The Bad Black

I’m not a good Black. I used to be.

When I was born, my dad said I reminded him of Jimi Hendrix due to my wild, curly afro; and loud, raspy scream. My father named me Randalyn: a compromise of my mom’s love of the name Lynne and his desire for someone named after him. “Randalyn” is on my birth certificate; but even then, my parents knew Randalyn’s resume would get passed over more quickly than “Randi’s” would, so I’ve always been called Randi. My molding into a “good Black” started immediately — in that hospital room.

A “good Black” is one who is acceptable to White America. Essentially, many White people like the idea of hiring or befriending an ethnic person, as long as she is not “too ethnic,” “too different,” or in my case, “too Black.” The more like them you are; the more comfortable they are. The more acceptable you are, the greater your chances of success. So, the molding process for most minority children begins by elementary school and continues throughout life.

In elementary school, I was always dressed just a bit too properly, face and legs always heavily lotioned, donning two pigtails, using perfect diction and grammar, never missing a day a school (even when I had a 102 degree fever). I always got good grades because “I wasn’t just representing me, I was representing my entire race.” My mother walked me to school every day before she went to work, her hand holding mine. Every night, she sat on the edge of my bed, doing supplementary work with me as I ate sliced apples and drank cold milk. Molding was done around the clock and throughout the year.

One summer night, when the sun had disappeared but her heat hadn’t, my cousins, aunts and I sat outside of my grandparent’s yellow, wooden rancher. Crickets provided background vocals to my aunts tales of growing up in Texas, while my cousins jumped rope and played “go fish”. I sat between my Aunt Lena’s legs—she on a higher step– parting my hair, greasing my scalp, and braiding sections of hair into a beautiful weaved pattern. Each tug on my hair hurt, yet being cocooned between her legs and the ritualistic movements of her hands made me feel  part of the night’s haze.

Early the next morning, after a breakfast of biscuits with homemade apricot preserves, I flew home to Virginia feeling positively regal. I felt like the beautiful women from Africa that I had seen in National Geographic; however, when I got off the plane and saw my Mom’s face, I was stripped of any pride I had felt. Suddenly I was a different woman in National Geographic—breasts exposed, dusty skin, flies on my lips, eyes dead. My Mom’s eyes let me know immediately what her lecture told me later: braids would not get me far in life. I never got braids again.

Instead, I got a relaxer to turn my kinky hair straight. I started wearing my hair in a terribly bad version of Farrah Fawcett’s hairstyle. With my hair poorly feathered, lips coated in Bonnie Bell Strawberry lip gloss, wearing Izod shirts, and blue eye shadow, I bopped along at Duran Duran , Police and Pat Benater concerts and bopped through school with my white classmates. Every now and then I’d hear comments such as: “ But, you aren’t REALLY Black.” “You are different.” I never knew if I was supposed to say, “thank you” or protest, so I never said a word.

One night when I was around 13 years old, I went to a friend’s slumber party. The five of us became a human pretzel—our bodies intertwined in one queen-sized bed. We were talking about boys, bands, and school gossip when one of my friends, a slender, sweet-faced girl whose mother eventually was my biology teacher, suggested, “Let’s tell Nigger jokes.” I lay in my position, in the middle of the pretzel. My stomach became hyperactive, my breathing inactive. Again, I didn’t say a word.

I didn’t say a word when: I was the only one in the 8th grade not invited to the big skating party hosted by one of my good friends because her Dad “hates Black people”; the group of girls told me that I absolutely couldn’t try out for one of the lead roles in the school play because princesses were white; I sat on the edge and made silly commentary during the countless games of spin the bottle because there was an unspoken understanding that I wasn’t included.

Instead, I continued to play my role. Part of being accepted is being compliant. Good Blacks don’t see or speak about racism. It makes everyone uncomfortable, after all. I didn’t challenge these slights because I knew that I would either be accused of being the angry, black girl or of playing the “race card.” Honestly, I didn’t want to lose my friends, either. I didn’t want to call attention to the difference I had worked so hard to hide. Instead, I was the funniest, most proper speaking, non- controversial Black friend, student, and employee anyone could want. And I was rewarded: friends, scholarships, great jobs, and promotions.

But then, somewhere along the way, I got assimilation fatigue. It is exhausting being in any closet, denying who you are genuinely and fully. Why am I changing my radio station before you get into my car when I’m giving you a ride? No, it’s not okay to touch my hair like a zoo animal. Yes, I l appreciate where I live and work (ideal–if you don’t mind a total lack of diversity), but it’s tough sometimes. Would you live somewhere that was 99% Black; send you kids to a school that was 97% Black?

My fake smile is retired.

My real smile, real self is here: kinky haired, rock and rap loving, sushi and soul food craving, Black Lives Supporting, crazy, unedited me. I won’t compromise who I am to make you comfortable. And I have learned that with the right people, I don’t have to.

Somewhere along the way I fell in love with myself: my womanhood, my blackness, the complete me. I have taken ownership of the skin I am in—melanin and all. I’m no longer willing to change to make anyone comfortable or to be “acceptable” — because I’ve finally accepted me.

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About Randi B.

Randi is a diversity and inclusion strategist, speaker, trainer and writer, focusing on making connections and cultivating empathy in this diverse world one trip, speech, article, book and conversation at a time.

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