Cultural Purgatory, Part 1.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m playing a perpetual game of “You Know How I Know [I’m] Black?” and losing.

I know it’s problematic. I know there is no true rubric by which to define Blackness and there are no behaviors, vocal inflections, or dietary or pop cultural preferences that “belong” to any racial group.

But try telling me that when I call to place an order at Sandmann’s, the (only) local soul food place in Grand Rapids. My heart palpitates the whole time, for fear that my pronunciation of black-eyed peas (with a hard -ed) will revoke my Black card and then, I’ll be stuck eating someplace really culturally nondescript. Like a TGI Fridays.

isn’t the only establishment that triggers my racial-acceptance-related paranoia. I also keep my head down at the beauty salon because I don’t want the women with the fingerwaves and rhinestoned acrylics judging me by my hair’s length or lack of “adventure” (just relaxer, no dyes, no gels, no ‘fro/locs/braids) and deducing that I think I’m “better” than they. I worry, whenever I go back to the storefront church where I grew up, that the congregation will take one look at me and somehow assume that I live in the gentrified part of downtown. (I don’t, by the way.)

You Know How I Know I’m Black? I often want to declare at random. I’ve seen Rosewood.

I’m ridiculous, I know. But I have it on good authority that worrying about whether or not Your Own will accept you (or that some musical preference will indict you as a raging assimilationist) is an inherently PostBourgie state. Being bourgie places you within one or more decidedly Black environs on a regular basis. You’re a member of a “Black Church.” You’re a Jack. Or Jill. Your mom’s in the Links. You still keep in touch with your co- or beau-tillion cohort. Your fam vacations at Martha’s Vineyard, like in Inkwell. You agree with Bill Cosby… or credit his ’80s sitcom with your life’s successes.

But being PostBourgie means having stepped to the left of those constructs. It means you no longer buy into the idea that all-Black social groups are inherently identity-affirming.

Even so, this sidestep doesn’t mean you won’t long to have your racial identity affirmed. As you broaden your interests and start saying stuff like, “Who’s Li’l Wayne?” or “I never liked Martin,” you find yourself feeling more and more alienated from Your Own.

You Know How I Know I’m Black? you want to shout. I still think Dwayne Wayne was kinda hot, circa his Konichiwa internship era.

I won’t pretend it’s not weird to be Black—obviously Black, skin brown as pecan-shells Black—and not feel socially accepted by Blacks… because you don’t believe you’re Black enough. But I also can’t pretend that I’m the only person who’s ever experienced this kind of social displacement.

So consider this the initial article of an ongoing column, wherein our contributors share their tales of racial-acceptance-related paranoia for your amusement and dissection.


slb (aka Stacia L. Brown) is a writer, mother, and college instructor in Baltimore, MD. Check her out here: and here:
  • Ron

    I should probably just start a blog on this.

    Because it’s really a complicated balance. It’s the reason that when I go home, I eschew seeing most of the cousins and such I grew up with. Not because they’re not proud of me or whatever, but simply because I’m afraid we’ll run out of things to talk about. Lucky for me that I finally picked up hip-hop in my early 20s, that my little brother keeps me well versed on pretty much any pop culture crap I need to know, that I watch every sport known to man and so…it goes okay.

    But all in all, there’s still that point when they have to separate you from the wheat. To expose you for the one who “chose” to “become” something else. As if you think you’re better. When you go to church, you just want them to look at you how they did when you were 13 or 16 or something, but now, it’s not like that anymore.

    Nothing really changed in your mind, because you were always the same and yet…your choices seem to dictate the way people approach you. Which makes sense and yet, doesn’t at all.

    Hmm…anyway, looking forward to the follow ups, as always.

  • Great post – looking forward to reading more! I’m starting to reconcile myself to the idea that I might be struggling with these issues for the rest of my life. But it is encouraging (and perhaps, therapeutic?) to read about others who are going through the same thing.

  • SweetT

    What I don’t buy into is the notion that blackness is something that has to proven or defined. You, and I, are black because of our heritage, not our preferences. I don’t really hang with most of my family because we aren’t close, so I really don’t know if they think I think I’m too good, but I also don’t care. However, in K-12 grades I too was accused of “talking white.” I guess because many of the kids at my HBCU grew up around all white people I forgot people still said dumb stuff like that. Until one evening a fellow HBCU grad and former classmate said “Oh I forgot you’re white.” When I disagreed with something he said. I got upset, but not at his assertion. I was angry that someone w/a 4 year degree and an acceptance letter to law school was so damned ignorant.

