When I hear adult Black people discuss how their Blackness was policed as children by other children, I rarely hear them speak about why they think they were treated this way. I always find myself wondering how they got to this big ol’ age and still haven’t reckoned with the idea that white supremacy played a part in their childhood development. We internalize white supremacy as children, all the while claiming to be Black and proud, and grow into adults who continue the practice.
You can hear the lingering hurt in their voice as they recount phrases thrown at them. Usually, it goes something like this: “Black kids didn’t like me because I had good hair or light skin.” “Black kids made fun of me because I was dark skinned, or fat, or effeminate.” “Black kids used to make fun of me because they said I talked white.” “Black people think I am stuck up because I am quiet.”
I heard variations of these things—it’s inevitable when you are a quiet teen girl who carries a book around everywhere. At first it hurt my feelings, but as I got older, it just became frustrating. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was, it wasn’t until I later realized the criticism always seemed to surround some idea of how being Black was supposed to look, and it was based on my failure to perform it properly.
The truth is Black communities are often places where we experience our first and repeated lessons in anti-Blackness.
Eventually, I would realize that being Black doesn’t look one way, and that attempts to impose prerequisites on the Black experience is adhering to a stereotype. What’s fascinating is that there are still so many Black adults that still haven’t quite figured this out.
We can all relate to it. We watch it play out publicly with one of the most policed Black children in the world—Blue Ivy Carter. From the moment she was born, people commented on their disappointment in her “looking like her father.” As she grew, they made horrible comments about her hair “not being done,” and now they are criticizing an eleven-year-old’s dance moves during her mother’s current tour.
There are two things Black American children are taught early: 1) We are a strong and resilient community that managed to survive in a world that often tried to destroy us, and 2) how to weaponize anti-Black beliefs against one another. We wound each other with white supremacist beliefs about colorism, texturism, language, misogynoir, class, nationality, etc., and we’re taught to flatten our understanding of the Black experience to stereotypes. All these things are ways anti-Blackness manifests in Black spaces.
Things get even more complicated if you are a mixed-race Black person, Afro-Latino, African, or Caribbean. We’re born into a world that hates Black people. So, we’ve situated ourselves into hierarchies that are most apparent during online diaspora wars on social media. Consider our African or Caribbean cousins claiming Black Americans have “no culture,” or some nonsense—you start to realize that many in the diaspora believe the worst thing you can be is a Black American.
Some of us can recognize how and when white people are being anti-Black but fail to realize the ways we harbor the same kinds of beliefs against our own people. When we fail to unpack these beliefs, we trap ourselves in an internalized web of white supremacy; upholding and reinforcing the beliefs wherever we go.
It can be hard to recognize in yourself, but sometimes it sounds like this:
“Too many Black people live here,” or the flipside, “You don’t like living around Black people.” If you know anything about the history of housing and redlining in this country, you wouldn’t say things like this unironically.
Or you might have strong feelings about Black businesses. If the first thing out of your mouth when a transaction goes wrong is, “This is why I don’t do business with Black people,” you should sit with that. Things go wrong in all kinds of business transactions all the time, but many of us have no grace for Black businesses. We’ll let that one or few poor experiences keep us away instead of finding places that get it right.
Policing Black women is another popular pastime. We’re chastised for all the choices we make. This can include wearing any amount of colorful hair, weaves, makeup, or long acrylic nails. Or it can include “failing to perform femininity” having kids, being single, not having kids, being too loud, being too quiet, being assertive, not being assertive, not hiding our fat bodies, not being the right kind of thick, or not being thick enough.
But let’s talk about bonnets for a moment.
In Ohio, a Black dentist put up a sign in her office saying, “No Bonnets, No House Shoes, No Pajama Bottoms.” There was a social media uproar about whether the sign was anti-Black. Some celebrated the dentist’s decision to spell out what she considered appropriate attire and “protect her business,” while others called the sign racist and classist. What’s interesting about this instance is that once again people are using it as a way to be anti-Black and further police Black people.
