The first time somebody called me the n-word was the summer of 2018.
By that, I don’t mean non-black people using the word around me — that happens way more often — I mean actually directing the racial slur toward me.
I had just walked out of my hometown’s recreation center and was heading toward my car and noticed a group of seemingly middle school-aged white kids staring at me. “Weird, but OK,” I thought. I carried on and was about 100 feet away when I heard one yell that word.
I didn’t turn around, say anything back or have any reaction, really. I just smiled, shook my head and kept walking. Although I hadn’t yet experienced a situation like this firsthand, I knew that ignorant kids throwing around racial slurs wasn’t uncommon in today’s day and age, so I wasn’t shocked and just kept moving.
The situation wasn’t something I thought much about at the time, but it’s a perfect example of an experience that contributed to my struggles with racial identity.
For years, I’ve had a complex relationship with my blackness. I was adopted into a white family, and grew up in a heavily white town. I don’t regret these things or wish it didn’t go this way. In fact, I believe my distinct upbringing taught me a lot of valuable things. But I can safely say that it had a huge impact on me and my process of learning my culture.
Growing up in a predominantly white town with a 1.57% black population and a high school that had similar demographics, it felt hard to find my place as a young black man. It was already an uphill battle for me due to the lack of racial diversity combined with my social awkwardness, and the treatment I received from white peers only heightened that.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard “you aren’t really black,” “you’re the whitest black guy I know,” or some other variation of those phrases from white people for a number of reasons. Whether it was my family, how I talked, how I dressed, how I acted, how I played basketball or anything else that wasn’t befitting of a stereotypical black person. There was always something I did that wasn’t “black enough.”
I didn’t think about it much then, in part because these microaggressions were disguised as lighthearted jokes. However, looking back, it had a bigger impact on me than I first thought. Over the past year or two, I’ve begun to recognize that embracing my blackness is important, and I’ve subsequently realized how big of an effect those statements had on me.
Those constant microaggressions that had been directed at me tried to both invalidate my blackness and remind me that I’m black enough to have racist jokes hurled my way. This subsequently put me in a “gray area,” pulling me away from finding a community of people who look like me and who I can really relate to.
In high school, my only black friends were either friends I had since childhood or friends of my other friends. I was hesitant about reaching out to other black people because I was scared that I wouldn’t be accepted by them, an irrational mentality that formed without any actual interaction with black peers.
Even now, I sometimes get nervous when entering predominantly black spaces, overthinking and stuck wondering if I belong.
I performed a poem at a diversity event hosted by the Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services about this same topic earlier this year. I struggled to even look up when I finished because I was afraid to see the looks of disapproval from other black people. Of course, it was actually well-received, and I even had people reach out to me afterward.
White people ingrained in me that I wouldn’t be accepted by other black people, and that was a difficult mindset to escape after being subjected to those repeated microaggressions for so long.
I’ve always thought that happy endings are corny, but I really do feel that I’ve begun to break out of this mentality that I was trapped in. What has been important through this process is realizing that there are no requirements to blackness — there’s no bouncer waiting at the door ready to revoke your black card
Every black person I know has had different experiences and different ways that their blackness has affected them throughout their lives. Trying to generalize those experiences ignores our individuality and the beauty that being black holds.
Now, I know I can say it loud.
I’m black, and I’m proud,