    I say eff the critics! I don’t like most hip hop outside Kanye & the occasional Little Brother. I love MIA and Adele. I hate Tyler Perry and his productions.I don’t care if black men date or marry white. I don’t believe “urban lit” has any business near Toni Morrison or Edwidge Danticat. “A Different World” sent me to Hampton, but I think Bill Cosby’s latest rants are wrong as sin.

    I’m so tired of people declaring themselves arbitrators of blackness. Nothing I do, say, achieve or acquire will ever change my blackness. As Kanye said “Even if you got a Benz, you’re still an n-word in a coupe!”

  • Eh, I have no use for people who like to play the “who’s black enough” game. For me, social association is all about affinity—are you into the same activities/media/schools of thought I am? Yes? Great, let’s be friends! No? Well, maybe we won’t have too much to say to one another. With black folks, that question becomes “do you subscribe to a cosmopolitan perspective on blackness,” the search for affirmative answers to which led me from a sleepy Southern town to the major city I now live in.

  • mute

    I certainly identify, but I don’t think that my sense of being in “cultural pergatory” is as acute. I think an introverted nature can be a boon to developing a solid postBourgie identity. I’m not saying that you should have one, but if you do, there are benefits. Being the reserved person that I am doesn’t invite many occasions for people to discover what anomalous cultural preferences lie behind my dreadlocks and hoop earrings.

    But also, I’m trying to break away from the assumption that I’m the only one in the vicinity whose preferences aren’t in complete accordance with current black popular culture. I grew up thinking that the young people in my hood were a lot more homogeneous than they actually are. I can’t necessarily assume what their life experiences are and sum up their preferences based off their outward appearance anymore than they can do it to me.

    Also, I may be wrong (I’m not trying to deny anyone’s traumatic experiences here), but I don’t think culturally mainstream black folk care about the “outliers” as much as the outliers tend to think.

  • slb

    as a point of clarity, i really wasn’t trying to imply that cultural alienation is connected to achievement. in my experience, cultural acceptance hasn’t been so much “merit-based” as it’s been preference-based.

    and to mute’s point, though “mainstream black folk” aren’t homogeneous, i do believe there are “landmarks of mainstream blackness” (i.e. the barber shop/salon, the soul food place) where our conversation and connection to one another is common. it doesn’t deviate from topics on which we can all (publicly) agree.

    once we cross the thresholds of those landmarks, outliers/postbourgie folk/whatever you wanna call us, are susceptible to the scrutiny of our folk. (i do agree they don’t care outside of those congregating spots.) but i can say with certainty, that i’ve walked into and out of many a beauty shop where my Sista-Pass was weighed, measured, and found wanting. lol

  • ladyfresshh

    i guess i come in from an odd stance

    maybe it’s because i’m from NY
    maybe it’s because my family never ever questioned my blackness
    seemed to be a moot point actually
    maybe it’s because i tend to avoid groups and cliques

    i always felt that i was already ‘in’
    and folks just didn’t know it
    because at times i fought to not be ‘of the crowd’

    maybe this in and of itself was odd enough that
    people never tried?
    maybe i was judged behind my back?
    i sensed glimmers of what you are referring to
    of this odd door being ‘opened’ and people ‘beckoning me in’
    and me refusing
    but still being ‘in’ somehow

  • I kinda relate to ladyfresshh on this one. I’ve always felt “in” with my fellow Black folks no matter what. It could be that my family never made it a point to “define my blackness”. It is always there whether I like it or not. (I love it btw :)) Or it could be because my mother always bought Black dolls when I was a little girl or that I grew up in a neighborhood that was 99.9% Black. And I’ve heard the line that I “sound White” but I always just laugh that ignorance out of my psyche.

    I’ve also noticed another dynamic happening with people’s perception of Blackness in relation to me. I’m a light skin Black woman who likes to change her hairstyles. I’ve been wearing it natural for a minute now. And when it’s curly, I get a different interaction with certain people than if my hair is straight. It’s funny. I always look at it objectively and wonder what their preconceived notions are about me when my hair is curly versus straight because I’m the same person either way. I don’t feel confused by it though. I just wonder about it and typically laugh to myself cause I spot it out immediately. I’m learning to accept me no matter what and fortunately, I’ve already accepted my blackness with all it’s complicated intricacy a long time ago.