According to the Atlanta Black Star, Patrice Lovelace-Holiday weighed in, saying: “[…] she’s enforcing such rules because she wants to maintain a certain image. People may not come back because everyone in the waiting room rolled out of bed.”
I would love to ask Lovelace-Holiday what that “certain image” she refers to is based on. I’d also like to know who are the people that may not come back if that image is not projected, and why would everyone in the waiting room look like they “rolled out of bed,” as she claimed.
TikTok content creator, Erica LeShai, joined in the conversation.
“[…] I just wanna know why everything negative and uncouth has to be labeled Black culture?” LeShai says. “I also wanna know why advocating for us to go in public looking like we care about ourselves and how we look is deemed as respectability politics?”
She goes on to note, “We should not be condoning and advocating for clear signs of depression, because the only times I’ve ever been raggedy in public is when something was off with me mentally. Rolling out of bed in the morning and going in public with a bonnet and pajamas on and house shoes is unacceptable, uncouth behavior no matter what race of people do it. And going out in public being put together doesn’t mean I’m trying to be like white people or I’m trying to get white people to respect me. Maybe it’s because I respect me. Let’s make having self-respect apart of Black culture.”
There’s anti-Black sentiment in this statement.
We can take it apart line by line and ask ourselves what’s happening here. Why would wearing a bonnet in public be considered uncouth or negative? Who wears bonnets? Why would wearing a bonnet, pajamas, or both in public mean you don’t care about yourself? How do we jump from wearing those items in public to insinuating that if you do you have mental health problems? Does she believe that healthcare is only for those who dress appropriately? Why does she keep saying the word uncouth—a quick Google search will tell you it means, “(of a person or their appearance or behavior) lacking good manners, refinement, or grace.” Synonyms of uncouth include uncivilized, uncultured, uncultivated, unrefined, unpolished. Who determines what is couth—cultured, refined, and well mannered? And, finally, why does she believe that self-respect isn’t already a part of Black culture?
We spend so much time policing and diminishing each other to feel better about who we are. What we never say when we make these comments—but always infer—is “at least I’m not that kind of Black person. I’m better than those kinds of Black people.”
Black people can always find a reason to complain about other Black people to Black people, often with the same disdain white people project. But we never stop to ask ourselves why we are doing it and why we are so eager to believe it. There can be no work toward unconditional liberation while re-legitimizing anti-Black beliefs and enforcing white supremacist ideas of propriety and behavior on each other.
Paulo Freire said, “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.” We cannot strive for liberation as we play the roles of oppressors in our own communities.
I understand the instinct to make snide comments about those types of Black people. It’s a way to differentiate yourself from them, but it’s also a way to move closer to whiteness, and it’s violent. Being indoctrinated into white supremacy means we police ourselves whether a white person is present or not. Whether another person is present or not.
I cringe thinking about the ways I used to participate in this thinking when presented with Black people who lived or looked differently than I did. I can still access hurt feelings behind the things said about me by Black children and adults when I was a child. But here’s the thing: there is no one way to be Black. Any attempt to delegitimize a Black experience through anti-Blackness by Black people is another tool of white supremacy. As children, we don’t have the language for it, but as adults we do.
We must question why certain things about Black people bother us so much to uncover hard truths. We’ve been taught to hate Black people. We see the benefits it provides to white people. So, we ourselves participate in letting that steam out in little and big ways over the course of our lives. We must ask ourselves why we believe, feel, and perceive other Black people who don’t live up to our personal standards of what Black life—or excellence—should look like, and we should acknowledge our hate for them. “Hate” is a strong word, but when you find yourself thinking those thoughts or, God forbid, giving voice to them on the internet, hate is what it is.
The process of exposure and reclamation are not a one and done thing. Anti-Blackness has done a number on us all, and we can’t afford to be acknowledged as better than “one of those Negros.” We must always strive for liberation, which means we must search out the seeds of anti-Black belief that we hold and ask the questions that need asking of ourselves, and root them out.