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Tuesday
Jun232009

How to Excel Yourself Out of the Community In Ten Easy Steps (Unconventional Wisdom)

The Snob at 20 after winning a scholarship while in college. Faces blurred to protect people I don't know or remember anymore.And I just want to know
Where the fuck did everyone else go
Life picked them all off like flies
Shot for the skies, fell some place between hell and shit
Why did they get to quit
And I had to slug on?

From the poem, "I Miss You." Read the rest here.

There was never a time when I didn't know I was going to college. I never knew it was an option to not attend. My mother started early with my education, teaching me reading, writing and math before I started public school and was a regular volunteer at all functions. Everything they did was to make me as well-rounded as possible while at the same time nourishing my gifts in the opposite of the way gross poverty had starved theirs. There were dance, art and piano lessons. Vacation Bible School and literary competitions.

I had a good childhood.

Unfortunately and unbeknownst to all of us, my parents were preparing me for my eventual excelling right out of Blackland in ten easy steps! While the self-segregated black elite talked almost proudly about being The-One-Onlys in Monday's stories on Martha's Vineyard, I was a One-Only, only I called it "The Lonely Onlies." As in there was no sense of pride for me at all to excel my way to the top and see that so many people from the old neighborhood had not made it there with me ... or had made it, but were thousands of miles away, being a Lonely Only somewhere else.

More after the jump.

I went from a childhood in an all black suburb of St. Louis to an adulthood in some of the least diverse parts of the country (Midland, TX and Bakersfield, Calif., respectively). But I even felt abandoned and alone in college and I went to Southern Illinois University which was filled with black students from St. Louis, East St. Louis and Chicago. But being a driven black nerd with "intellectually snobby" tendencies can make you positive that one is the loneliest number that you will ever do.

Step #1: Educate -- The first step to successfully emancipating yourself from your own community starts with a good education. This does not mean that there aren't other educated blacks. There are many. The problem is if you do this early enough as a child you will likely go through nice, emotionally scarring experiences like being rejected by other black children for being smart. Then you will, in turn, carry this hurt with you for the rest of your life, making you suspicious of other blacks, worried that they are judging you. I know that being beat up and called a nerd and having no friends at nine leading to anxiety attacks and chronic psycho-symptomatic illnesses didn't affect me AT ALL.

Step #2: Integrate -- Even though I grew up in a black suburb, I went to a school run by a white district. This is pretty impossible to avoid for most suburban blacks (not that going to an all black run school would necessarily be better). While I had many wonderful teachers in elementary school who happened to be white and other good teachers who were black, I had to deal with a black administrator who thought the best way to motivate black kids was to tell them how terrible they were and to punish all for the actions of the few. Nothing like having the view that black is bad be reinforced by one of your own every day at school. She, the administrator, was trying to impress the mostly white and male brass who saw our school as a "problem school." I thought our school was great. So did the other kids. But if you hear you're terrible long enough you either embrace it and become terrible or you make the false assumption that a whiter and even more integrated school would be better. Which takes us to step #3 ...

Step #3: Separate -- At 13 my family left our black neighborhood to move to a Tony white suburb deeper into St. Louis' North County. (This suburb is now more integrated, but when we first moved here, blacks were scarce.) There, for the first time I felt the sting of rejection from not just the few blacks there, but from white kids as well. In the case of the other black kids I was now not "black enough" despite the fact that I was from what they called "the hood" and came from "the ghetto school." (The "hood" has manicured lawns and skateboarders?) The isolation that was my junior high years really made me start to despise other young people, regardless of their racial background. I still though clung to blackness, even hanging out with black people I had little in common with well into college. I was desperate to have black friends, but had a hard time occasionally finding ones with a brain after I left Florissant, MO.

Step #4: Graduate -- Graduating from college represents a sort of point of no return in my excelling out of the community. I went from seeing tons of black people every day at school to seeing zero at my first three jobs in advertising and journalism.

Step #5: Capitulate -- Since I'm not made of granite and love people, eventually I mellowed out on my "MUST HAVE BLACK FRIENDS" mission and began to hang out with whomever life gave me. This was deliciously freeing. For the first time in my life I didn't feel burdened with carrying some one-woman racial cause. I stopped thinking that I had to constantly "represent," and just became "Danielle."