    I am interested to reading this column though. It is an interesting subject. And girl, you keep inspiring to write more in my blog. lol

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  • I’m confused. So, do I keep my Black card if I don’t particularly care for Tyler Perry films, but am impressed with his tenacity, ambition and his ability to achieve his goals? What about if I’m a vegetarian, but once dabbled in Black Nationalism? How about although I am a writer and English major, I still tend to use the word ‘fenna in casual conversation when expressing my intention to do something, as in: “I’m ‘fenna get me something to eat”?

  • livininphilly

    Wow! so very glad that you will be doing articles on this. I have never felt black enough. It started when I visited my cousins in Atlanta after having lived in San Francisco for 4 years. That was the first time I was told I “talked white” and realized that others could call my blackness into question. Prior to that my race wasn’t an issue, I knew I was black but it didn’t seem to matter at all b/c even though my friends were all races we just existed. Ahhh, the innocence of youth. Moving to DC when I was 10 also opened my eyes to how others percieved me. Going to a predominantly black school for the first time in my life I was picked on and told I was stuck up. I didn’t even know why ppl thought that about me b/c i’m one of the nicest people I know (voted nicest by my class in high school). People also acted surprised when I could carry on a conversation with them about hip hop or living single or NY undercover.
    Now that I have graduated from college I have actually become more afrocentric than I ever was. i make it my business to know what is happening with black folks (going on to grad school for critical race studies) and I still get the “you talk white” comment. I think since growing my locs black people haven’t questioned my blackness as much. I did notice that the approaches that i get from men w/ natural hair are much more respectful than I ever got with straight hair. Men say things like “peace queen” to me all the time. Before that it was “pssst… shorty, let me talk to ya for a minute.” I still wonder if i’m black enough when confronted with large groups of black people. I didn’t grow up in the church, I do talk white, I don’t agree with Bill Cosby (i’m a critical thinker and his arguements are ageist and problematic) and Tyler Perry fascinates me (I don’t care for the majority of his films but for real a black man created an entire mainstream career by appearing in drag, that is damn impressive). I’m really interested in reading more!

  • Hi,

    New to the site.

    I feel that you’re not feeling ‘a part’ is a dilemma of your own making, perhaps. I doubt anyone is caring if you pronounce the ‘ed’ in black-eyed peas or choose a relaxer instead of finger-waves. Perhaps you are going to the wrong shop if they do finger waves. And what’s wrong with a ‘fro?

    Anyway, I can appreciate the discussion, I just believe it is a bit contrived.

  • slb

    talulazoeapple: the article already concedes that worrying about how i’m perceived by other members of my race is a “dilemma of my own making,” hence the word: “paranoia.”

    we intend for this column to be pretty tongue-in-cheek. the examples i used were exaggerated and facetious. but the kernel of truth we hope to explore on an ongoing basis is that, in public forums, there exist inarticulable “markers of blackness” that not all blacks appear to have.

  • Okay, I get it. lol

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  • ladyfresshh

    there exist inarticulable “markers of blackness” that not all blacks appear to have.

    slb – *smacks forehead* oh duh
    i’m sorry this totally flew by me. I call this the ‘black than thou’ game i think i got lost in the acceptance aspect in which denying anothers blackness seems moot for the most part

    but the next stage… the level of black that you have… the temperature gaged by your stance …political or physical

    …of course i’m black’er’
    i watched good times and fat albert you know!
    less ‘black’ cause hog maws….sorry just ain’t happenin
    ‘black medium’ i have my neck twist and eye roll well practiced

    i guess my question comes in at my prolific reading and watching of fantasy and scifi
    if i could somehow make this a marker in the blacker than thou competition…i would be ahead of the game

    now if you’ll excuse me
    i need to study up on my jeezy and little wayne
    as my marks of youth and hipness are slipping from me while i type
    (marks the ‘little’ instead of ‘lil’ and realizes i’m old)

  • laafrodescendiente

    ah yes
    *nods in agreement*

  • Zesi

    I used to be conflicted about this, but then I stopped caring as much. I don’t think it was because of some grand inner strength, but because I had grown out of situations where it mattered. The social-racial acceptance thing became less and less a big deal as I got out of high school and then college. I’m already “different” to some people (regardless of race), and the non high school atmosphere really helped me come to terms with it all. I’m blackity black!