GUEST POST: Young, Gifted, and Black

by: Sophia Rousseau

I have always been the “right kind of black.” Sweet. Eager to please. Quick to learn. Soft-spoken. Polite. Not aggressive. Non-threatening. I learned early on not to force my opinions on people, not to push too hard for what I wanted. Don’t complain. Be self-deprecating, because telling jokes about yourself puts people at ease. Agree when they tell you you’re “not like those blacks.” Smile sweetly and take the offensive compliments—they’re gifts.  You’re lucky you’re not seen as “one of them.” You have manners. You’re well-spoken. You can succeed. Growing up black in Alabama having mastered all of these traits, I was plucked out of black obscurity and moved into white acceptance. This meant I got to sit there while my white friends casually used slurs against people who looked like me (the n-word being only the tip of the iceberg). I was a safe friend. Code switching became a way of life for me.

I grew up in a largely affluent town, and my blackness wasn’t the only thing separating me from my peers—it was also my poverty. I’ve spent a lifetime on the line between the two. Growing up, my life was defined by these two interconnected roles: my blackness made whites uncomfortable, but my poverty made them feel guilty. It was my ability to code-switch that made me accessible. I cannot count the number of times I was taken out of class to be gifted with something that was financially inaccessible for me—field trip fees, shoes, textbooks. My life is a blur of white faces who saw me—a sweet, well-behaved black girl brimming with potential yet dressed in ill-fitting, hand-me-down clothes—and decided to provide for me. I was the grateful charity case. I think it is fair to note that I was not the only black child in these spaces, but I was the one they wanted to dote on. I was special. I was “gifted.” I was safe. I think about my black classmates, the ones who didn’t know the code, couldn’t play the game, and were therefore left behind. Ironically, this was a race I could win: I was never going to be good enough to be white, but I was considered a “better black,” and that meant something to me. I hated myself for it, but it meant something.

Even though I was accepted by my peers as a safe black, I never accepted myself as anything. My black classmates largely ignored me in the same way my white classmates ignored the reality of my race. I was, and am, my own class of other. I spent my life playing the game. It got me through high school at the top of my class. Indeed, I was celebrated, cheered, encouraged—I was a success story for the whites in my hometown. I was proof that their compassion and charity was worth it, and I became a hometown success story. I went to college parroting the beliefs I had been fed. I actually called myself a Republican back then. I had to. I was from Alabama, and I was a good black. I knew my role, and I played it well. 

However, being a “better black” has not prevented me from being racially profiled. Being a “better black” has not saved me from the pain of being told constantly that I am less than. Being a “better black” has not stopped me from being seen as the black that I am. I come from a huge black family, and I remember whispers of a lynching that happened in Mobile, the big town over, of a young black boy, around the time of my childhood. It was one of the many reasons my aunts were so concerned about what their sons were doing and where they were. I was in the car once with my father, one of the bravest and strongest men I have ever known, when we were pulled over. That was the only time I heard him code-switch. “Yes sir, no sir.” So deferential, so calm. It was a masterclass. My father was unapologetically black, and in this moment, that blackness in him told him to hide. I was confused and proud as we drove away unscathed. And you better believe I think about that moment every single time I read the news about a stop with a black man. Every time a black man is left to die on the ground. I carry these feelings in my spirit, I carry them in my bones. I never wanted to be black. I never wanted to be white. I just wanted to be me. But that was never possible. I have always been seen as a black woman, with all the inherited stress, pain, sorrow, and history that entails.  From being followed as a high school student whenever I walked into pretty downtown shops to being told in NYC that I would be seated at restaurants after they helped the man beside me (my husband), I have been judged based on the color of my skin and found to be undeserving. Being black in America is to have judgement etched across your mere existence. As well as I can play the game, I cannot win it. 

What we see happening in our country right now is a rebellion, one that is long overdue, because, as I learned early on, being a “good black” only gets you so far. It does not save you from the systemic, structural racism of this country, and it does not prevent you from being attacked. All it prevents you from doing is using your voice in a way that feels like it is truly your own. Right now, black people are reclaiming their bodies, their lives, and their voices. It’s about time I did the same.