It’s Black History Month and it’s also the month that black people made history. So I’ve been reflecting on my own journey. This one is for everybody out there with a severe case of racial imposter syndrome, you’re not alone.
“In America, you don’t get to decide what race you are. It is decided for you.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Nikki was a cool kid. She had blonde hair and blue eyes. She was dainty and popular. I wouldn’t call us friends, but she rode my bus. Each bus had a letter and shape. Mine and Nikki’s was the purple circle. One day my mom picked me up from school early. As I made my way to the front office, Nikki spotted me. She shouted down the hallway, “Where are you going?” I pointed to my mom, standing with her back to us in the process of signing me out. “My mom is picking me up early today.”
“Ohhhh, I get it now! You’re adopted!”
Adult me has come-backs, snarky responses, monologues about how Nikki needs to get woke. 9 year old me said nothing. To anyone. Ever.
Nikki, with her seemingly innocent observation, began the decades long tradition where I internalize every painful and confusing comment and create innovative new ways to make myself less noticeable, less invasive…just, less.
To clarify: adoption is nothing to be ashamed of, but I am not adopted. My tight curls chaotically strewn about my head and my brown skin were the only indications Nikki had to conclude that the woman with the straight brown hair and white skin could not possibly be my biological mother.
I think I was around 10 years old the day we went to the hair salon at JCPenny. My mom used to get haircuts there all the time.
“We don’t do her kind of hair here.”
Shame. It’s a tricky emotion. One that evokes a sudden need to be small, or better yet, invisible. In one sentence, I wished I did not exist. In one sentence, my entire existence seemed like a burden.
14 years old now. I have made new friends, lots of them actually. Several are black. My first black friends that aren’t related to me by blood.
Titi: “You got good hair! Why don’t you ever do anything with it?”
Me: “….I don’t know how.”
It’s 2005. I am in my sophomore year at the boarding school that undoubtably changed my life, while also being another institution run by well-meaning-white-folks. I have always been, and likely always will be, more comfortable with words when they are on paper. The harkness table becomes my worst nightmare.
Daily, this large group of my peers takes their seats at the round worn wood table and we’re asked to debate. Not only are you asking me to spit out words without adequate time to think them over, but half of the students at this table are mansplainers in training, and no one at this table is of color…except me. I can still feel the sweat gathering in my palms. My eyes constantly jumping to the clock on the wall.
Halfway through the semester, my least favorite teacher in the history of every teacher I have had in my 17 years of schooling, asks me to stay after class.
Mr. K: “I know you have a brain because your journal is always well written. I know you have things you could contribute to the conversations in class because your perspective is always intriguing in writing. You cannot pass this class without speaking up.”
Me: *silence, heart racing wildly, tears gathering slowly*
Mr. K.: “This school isn’t for everyone. I’ve had students like you before, they rarely make it to graduation. It’s ok to quit. It’s ok to decide you can’t handle it here. Maybe it’s just not for you.”
I passed his class with A. I graduated from this school with a (near perfect) GPA. Perhaps I should be thanking him for underestimating me. Perhaps I should be thanking him for his condescension toward “students like me”.
I would sneak out of my room after lights out. My socked feet padding as quietly as possible down the hallway. I slipped past the dorm mom’s room, up the stairs, through the double doors, turned left and entered the last door at the end, just before the bathrooms.
Those whispered conversations are still some of my most poignant and most painful memories. My first black friends. My first close friends. My first go at grappling with my identity….or identities.
“They think you hate black people because you didn’t join BSU.”
“Why do you always hang out with white girls? You talk like one, too.”
“You could join the African Student Union, instead of the Black Student Union.”
My first direct encounter with a world that wanted me to pick a side, and my first realization that I couldn’t. That I didn’t know how. Because the world looked at me and decided I was black, my upbringing made me most comfortable around white, and my blood carries the combined heritage of African history and tradition, plus hard-working, agricultural, mid-western American. I didn’t know how to fit into any one world, because the worlds on offer to me were binary, and I…was not.
College now. The majority of my friends are black. Several are African. My roommates and closest friends are black.
“Oh Celete, always the oreo.”
“You’re a counterfeit African.”
“You’re light-skinned so dudes are always gonna like you more.”
“You’re light-skinned so you must be crazy. Got daddy issues?”
None of this was my choice. None of this makes any sense. None of this is ME. Do you even know who I am beyond my race? Do you even care?
I think I loved him because he was the first who did care. He was the first to listen as I rambled about race, identity, friendship, religion. Listening is a lost art. He was one of the few people I’ve met in my life that listened intently and with ease every time. We met when we were so young, but we grew up together. I didn’t have to explain who I was, because he was there as I learned, as I grew. He saw it first hand. There was never judgement in his eyes, only kindness, only questions, only sincerity.
Him: “You’re allowed to not pick a box. You’re allowed to just be Celete.”
Me: “What if I don’t know who that is? What if I’d prefer to have a box, just to make it easier?”
Him: “I know you, and there is no one box that deserves you or that could contain you….and your big head.”
I never quite know how to interact with the divide that is my own identity. The one where I’m not white enough, but not black enough either. Where I’m not fully African, but I’m more than solely American. These days there is a divide so deep our country is one large fracture. The thing with fractures is that eventually, they heal. I think I used to be fractured, but with time and friendships and an acceptance of living a “box-less” life, somehow I have healed. I hope the same is true of America.
Last year. He called me in the middle of the night. Black. 20-something. Male.
Him: “The cops knocked on the window to my car…. I had to go to jail. I have never been so scared in my life. I really thought I might die….I’m okay. It’s ok. I am just so shaken. I didn’t know who else to call.”
Me: “You can always call me. I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry.”
And I am sorry, but I’m also furious. I’m so angry. At the world. At power structures. At racism. At the fact that I even had to have this conversation with someone I love. At the fact that the moment I picked up the phone I knew something bad had happened. At the fact that I heard the word cop and I didn’t feel reassured, I felt terrified. At the fact that Trayvon, Tamir, Terrence, Freddy, Philando, or any of the other men senselessly killed could have been someone I know and love.
Him: “Do you think it’ll ever get easier? To be a black man in a world that hates me before I’m even given a chance?”
I hope so. More than anything else, I hope.