Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Are Blerds Black Enough?

I remember a discussion I had awhile back with my co-workers. I was the only person of color involved in the discussion and at one point one of my co-workers looked at me and said "But you are not really black though."  He said it as a back-handed compliment but everyone else including me froze. I let him know I wasn't happy with nor did I appreciate the comment.  He apologized profusely and stated he didn't mean anything by it.  But I knew intimately what he meant. I was not authentic. I wasn't really black or black enough. And it wasn't the first time I heard it. I grew up in a poor neighborhood and had always been bookish which was not a recipe for being cool or popular. On more than a few occasions I had been accused of trying to be white sometimes jokingly sometimes not just for reading books. My two closest friends growing up wanted to be football players and both did end up playing football in college. In a culture where athleticism is at times more valued than academics they were infinitely more cooler and popular than me. I didn't start getting props until I started boxing and wrestling in middle-school. I was above average at boxing but I excelled at wrestling. And now I had an identity that was separate and at odds with my bookish or nerdy identity. I was an athlete and more specific I was a wrestler. Wrestling and boxing are physically demanding sports and anyone who competes in them must be tough so by definition I couldn't be a nerd right? I struggled with this as I searched for a tag or identity that defined me completely.  Something that said yes I'm black, and I'm smart, and athletic, and I love books. But there were no labels that I was aware of that encapsulated all of that. So I became different things to different people at different times. Sometimes a nerd, sometimes an oreo, sometimes an academic, sometimes a jock. And despite my new found popularity due to my athletic achievements I was still teased at times which led to some fighting. I equipped my self fairly well in these fights (I had a quick right hand and a strong wrestling pedigree) but it bothered me that some of my peers still doubted my authenticity. That by some mythical cultural barometer of blackness I was less in their eyes. Now no-one escapes childhood with out some trauma and I don't want to paint the picture that I was a social outcast who struggled to connect.  I was far from that.  I was popular with a diverse group of friends and gave as good as I got in the teasing department. But I still struggled with my racial identity and wondered if I really was less black. It took me a few years before I realized, I could be smart, bookish, nerdy, popular, athletic and it did not take away from my blackness. I defined my identity. Those phony arbitrators defining blackness had no more license to do so then my grade school peers.  I could be nerdy, or rather blerdy and proud without sacrificing one iota of my cultural identity or racial pride. I still feel the same way today. And if anyone wants to challenge my authenticity or question if I'm black enough I still have a quick right hand.