Step #6: Commiserate -- Opening my mind to a more diverse group of friends led me to embracing different cultures, music and religious ideas. Unfortunately when I sometimes tried to share these things with my own I got a lot of side-eyes. My insecurity about being judged would return and I would retreat to just hanging out with tons of white, brown and Asian people. I could especially relate to Asian-Americans, as they were often from families who were just as strict and driven as my own. Despite this though, I still missed blackness terribly ...

Step #7: Eviscerate -- Therefore the Great Purge began. Up until this point I'd been the walking personification of WEB DuBois' "twoness." I was of two minds about everything. There was Danielle, the open-minded, opinionated free thinker who loved black people even though she really couldn't relate to some of them anymore and there was "Black" Danielle, who was defined by her racial identity and felt incredibly guilty over owning David Bowie albums. One of those Danielle's was going to have to be eliminated so the other could live her life. I'll let you guess who got the axe. Ground control to Major Tom, anyone?

Step #8: Perambulate -- After you've purged your "black first, me second" mentality you may find yourself walking away as fast as you can from things that are stereotypically black. I ran away from Kwanzaa. I'm not proud of it, but ... gosh. I just can't get with that.

Step #9: Consolidate -- Once you've separated and walked away, you have to put yourself back together. The person you form will basically be who you are for the rest of your life. I became a woman who is proud of being black, but isn't solely defined by it. And while it was/is freeing to just rock your Keyisha Cole with your Lady GaGa and your Rilo Kiley, you never really stop missing the "good ol' days" of playing Miss Mary Mack in the backyard. You pine for old black history plays and Negro spirituals. You reinvest in parts of black culture you love ... even if those parts aren't the most popular ones. Like lugging around the Harlem Renaissance Reader, owning jazz records or quoting Paul Lawrence Dunbar poems. You're a square, but you love it. But will others accept it? Especially when you work and live in a mostly white world?

Step #10: Assimilate -- Compete assimilation is the last and final step. I have never fully completed this step because assimilation would mean giving up the parts of blackness that I love and abandoning Negroes under the assumption that we're a "lost cause." I'm not of that mind. Probably never will be. But I've known people who've reached step ten and feel at peace about it. They like saying they don't consider themselves to be black, just human beings or that color isn't an issue for them. They enjoy being the only black person in the room. For the love of Turnip greens and Bobby Rush, may I never reach step 10.

Agree? Disagree? Share your comments and opinions below. And if you're so inclined, you can write the counter-argument to this post, and we'll print it here on The Black Snob. This story is part of a series on interesting, unusual, funny and unconventional takes on issues. To see the full list of issues that will be covered, click here. To read past stories, click here.

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Reader Comments (51)

I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. Though my experience was different, growing up in the "hood" and eventually attending a diverse high school, I definitely feel you on 4-10 and sometimes I feel like they work as a cycle depending on the predominant culture I find myself in.

After graduation I found myself solidly between 9 and 10, then going from a predominantly black job to a predominantly white one a few years later, I found myself working to readjust back to what was really me and reaching out to those things that tickle my fancy, even when they aren't culturally readily available.

Thank you for articulating the experience and internal struggle so well.

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterspiderlgs

Great post, as usual.

I definitely have gone through many of these steps. But I think the one great thing that I had with me was a deep knowledge and understanding of Black history and a pride in myself, which kept me lifted up when so many tried to tear me down.

Right now I'm comfortable with who I am, which is an amalgamation of lots of different things and influences. I dont feel the pressure of carrying the Black community on my shoulders, but I still feel like I'm a part of the community as well as others. I'm just me, and letting go of other folks expectations made me a much happier person.

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJubilance

Snob, dear,

I think you may just have articulated the life journey of many a fellow 'Only'. I stopped wondering why certain people would take special time out of their lives to question my blackness when I heard the criticisms leveled against our President. Requesting permission to reprint--your beautiful outline could save a kid from years of self-doubt!

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdevessel

I never thought of myself from seperating from blackness but ghettoness. So I really never had a probably with it. The only way you become really out of touch is extreme wealth, not just education

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterpolticallyincorrect

@ devessel

Sure. You can reuse it as long as I get credit!

