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Friday, December 6, 2013

Black-Shaming: Standing Up for Standing Out

"You's a fool!" "You're simple!" "You so crazy!" "You're stupid!" If you think these sound like insults, then you don't know black people, or maybe you do. These phrases are often thrown around as humorous descriptions of a person who has a different take on reality. As a black person myself, these phrases astound me and offend me, mostly because other black people have directed them at me. "Shannon, you're simple!" "Girl, you a fool!" And while they say it with laughter, usually after I've made them laugh, I've never been able to figure out the unholy mystery of why people of my own race would engage with me using words that used to describe those who were mentally impaired.  

That my awareness of All Things Black is spotty, to say the least, shouldn't be a surprise. I've always existed around the fringes of Popular Black Culture (PBC), starting from childhood and my over-protective mother. I know, it's unfair to call on Dr. Freud, but this really is Mom's fault! Mom grew up in that mythical "village" that Hillary Clinton made popular years ago. Mom's village was a small town, just on the DC/Maryland line, where it seemed a relative of hers lived on virtually every street, and her elementary school and high school classmates were also her cousins. It was small town USA in a segregated America and the only people Mom saw were also the only people Mom trusted. For her, Hippies were what you saw on the news, and the March on Washington was in a land far away, even though it was only a few miles from her home! There were no giant afros (though she did have an afro wig that she'd occasionally sport at parties), and Black Power meant they had paid the electric bill on time!

Growing up, I knew Mom and Dad were counter-cultural. Mom would rock her short natural/no make-up look while the other black moms had relaxed their hair and put on Jordache Jeans, and Dad would pick us up in whatever wheezing hooptie he'd found in someone's backyard, or in one of his vans. The only labeled clothing I wore back in those days were Sears Toughskins! While my high school classmates were experimenting with hair color, multiple piercings, and expensive designer clothing and handbags and car dates with boys, I was taking piano lessons and reading and fantasizing about what the world outside of my alternate reality was really like.

I got a taste of that world in college and in graduate school, but, I took a most decidedly non-PBC course - no HBCUs or black sororities. I went where the scholarships took me and I pledged a sorority of women who were my friends, although we were more Benetton ad than "A Different World." The visits home during those college and grad school years were a series of awkward pauses. Because I really wasn't allowed to socialize during high school, I had no basis for developing friendships and extending those into adulthood. I had never developed the standardized frame of reference regarding Popular Black Culture, and I became alien, which, I guess, makes me a fool/simple/crazy/stupid? 

I don't know, but I do know that there's a bit of whiplash that you develop when you're straddling the race and class lines. It's like you have levels of awareness that allow you to exist both inside and outside of an experience. It's an explosion of dozens of frames of reference, causing me to see things and evaluate situations in a myriad of different ways simultaneously. It is the source of my humor but it can also be a source of despair. I don't think this makes me unique. I think all people do this, but they choose to ignore it and opt for what's comfortable or most expedient. Right now, the world is mourning the loss of a man who thought outside of what was comfortable and did what was right. There's nothing simple about that.

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