The first time I asked my boyfriend if he had ever actually dated a black girl, we had not even met yet. It was during one of our online Skype sessions that the conversation came up.
“I’ve never really lived around too many black people,” he confessed.
“So have you ever dated a black girl?” I asked half-jokingly.
“No,” he responded simply.
After the moment of silence that it took to process the information, I shrugged off his confession. My 28 year-old black boyfriend had never been with a black woman. I was his “first” black girl.
I had long grown accustomed to being “the first black girl.” I survived multiple interracial relationships with men who proclaimed me to be “their first black experience,” lived in the Lower East Side in a building where I was the only black person in sight and had accepted the role of the gatekeeper to many a pale hand’s first discoveries of black hair. I was the first black girl; it was a part of my identity. I even derived some sense of satisfaction from the title as if I were the crowned princess of blackness, a black diamond of sorts. And yet, in this instance, as my boyfriend smiled half-heartedly, I could not conceal a deep overwhelming sense of resentment and anger. After spending a lifetime as the “exception” to the black woman rule, I began to question what rule had I spent a lifetime breaking.
I was already quite familiar with the answer: the colorless line drawn between being black and being exceptionally, acceptably black. I learned to toe that line quite well, blending into mostly white or Hispanic environments for most of my life; assimilating. At home, I was a hip-hop lover and connoisseur who could rap the lyrics to every Bone Thugs and Harmony or Tupac song, but in public I was the fashionista who would never be caught dead wearing a pair of Jordans or Apple Bottom Jeans that loosely represented the culture I spent my entire adolescence completely engulfed in. On weekdays, I took classes at a local pole-dancing studio to learn how to make my ass clap while upside-down in a split, twerking to 2 Chainz (something I admittedly never mastered), but preferred the rarefied air of predominantly-white, upscale New York City venues on the weekends. I am fully aware that every human being wears different masks to play on different stages, but I never imagined that my most important costume choice would be between a “white” public face and a “black” private one.
I cannot honestly pinpoint when I learned that lesson. Nor can I fully explain how I came to understand what it meant to be “white” or “black.” That would take an entire book to deconstruct, since the concept deals less with actual racial or cultural differences than with societal clues or cues. There are certainly many seemingly innocent instances that come to mind when I contemplate the matter. The simple, general consensus by my white friends that my hair was “better” straight or coiffed in a bun than in the micro-braids I had come to adore after seeing Beyonce rock them in the Destiny’s Child music video for “Bug a Boo.” My family encouraging me to get a perm when I wore my natural hair. The way my best friend’s mother (a Peruvian woman who made the best empanadas) looked at me when I showed up to the house wearing my first (and last) two-piece Sean Jean velour suit back in the seventh grade with Baby Phat sneakers to match. My schools being segregated between “white” smart kids on the college-bound track, and black children with “learning disorders” in remedial classes. Yet these micro-aggressions do not really convey an entire lifetime of white versus black socialization. It also does not change the fact that before I even decided whether or not I was going to college, I already understood that concealing my “blackness” was the key to my success.
For this reason, my boyfriend’s confession that I was his first black girlfriend did not anger me. We were both products of the same attempt to “run away” from blackness. His family did it by moving to a majority white neighborhood, to escape “the hood.” I did it by association and concealment. We were two black peas in a white pod; my offenses were no less egregious than his. We both strove for success at all costs, even if our “black” identity was the price that needed to be payed; it was an investment of sorts. But an investment without return.
As one climbs the ladders of success as a person of color and stokes the flames of American racial inequality, it is easy to walk away burned. If your ascension as a black person in a white world is dependent upon the relegation and dehumanization of a race, of your race, what worth can one really find in oneself? This is the question all people of color must confront when traveling the “road to success.” The same question W.E.B Dubois asked decades ago and James Baldwin publicly contemplated back in the ’60s and ’70s. It is now the year 2014 and young black Americans still seek this answer.
When my boyfriend told me he loved me, it wasn’t because I was “exceptional” or different as a black woman. It was because in me, he saw himself. From me he received permission to be as “black” or “white” as he cared without the weighted constraint of a world shackled to the dated history of white/black slavery. Together, we have the freedom to be people, not a color.
And it’s a freedom that is absolutely priceless.