a self-esteem card game, and I know it features Black people. My sister and I, growing up in Southern California — a state that is now majority Latino — understand the very real importance of diversity. My sister had pictures of Asians and Latinos and white people, as well. This fellow African-American woman, however, was not having it. She said that by including other races, my sister was a sellout. Apparently, my sister was not being Black enough.

I have stories too. I attended a primarily white university in Evanston, Illinois, where I was the only African-American female film major that year. I did not know this at the time of acceptance. This was 1998, not 1968; I had different expectations. It was the best school I had gotten into, and my African father had always said education first. At this predominantly white institution, I made friends with white women and was introduced to feminism. It was amazing.

But in college, the white women who introduced me to feminism — like the men who were telling us how to be women — began to tell me how to be Black. I didn’t fit into their preconceived stereotypes of American Blackness. I remember one white feminist friend who (earnestly) told me how lucky I was because everyone knew: Black people were better at sex; this was why she only slept with Black men. This same white feminist friend, fed up with my African accent, general nerdiness and love of classical music, also told me she was going to teach me how to “talk Black and act Black,” even as she repeatedly explained to me that racism did not exist in our “postracial” society.

In high school, in our predominantly Asian American town of Arcadia, California, it was the horror of the Asian parents when I was sent to tutor their kids. They’d been told their tutor was the best student in AP English. They hadn’t expected … me. How many times did I hear, to my face: “You’re so smart — you can’t be Black.” Or: “And your last name — aren’t you at least half Japanese?”

Even my Latina best friend was always teasing me because I couldn’t dance — and she could. “But you’re Black,” she would say, rewinding the Janet Jackson tape again and again so I could learn the moves — a hopeless task with my two left feet. “Act like it.”

In elementary school it was the Black kids from Pasadena, the neighboring town, who called us Oreo — Black on the outside, white on the inside — because we talked in a mixture of our parents’ British and African accents. Because we learned to play tennis, not basketball. Because we played in the orchestra. Because we earned straight A’s. Because we lived in Arcadia, not Compton. Because my favorite thing to do was to read books. Because I was a vegetarian.

And always, the annoying, constant refrain of surprise when I spoke: “But you’re so articulate.”

For far too long, I tried to fit into other people’s stereotypes of what Blackness should be. But now, years later, I no longer worry about other people telling me how to be Black. I grew up. I finally understood that, as African-Americans, we share variations of skin tone, varying lengths of separation from Africa and common cultural experiences, but we are each unique individuals. I realized that no one else’s stereotypes define me. Certain things, like the unnecessary opinions of unnecessary people, matter less. Certain things, like the life of my Black baby in a country where Black children are shot down by police and blamed for their own killings afterward, matter more. What I now worry about is the safety of our Black bodies in America — the dangerous ramifications of equating Blackness with inherent criminality, of stereotyping Blacks as demonic, hulking thugs.

You see, my older sister is a true California driver. She makes rolling stops. She often does not signal her right turn. In the wake of Sandra Bland’s arrest and murder for an alleged traffic violation of this kind, I worry about my older sister — that she might become the next Black victim of police brutality. That she might become the next hashtag for our modern civil-rights movement — and yet matter less to mainstream America than a dead African lion.

That fear? That’s Blackness. Knowing that in this white supremacist state founded on the premise that you are not a person, a place where the odds of survival are stacked against you but you stand up anyway, as a light to the next generation, like Malcolm X, MLK Jr., Rosa Parks and Sandra Bland? That’s Blackness. The ability to create joy and community and love in the midst of the soul-crushing horror that still exists in 21st-century America?

That’s Blackness. That is where we live, every day.