How Stereotypes About Being ‘Black Enough’ Hurt Me – And How I Healed

Shot of a young adult smiling and reading a book while relaxing on a sofa.

Shot of a young adult smiling and reading a book while relaxing on a sofa.

As my mom and I put the finishing touches on my freshly curled hair, I noticed a group of black contestants walking toward the stage.

Instantly, I felt guilty and ashamed.

Why was I the only black contestant not hanging with the group?

All of the contestants for the Ms. Jr. Teen Los Angeles Pageant were prepping for their final speeches before the judges made their decision.

I wanted to walk over and introduce myself to the girls, but I was afraid to. This often happened whenever I found myself socializing with non-black people at events where I didn’t know anyone and had to make friends.

In moments like these I’d think to myself, Why are you not hanging out with them? Why do you always gravitate towards non-black people? You’re black! What’s your problem?

Then I’d convince myself that everything is okay: These people you’re with are friendly. You’re having a good time. You don’t need to go over and introduce yourself to them just because they’re black.

I always worried that if I hung out with other black kids, someone would figure out that I was some sort of imposter black person and that they would shamefully snatch my black card from me – which had happened before.

I lived in negative black card credit throughout grade school. My card was revoked whenever someone made a Friday or NWA reference that went over my head. At that time, it would have actually been convenient if we had hand-held cards, so I could yell back, “You can’t take my black card because Taylor already snatched it at recess last week. So there!”   

Many of us learned at young ages that there is a certain way to be black. Real black people only play certain sports, only enjoy certain types of music, only pronounce words certain ways, and only enjoy certain hobbies.

A lot of my peers had bought into this type of thinking. We saw a specific image of blackness on TV and in our communities, and we believed that image to be an absolute truth.

We didn’t realize that we’d taken the images of blackness spoon-fed to us through our favorite media and ran with them, policing those around us who didn’t quite fit the mold.  

We didn’t know this was a form of internalized oppression, which we used to put ourselves and our fellow classmates down.

And I didn’t know that this internalized oppression would stay with me for years to come.

But in those days, I was able to ignore feeling the shame of “not being black enough” because I attended predominately black schools. Since the schools were mostly black, my friends were mostly black.

Sure, I was uncomfortable when other kids teased me for pronouncing things “like a white girl.” But once people got to know me and got used my demeanor, they backed off a bit. I was able to go to school every day without the insecurities of not feeling black enough affecting me too much. 

I wasn’t so lucky in college. 

I attended a private university where black people made up only about 6% of the student body. The majority of the time, I found myself among everyone but the 6%. And almost every day, I had the conversation in my head just like it did when I was at the pageant.   

Whenever I walked passed a group of black associates, I felt the same guilt and shame. I had continual reminders that I wasn’t confident in my blackness.

These negative feelings that often come along with internalized oppression ate at me constantly and affected me in three painful ways.

1. I Isolated Myself From People Who’d Already Embraced Me

In a sea of mostly white folks in our college campus cafeteria, you could find most of the black students sitting at what some folks called “the black table.”

I never felt comfortable sitting there, so I only did when invited. Even then, I felt a little uneasy being there. I worried that someone else at the table would look at me with suspicion, wonder why I was there, and then banish me with “You can’t sit with us” – like Gretchen Weiners from Mean Girls.

The thing was, there were no Gretchen Weiners at the black table – at least not any I knew. Every time I sat there everyone treated me like I was anyone else at the table.

Many of us who have felt the sting of being called “not black enough” sometimes project our past experiences of being teased or criticized onto new situations and people. It’s easy to put a guard up to protect ourselves from being criticized again.

We might expect the same hurtful treatment in a new environment before it even occurs, so we isolate ourselves out of pain.

This is why I distanced myself.

I went out of my way to avoid people who had already embraced me more than once. I missed out on many potential friendships because I was worried about my blackness being put on trial. 

2. I Had Terrible Anxiety

The unfortunate part about wanting to be part of the group, but simultaneously labeling myself the outcast, is that I took on the mindset of an outcast.

Every time I went to an event hosted by the Black Student Association, I felt nervous. I feared I would get there and no one would talk to me because I didn’t hang out with anyone there on a regular basis.

Yet, at every event, I had the same experience: Everyone was very welcoming.

The fretting was for nothing.

But I continued to feel extremely uneasy whenever I was with other black people – again, fearing that I would be found out as an impostor.

One day, while I was walking in the hallway that leads to the cafeteria, my anxiety really kicked in. I saw a group of black girls I knew headed my way, and I panicked. A combination of wanting to avoid small talk and wondering if they were judging me for not sitting at the black table led me to look for the nearest way out.

In a last-minute attempt to avoid them seeing me, I hurried into a restroom nearby and estimated the length of time it would take them to walk passed the door. Then I thought, Am I really hiding in a bathroom to avoid talking to people?

I held back tears as I made my way back to my apartment.