June 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDanielle Belton

I've been following your thoughts for a while now, and enjoy reading your perspective. It is so different than mine! I think it is interesting that as a white female, I have never thought as myself in the same order as you do/did. I am & always have been "me" first, then female, then white. The whiteness is almost inconsequential to my identity--except when I am in a room full of black people. Hmmm.. Do you think minorities will always feel this way? Will we ever come to a point that we don't "feel" a color? Do you ever want to?

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDJ

@politically incorrect:

Therein lies the rub. Some would argue that one can not be authentically black without embracing 'ghettoness', which, quite frankly, must mean I'm white because that was not my origin, nor experience (nor that of my peers). Some would (and did) argue that unless your formative years echoed 'Good Times' instead of 'The Cosby Show' you were not authentically black. Most of us have heard the complaints about the fact that The Cosby Show represented a fantasy existence. I personally take umbrage with anyone who would negate my existence as fantasy. Then the question becomes what does 'out of touch' really mean? If 'blackness' is such a broad and diverse construct, then how can one truly be defined as out of touch with it?

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdevessel

@ DJ

It can be both a blessing and a curse. It's a bit like being Italian or French and being very proud to be part of that culture, but because of the history of racism in this country there's another edge to it that can be limiting and suffocating if you allow it to be that way. I think eventually, as race relations improve and as more and more blacks succeed post the Civil Rights movement, the psychological burden will lesson for some. But it takes time. Personally, I enjoyed my time in California where I essentially took a break from worrying about all this and just enjoyed life, but it is hard to separate yourself from your racial identity when often it is the outside world that defines you as black only first.

June 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDanielle Belton

Hi DJ:

Your musings echoed mine <with one difference>, until I reached the tender age of 10, when I ended up in a school with kids from neighborhoods different from mine. I then began to experience what Danielle described above. To your point, I wonder if you are familiar with the oft-quoted essay about the 'Invisible Knapsack' of white privilege... http://ow.ly/fDyc

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdevessel

To me out of touch is more class not race. I just don't seek validation from folks who don't even have their own house in order and that almost goes hand in hand with the blackness police. After high school I really stopped paying attention to them.

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterpolticallyincorrect

It is a class thing. Class doesn't necessarily mean mo money as we know. We need to just establish our own colonies, cadres, of our own. I don't call it moving "out" or "up," but rather evolution. F--k the black police.

Natr Turner.

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterchris chambers

Co-signing with devessel. I distinctly remember being in a Sociology of Race and Gender class in college where the white female professor stood in front of all 300 of us (large state school) and said the Cosby Show was some "disenfranchised" Black person's dream of a reality and completely unrelatable to the "true" Black experience. She then preceeded to call my name and asked me to stand up and share my tales of the Ghetto. (seriously!)

Yes, I was the only Black person in the room. I was so angry, I turned bright red and literally had to do the "count to 10 and breathe" exercise before standing up. I said, "I know about as much about the ghetto as my friend here knows about the trailer park... which is nothing. My father is a doctor, my mother a CPA and no, we've never been on welfare or stood in line for government cheese. The fact that you don't realize that we exist actually says more about you and your inability to teach this class than me and my reality." I stormed out of the class and never went back. She gave me an A for the semester.

At any rate, that kind of ignorance is just as frustrating to me as when people of my own race think I'm not "down" or "Black" enough for listening to certain music, living in a certain neighborhood or speaking a certain way. Finally threw up my hands and decided to just be me. If I want Public Enemy in the same playlist as Maroon 5, it's my world. Imma do me...

P.S. Snob, on behalf of Texas I apologize retroactively for Midland

June 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterOneChele

As I get older--and I'm very close to 50, although it doesn't feel like it--the more I accept myself. I've always been somewhat of an odd duck and I don't even think about it anymore. Not much introspection on that level. I'm very George Bush in this regard.

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdukedraven

Excellent post! Too tired to add anything other than to say that I have lived this for 36 years and only recently made peace with it all.

