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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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COMMENTARY: You’re So Different: OK, But What Makes You Black?

By Melba V. Pearson-Mecham, The Root

(Note: “America. In Black” is a weekly essay series published on TheRoot.com that examines the myriad experiences of blackness in the United States.)

“You’re so different. You’re so articulate. Why do you talk like a white girl? You’re the whitest black girl I know.”

Comments like these beg the question: What makes you black? Is it merely the color of one’s skin? Is it a state of mind? Knowing the lyrics to Cardi B’s songs?

It took me a while to embrace that my blackness was not the stereotype others believed.

In some ways, I am different. I was lucky to be raised in a household where I received all that I needed, with some of what I wanted. My parents encouraged me to spread my wings and move from my native New York to Miami for a job as a prosecutor. Being a black prosecutor was isolating, but I found others like me midway through my career.

I lived in a weird juxtaposition—I was a black female attorney, holding down a teaching job on the side, which allowed me some luxuries in life like a nicer car and the ability to travel. I never took it for granted; but in certain circles, I got pushback.

The message? That I “don’t know the struggle.”

Every black person’s struggle takes a different path but has the same theme. In my legal career, the struggle is respect, being heard, and having the ability to make meaningful change to uplift communities of color. The bias looks the same—while some people of color may be hesitant to embrace you because you’re perceived as “bougie,” certain white folks marvel that you can afford a luxury purse or a high-end foreign car without being tied to illegal activity. I was once at an event when a judge joked to me whether or not my Michael Kors purse was a result of dropping cases as a prosecutor.

No lie.

In doing community work, I often had to work harder to gain the credibility of my fellow people of color because I just seemed “so different.” One day, I was picking up a friend who lived in a poorer area of the city. She sent a young niece to let me know she was running late. I told her no problem. The niece went back to my friend and said, “why does she talk like that?”

“Like what, Sweetie?”

“Like a white girl”

I never was great at the code switch—I just was always me. Besides, I had no code to switch from. The result was working doubly hard in every environment.

Finally, I just stopped.

I always bristle when someone says “well s/he’s black, but you know, not really” or “s/he is the whitest black person I know.” Often this is said by a white person, possibly thinking it’s some sort of compliment, along the same lines of “you’re just so articulate.”

Really? How is that? Because the person doesn’t fit some sort of stereotype? Speak in a certain way? Throw the black power fist in the air for your entertainment?

To me, it’s not just about knowing pop culture or the latest urban wear designer. It’s knowing your history and being authentic to your roots. I’m an African-American woman, born of two immigrant Caribbean parents. If you really want to get down to it—Afro-Caribbean-American. I wear my hair in dreadlocks as a nod to the natural beauty of my own hair texture, not what Hollywood or someone else says is beauty. I can recite every Public Enemy song, but not so much for hip-hop past the year 2000 (I feel the message has been lost—with a few exceptions). I serve my community and humanity at large to the best of my ability. I fight injustice where I can. I see my dark complexion in the mirror and feel proud, strong and beautiful. Being African American presents challenges because of the ignorance of some, but I was given the tools at birth to be a warrior for positive change.

I’m in a place where I believe that the work I do daily reflects my authenticity. The work of fighting for racial equality is too important to get caught up in how I look or sound to others.

This is me.

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