Now, I don’t know how many people would’ve gone to the lengths of hiding in a bathroom, but I do know that worrying about being an “Oreo” adds a lot of excess stress to our lives. Insecurities about not fitting in with the black crowd can weigh on us.

This unnecessary stress can make you feel so small, and maybe, cause you to find interesting ways to isolate yourself.

That moment in the bathroom was when I realized the stress was too much. I needed to do something about it.

3. I Denied Part of Who I Was

The irony in all of this is that I have always been pro-black. I was raised with family members that collected African art, played games with trivia cards of black historic figures, and took me down to Leimert Park (a historic area in Los Angeles) to celebrate Juneteenth.

I attended schools where teachers felt it was important for students to watch Eyes on the Prize, sing the Black National Anthem, and celebrate Black History Month with a giant annual pageant. Since childhood, I’d been groomed to become a proud black woman.

Yet, my pro-black politics were limited by my internalized racism and self-doubt.

Because of all of the messages I believed about what blackness was supposed to look like, I didn’t embrace who I was.

I let an external standard get the best of me. I let it manipulate my emotions, criticize my actions, and compromise my mental and emotional wellness. I wasn’t able to fully love myself because I was constantly comparing myself to this supposed authentic black person.

No one can be fully genuine if they’re defining themselves by an external standard of who they think they ought to be.

***

After that moment of hiding in the bathroom, and realizing that I might need to do something about my feelings, I found several things that helped me heal.

1. I Admitted to Myself That This Was a Problem

Before that bathroom incident, I thought that everything was okay. Even though the insecurities popped up regularly and were affecting my feelings about myself and how I interacted with others, I didn’t do anything about them. I didn’t treat them like they were a big enough deal.

But once I realized that something must be done, and I admitted to myself that this was a bigger problem than I’ve been treating it as, I was able to get the help I needed to heal from what had been more than ten years of internalized oppression.

2. I Started Going to Therapy

I was fortunate enough that my school offered free therapy services. But getting there took some inner convincing. I wondered if my problem wasn’t big enough for therapy. Also, I wondered if I would really be able to sit in a chair and tell a therapist that I was afraid to hang out with people who looked like me.

But once I got there, I received advice from trained professionals who could give me another perspective about my feelings and offer me tools for healing.

My therapists helped me explore the ways in which self-judgement was controlling various aspects of my life. They helped me realize that I was pointing fingers at kids who teased me in middle school when I really should’ve been pointing fingers at myself.

3. I Read Black Thought

My senior year, I began working on a thesis about the portrayal black women in hip-hop. While I read through articles and books examining things like black women’s image and stereotypes in the media, I started to learn more about myself.

Many of the academic texts I’d read discussed how images of black womanhood and black women’s sexuality were based on the perception of blackness from European explorers in Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Others discussed how stereotypes solidified a harmful concept of authentic blackness, and how this concept is progressed in modern media.

It made me realize that my perceptions of myself as a black girl were derived from stereotypes created to justify colonization, push racist political agendas, make profits, sell albums, and much more. 

This was bigger than whether or not I danced well enough and had the swagger to be cast in a Missy Elliott video (a real concern for us dancers in middle school). It was bigger than whether or not I could quote from Baby Boy. This was about how certain stereotypes that have been progressed for hundreds of years currently affect black people in the workplace, in the criminal justice system, and in our everyday lives.

During my thesis research, books including Black Sexual Politics, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, and Home Girls Make Some Noise taught me the history of many toxic black stereotypes (and awakened my inner conspiracy theorist).

When I understood that these expectations of authentic blackness were rooted in racism and white supremacy, suddenly, embodying this type of blackness wasn’t something I wanted to do anymore.

4. I Learned to Embrace Differences and Variety

Beyond academia, black folks on the Internet and in my everyday life often taught me about diversity in black communities. From them, I learned that black people are not a monolith.

After seeing the limitless ways to “be black” from people on the Internet (a tool I didn’t have as much access to in middle school, as I’m just old enough to remember the days when computer entertainment came in the form of educational games on CD-ROMs), I’d learned to embrace differences and individuality.

Instead of beating myself up for not fitting in with every black group, I learned vibe with black people with similar interests. I found tons of websites for black folks who are kind of nerdy like me. I joined black writers groups and book clubs. I chatted about black roots in the Tango with other black Tango dancers.

***

Sometimes we have to look inside ourselves for the ways in which we have internalized negative images about ourselves and the people in our communities.

It took me years to acknowledge that this internal conflict was affecting my life and keeping me from embracing my true self.

Unlearning oppressive ideas embedded in our thinking is a process. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of certain messages we’ve internalized on days when we’re not loving ourselves as much.

In a society that has rarely been accepting of blackness, unlearning anti-black themes, educating ourselves with pro-black messages, and self-love are our methods to healing, protection, and progress.

Shae Collins is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She enjoys educating and uplifting by aiming a black feminist lens at pop culture on her blog. She’s been published in Ms. Magazine, For Harriet, and Blavity. Laugh with her on Twitter @awomynsworth.