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterblackgirlinmaine

This is a situation that I've witnessed grow worse over the last decades. I pretty much grew up in a Cosby existence with a Good Times awareness. I was weird and not cool because I too listened to Bowie and The Police but I listened to Parliment and Chaka as well. Black culture had not yet been defined by the media as ghetto culture so my blackness was never questioned, only my coolness, which I could care less about. I remember distinctly getting the unspoken message that having white friends was no longer acceptable by the time I was in 7th grade in my integrated Catholic School. I had always had white and black friends but as puberty hit, the question of loyalty to the race reared its head. I remember quietly distancing myself from my Italian best friend. I could not be seen as a sell out. By the time I reached my snotty and upperclass but integrated high school, lines were clearly drawn. I was not cool enough for the Jack and Jill set but I best not become too friendly with the white people. I did and I got the sideways looks. I have always found black people to be more close-minded and unaccepting about anything that's not deemed appropriate for black people and I just couldn't be boxed in like that. Mind you, this was a highly intellectual school so it was never a question of being too smart or "talking white." I was supposed to listen to the same music, dress and act the same way as the acceptable blacks. I didn't so I was out. In college, I clung tighter to my idenity and delved into black history and culture. Of course, this still made me weird but my blackness was never questioned. Now I watch my daughter travel the same path. Ghetto culture is what defines black culture in our integrated suburb and I am constantly battling to educate other children about the reality of this since my daughter knows it. And she has mostly white friends. She wants more black friends but, she's smart, she has locs ( can't even go into the whole natural hair issue here) and she doesn't listen to Lil Wayne. This makes her uncool and largely unacceptable by most of the black kids she knows. I think class has something to do with it but it's largely an issue on the narrow confines that black people typically define themselves with. My husband had the same isolating experience at the small, mostly white, Minnosota college he went to. He didn't fit into any of the defined black groups so he had only white friends, which he's still angry about. Neither of us asimmilate because it's not in out make up. We love our people and our culture. We don't love the ignorance and painful exclusionary tactics. All I can say is that there is always another black person somewhere who is experiencing the same things and has broad interests, you just have to find them.

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterfly girl

You know I hear stories like this all the time but I never experienced being ostracized by other Black kids for doing well in school. I went to public schools in N.Y. and then private schools and all had significant Black student populations. All through school the Black kids that did well were treated well by the other Black kids. I don’t remember anyone ever equating doing well in school with ‘acting White’.

I like you Danielle was taught to read, write and count before first grade. So when I arrived at school I excelled and continued to throughout my school years. I wonder why my experience was so different about this? Whenever I hear stories of smart Black kids being given a hard time by other Black kids I never get it.

Anyway I’m wondering if I'm the only one who while excelling academically was accepted by the general Black student population?

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMonie

I feel you Snob. This echoes my experience in many ways, but except for a year of pre-school, which I don't remember, I've always lived in mostly white neighborhoods and gone to white schools. Never felt "cool enough" for the few black kids in my area with a few exceptions. I tried to not think about race, but as I've aged, it gets harder and harder. I've always liked my classic rock though and NO BODY will ever take that away from me. I used to doubt myself but now I know I am just as authentically black as anyone else and I will always be black (which no matter what music I like, or activities I like America will never mistake me for anything but) and the "black police" hold no sway over me. Then again, I have more white friends than black and sometimes that troubles me. Right now I'm thinking of trying to join a sorority just to get more black folks in my life.

@OneChedle, that is amazing, yet not suprising about your class in college. So f-ed up that someone so clueless taught the class. So did you just get the assignments from somone else and send them in, or did she just give you an A as an apology for her withering ignorance?

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLisa J

@ OneChele, that is an incredible story, glad you set her straight

As for the black police, well I grew up in a working class household but I decided I wanted to go away to college at 9 after a school field trip to a private liberal arts college which was shangri la in my eyes. My parents grew up in poverty but they always read to us and took us to the libraries. I was a quiet shy nerd and my sensible mother stayed within our budget and did not buy me the latest expensive in style shoes and clothes. I never fit in and eventually I gave up on conforming. I've always followed my own interest. If someone disapproves or accuses me of acting white that just lets me know to stay away from them. Even in college there were the black police who thought there was something wrong with you if had non black friends. As an engineering major I was often the only black or female in a class so I made friends with white males. Later I learned that 2 out 3 of my white male friends were gay. Maybe we could sense each others outsider status. So I had my engineering friends and my black female friends from the college prep program.

