I saw this post amidst a sea of reflective memes on social media intending to give folks–namely White folks–a glimpse into the larger African-American psyche (although, we, like every demographic, are not a monolith). When I stopped and processed this meme, reflecting on what it means to me, I saw embarrassment, shame, and a lot of pain.
I also saw hope.
For me, the answer to this image happened in elementary school, but it wasn’t a friend who told me “you don’t act Black.” It was my teacher. She also did not use those exact words, but it was clearly implied. I am not sure when this happened exactly, but I think it was in first grade (although, it could have been kindergarten or second grade). The exchange, however, is a vivid memory and one I often think about. It displays the extent to which racism had already conditioned so much of my thinking at five or six years old. Also, I shamefully admit, I was the one who initiated and sought out this racist praise of distinction. Somehow, at five or six years old, I already knew many of the unspoken rules of racism.
“Why is he so bad?” I asked.
“Who’s he?” my teacher replied.
I pointed to a classmate named Dwayne. He was darker than me, wore cooler sneakers than me, sported a cooler haircut than me (he had a box with a long rat-tail), and he was the only other Black kid in my class–or at least the only other one I remember. Dwayne was my competition, and he was known as a trouble-maker (this was in Glen Burnie, MD in the late ’80s, by the way).
“Him,” I said as I gestured. “Dwayne.”
“Oh,” my teacher responded. “I don’t know, Wesley. But you’re not like him. You speak so well and you’re a nice boy.”
In that moment her words permeated my consciousness. I remember the comfort I felt having my White teacher affirm this racist notion of distinction, that I “don’t act Black.” And I knew, from that point on, I could move throughout my life as being “different” from them.
I’ll never forget that exchange. It crosses my mind several times a year and I am going on 38 as I write this. There is no way I can know what my teacher meant, or how she felt in that moment. But I do know how I felt, and I know how it makes me feel now reflecting on all that transpired afterward.
That playground exchange is the first clear memory I have of this vile racist complex being present in my life; although, clearly it was present prior. This corrupted seed of White approval that undermined the value of Black lives was watered and tended to vigorously over my near 40 years. It was powerfully destructive to my understanding of self and the context to which I belonged and still do. It makes me embarrassed and ashamed each time I go back and relive the moment because I know it was me who bought into this racist notion for years, and that it was me who sought out more of this insidious affirmation as I grew older.
There was a catch within this racist conditioning, though. The same system that caused this internal violence also turned me away from it, and toward my Blackness. The catch was I grew to be a large Black male, and by 8th grade, I was 5’11” and 185lbs–a threat to the eyes of White supremacy. Those affirmations I once sought out quickly turned into clutched purses, needless and overly harsh reprimands, false arrests, and fights. Lots of fights.
When I moved from MD to North Carolina before my sophomore year of high school, I re-invented a “Blacker” version of myself, which was a stereotyped image I had derived from my love of hip-hop and its culture. I had grown tired of the “you don’t act Black” label and now pursued the “you so Black” label. Things were magnified when I entered undergrad and repeated the same foolish and horribly misguided process of re-invention. But, by then, I was so mentally beaten up I did not know who I was, at all. My escapism of substance abuse (which I started in middle school) increased dramatically. I ignored my future. I ignored the lessons about my family’s history that my Mom and Dad had taught me. The racist self-fulfilling prophecies so many of us experience had almost taken hold of my life.
We all fight this, or versions of this, whether we realize it or not. This is a slice of the ugly and compounding effects of racism on Black mental health—just a slice.
And yeah, I know what some of you are thinking. Struggling with your identity is something we all experience to varying degrees during adolescence and early adulthood per Erikson’s model of human development. And yeah, if you know me, then you know I had it far easier than most with the layers of privilege I carried, i.e. able-bodied, straight, cis-gendered, male, college-educated, middle-to-upper-middle class, and more. And yet, racism persisted. Initially, my privilege was no match for the systemic nuances of racism. I was still jacked up. It wasn’t until I hit my late twenties when I began understanding how my privilege lessened the blow of racism and provided a cocoon in which I could further develop. I realized I wasn’t different, I was just entitled from the depth of my privilege.
We’re all responsible for our actions and emotions, but that doesn’t mean addressing root causes is not worthy of our time.
Racism is a root cause.
The angry (mostly White) voices we hear denying the merit of our racist experiences attempt to paint us as playing the “race card.” These voices tell us we are using a crutch to whine and complain without acknowledging that the whole world is jacked up. And yeah, the whole world is jacked up. And yeah, racism is a foundational evil within our country that has an exceptionally special relationship with Black folx. For those of us descended from enslaved Africans, the luxury of having a culture telling us we are great and providing some semblance of an identity is something we’ve never had–it’s something we’ve had to create along the way. It is something many of us struggle with now.
Becoming anti-racist is worthy of our time, resources, and actions. We are all responsible for our actions, and it was not the actions of my ancestors that created race, racism, and a pervasive system perpetuating racist lies and destruction of Black livelihood. My responsibility, our responsibility, as African-Americans is to seek our own healing from the fire that has wreaked havoc over so many aspects of our well-being.
There is so much healing we need to do, and often we are too busy surviving or fighting (or ignoring) the immediate threat of racism to truly work on ourselves.
Since 2004, I’ve only unfriended two people from my personal Facebook page, both of which were Black. This is not healthy, and I don’t recommend it. In fact, it’s probably a remaining shard of my need for White approval. Prior to 2012, everything I posted was fairly light-hearted, mostly comedic, and designed to protect White fragility with little to no regard for the trauma Black folx have endured. In 2012, a switch was flipped inside my spirit. I voted for the first time because I identified with the racist treatment Barack Obama received while in the White House. I also watched the smiling White faces in my Facebook timeline demonize Trayvon Martin and make light of his death. There were so many opportunities in my life where what happened to Trayvon could have easily happened to me. So I began to dive deeper into who I am–the good, the bad, and the ugly. A line was formed and I began using my voice about the reality I was now working to fully embrace. I also became a counselor, seeking to fight the seemingly eternal fire burning through my life and in our communities.
It causes me deep pain that it took so many years for me to reach that conclusion. And in truth, I owe this revelation to Black women.
Since 2012, many of my “friends” on Facebook have muted and unfriended me, and I’m sure more will as the weeks, months, and years go by. My voice is not for them though, and neither is yours—neither is ours. My faith tells me to not cast my pearls to those who are unwilling to be receptive, and I won’t.
My first memory of experiencing the racist phrase “you don’t act Black” represents the duality of racism. I have been both ravaged and healed by a centuries-old flame, and through its ashes, a more intact version of myself emerged.
I love my Black skin, my thick kinky hair, my proud heritage–I love who I am.
And now, I have hope.
My hope is that Black folx can be seen, respected, and valued by ourselves–this is the essence of Black Girl Magic and Black Boy Joy. My hope is that we can reclaim our mental health while gaining more active allies willing to do the work of introspection and change. My hope is that the “you don’t act Black” ideology–in all of its forms–is collectively burned to the ground.
My hope is for Black lives to matter, because they do.