The thing about being Black is that it’s the exact opposite of keeping up appearances. When anybody comes into a new space, they take it as a chance to be a new person, maybe even to be their best selves. For Black people, this opportunity presents itself as an obligation to whitewash our Blackness.
For me specifically, such an opportunity arose when I enrolled in a private liberal arts college not far from the middle of nowhere. The school is known for its liberal agenda, rural aesthetic, above-average tuition (near $70K/year), and perhaps most importantly its presiding hippie/hipster culture that endorses quirky classes that might involve collecting sap and making syrup from the surrounding maple trees or boffing– a type of fighting that relies on foam weaponry as a form of live-action role-playing.
Maintaining a student body of only about 400 undergraduate students, I was well aware that the school had perhaps over-advertised its Black population in its welcoming brochure. With fewer than 20 Black students, and likely over 300 White students, there were only a few raisins in the milk.
This new environment was far different from the unfortunate public schools of the South, like those in my state of origin, Louisiana. Those schools are often riddled with low-income, majority Black students, a demographic that has no choice but to repeat itself seeing that the students districted-- and thereof restricted-- to their respective “ghettos”– each of which fund a not-so-decent education– are no more likely than their parents (or guardians) to escape this unbecoming pattern of circumstance.
Thus, in coming to western Massachusetts, from a long history of white-liberal-termed “inner city” schools, my experience was one of adaptation. We don’t do it on purpose. But eventually, we get used to throwing out some words from our vocabulary that are too ebony in pronunciation; increasing the pitch of our voices so that we sound enthusiastic about things that do little to excite us; adding the ever-so-frequent “like” when we are forced to use a foreign language; paying for expensive brand-name coffees as our White friends think spending time together is the same as shopping; and becoming accustomed to daily microaggressions because racist jokes are funny, not offensive. We do this to fit in. And if we cannot somehow squish ourselves between a rock and a hard place, we are crucified. So we try to get the rock back to the top of the hill every day, but it always rolls back down, and sometimes we imagine what would happen if we let it stay there. Sometimes– by intent or incident– we let it.
The first time I ventured to do so was some weeks after my arrival in Massachusetts. I made the mistake of restructuring my syntax. Sometimes when I am angry, I let it show. Sometimes I get too excited, and experience some “slips” of the tongue. I forget the grammar of the Standard English, or what some white Americans (or Europeans at that time) had decided long ago to judge everybody else– “everybody” being synonymous here with “mainly Black people and other people of color”– on if they strayed the slightest distance from that definitive norm. My friend thought it was of the utmost importance to tell me, “Woah, you just sounded Black for a second!” After all, what had happened was an accident. I shouldn’t slur my words, or leave any out, for that matter, even if they are meaningless. However, the statement still appalled me. I guess I wasn’t used to being offended then. But I remembered I had to accept the racist ideologies of my “friends.” If I critiqued them, I would become the angry Black woman. And my job is to be the oreo. My job is to “act white.”
So when my ‘friend’ yelled “Gross!” in disgust when I told her I only washed my hair once that week– leaving out the part that I did the same every week– I said, “I know right!” in that same excited voice I had practiced my whole life. I figured she would care little about the fact that Black hair thrives on moisture and that its curly texture might prevent natural oils from traveling down the entire hair shaft easily, as opposed to White hair which might necessitate less intervaled washing for the same reason.
Likewise, she was unlikely to be considerate of how Black hair has been historically ‘othered’, that white hands in Black hair too often feels like the sticky fingers of gawking children at a petting zoo, that considering the history of chattel slavery, a white person doing this thing was a habitual occurrence that is almost always at odds with the comfort of those being ‘felt up’. Hence, I left that part out too. And I acted like it was okay when she asked to touch my hair, that it wasn’t an odd thing for her to say, “It’s so soft!”, as if it is surprising that my hair is not actually made of cardboard, but rather many individual and clustered strands of fiber that just happen to be more curly than hers, more ‘ethnic’ than hers.
Like I said, we get used to being quiet. That’s why when another friend said, “She’s not like really Black,” I knew it was supposed to be a compliment. It should be a good thing not to be Black, right? I mean, another "friend" had told me that Black people were more violent than White people, anyways, so why shouldn’t I take pride in not being “like the rest of them”?
Except, in the back of my mind, I still felt skepticism when someone told me there was no racism in Massachusetts, even after they had told me the white supremacists I had heard about “[weren’t] a big deal.” I suppose swastikas in permanent marker are just drawings in the same way a few or one particular racially charged, historically amplified word in rap and hip-hop are just song lyrics when white people say it. And yet, I found it a bit demanding to ignore the persecutions of my friends back home, to forget the ill-treatment that had been done to me as well. I realized it was hard for me to not be scared, to not “overreact” when Trump was elected.
My white liberal "friends" are loud behind screens and sometimes in person but only when it comes to the kind of racism that isn’t muffled in the same way I am when it comes to the kind of liberal racism they deem so much better than its counterpart. For example, nobody says anything about the campus drug dealer who thinks people talk too much about race, or the pretty white girl who wears a MAGA hat–- but only ironically. Ironic because white liberals care more about not saying the "wrong" words than they do about not being racist, and since none have ever gone so far as to say the n-word with the hard -er, then that’s a sure sign that they’re not actually racist.
Because part of "acting white" is learning that apparently, racism isn’t racism either way, and it’s okay to accept gold stars for recognizing obvious wrongs and not trying to correct the deeper ones. And part of "acting white" is internalizing a system that refuses to reflect on itself. I signed up for this job. But maybe I’m not the best person for it.
What I am trying to say, is that it is an exhausting task for me to not be Black. I’m finding it extremely difficult to be "white," and I’m wondering if that’s a problem? Because they told me it was. And I am supposed to be like them. They told me so. But I can’t keep up any longer.
Cordenne Brewster is a transfer student at Brooklyn College where she's majoring in Creative Writing. She enjoys reading good science fiction or fantasy, watching a too copious amount of movies and television, playing basketball in her free time, as well as scrolling and commenting relentlessly on various social media platforms. You can follow her @ennedroC on Twitter and Instagram (or find her on Facebook as ZG Cordenne).
This story has been published as the first installment of a new series, Surviving PWIs for POC, about the experiences of students of color in higher education. The series is edited by Shanice Arlow. If you are interested in submitting, please contact Weave News here.