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterthelady

Monie as a fellow NYer, I never heard much of the acting white thing, where I lived it was more of a behavior than achievements. But in NYC school those who have such attitudes against achievement don't generally come to school anyway, hence the 50% HS drop out rate in NYC.

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterpoliticallyincorrect

Danielle this is one of my favorite posts to date. I'm gonna print this and post it in my study/sewing/tea/hibernation room. You are describing my experience to the letter. I was taught to read, write, and count before I attended grade school too. I'm going through steps 9 and 10 right now! I guess you could say I'm a 9.5. :P

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterd

@DJ, who posted "I think it is interesting that as a white female, I have never thought as myself in the same order as you do/did. I am & always have been "me" first, then female, then white. The whiteness is almost inconsequential to my identity--except when I am in a room full of black people.":

Because our own (white) culture is dominant, we don't notice it unless we're in a setting where it's NOT dominant (e.g., a room full of black people). It's like thinking "I don't have an accent", until all of a sudden you go across country and people start making fun of your accent. Of course you have an accent, and of course our whiteness defines many things about us, culturally. We're just not aware of it because whiteness is "the norm" in American society, like whatever accent we have is the norm in whatever place we live. Our culture is the standard, everyone else is "different" in that they're different from us. (Interesting, though, I've always been me first, then White and/or American, then female, not female before white -- maybe because I grew up in metro Washington, which is very diverse both racially & nationally).

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRegina

Snob: I'm with you completly on #10. I'll never fully assimilate. There are times when I can't stand being the only black person in the room. It's also frustrating when I"m amongst other blacks and the only thing we have in common is race. Another thing: How can a black person not consider themselves black and only human living in America? I don't get that one.

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermzroz

I'm going to show this to my husband, who teaches Sociology at MU. I could actually see him including it - and the comments! - into either his Self & Society course or his Teaching Sociology course. More white people need to have the insight that DJ did: that being in a minority is a structural condition that opens many possibilities for conflict between "I" and "my racial identity."

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRachel

Monie and PIIC, my experience is like yours. I grew up in Cleveland and attended the public schools and while some kids resented me, a lot of my black classmates were really proud of my achievements, and no one ever accused me of "acting white."

I think some of it may have to do with growing up in an environment in which your blackness is assumed, as it is in many large urban areas. When you attend school or grow up in a place when you're in the minority, there seems to be more pressure to "prove" your blackness.

Suzanne Malveaux (yes, that Suzanne Malveaux) was one of my Harvard classmates, and she spent a semester attending Howard. She wrote about comparing black students at Harvard and Howard, and one of her conclusions was that Howard students feel more freedom to be themselves, because they're not in a place where they feel like they have to prove they're black.

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaughter

This is brilliant...thank you very much for posting it. I relate to much of it. Reading and writing before age 5, knowing that college was expected, attending integrated/predominantly white schools, having to keep my love of classical music and hard rock secret from other black kids, having to explain that I wasn't "street" to white kids (um, yeah, Cosby Show's not a fantasy, okay?)...oh yeah, fun times.

I'm in academia, living in the Midwest, and feeling more isolated as a black woman than I ever have in my life. Living and working here has made me downright hostile towards educated white liberals in particular: Patting themselves on the back with one hand (because of Obama's election) while holding on hard to white privilege with the other. I am seriously suffering from racial battle fatigue right now and am actively looking for ways to cope: Why after all these years am I STILL having to educate white people about race?

On the flip side, I have absolutely no tolerance for anybody (but esp. black people) telling me that my choices and tastes make me less black. Seeing so many black people still living in this box of Authenticated Blackness makes me sad and mad at the same time: Sad because some of the shit in that box ain't healthy (fat is good, snitching isn't cool, relaxers are necessary) and mad because there's such a big beautiful world out here and people are going to miss out on much of it because of culturally-imposed fear. (You can have money and still not want to go anywhere where there aren't other black people.)

I'm thinking I'm where you're at: Consolidating and doing my best to keep from assimilating. How in the hell DOES one learn to just be a human being, esp. here in America? Aha...the expatriates may have a point...I've been in Europe enough to know that they're not free of racism but at the same time I'd be lying if I said it wasn't refreshing to be seen as just "American."

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSistaOpinion
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