It was a weekday afternoon. I had returned to Graves Hall after my classes. I stopped in the lobby to hear a debate an RA was having with some of the residents. They were debating which of their favorite rappers was better. I do not remember whose skill they were debating, but I do remember one particular comment from the RA at the desk. When he asked me who I thought was better, I replied that I did not listen to those specific artists. He looked at me and said, “Joshua, you’re not really Black.”
Immediately, I felt angry. Intensely angry. I however refrained from slapping the melanin out of his skin, and instead laughed and walked up the stairs to my room. As I sat in my room, I thought to myself why I had become so angry. It was just a slight comment with no ill intent behind it (probably) but it gave me flashbacks to the very first days of middle school. In my sixth grade World History class, someone asked me if I was excited about a certain football player. I said that I was not really a big sports fan. “You know, you're not really Black, Joshua,” was the reply. This probably was the fifth day of school in my new middle school. I still remember that very clearly, and I still remember who said it. A white boy with a bowl cut summed up my entire racial classification within ten minutes of talking to me. This boy had gone to our insular private school since elementary school. This boy who had not read Assata Shakur, or had ever listened to Stevie Wonder, who did not have one drop of Black in him had determined that whatever I was, I was not black. I can hear the critiques now. “Oh Joshua, you’re just overreacting! This was middle school. Kids say the darndest things!” But this was not a one-time incident for me. I have heard white boys and girls, my peers, look me in the face and say I am not Black without a hint of irony from middle school to high school. I have literally debated with some of my white peers to reaffirm my Blackness. Me. Joshua Trust Reed. Look at my face. I’m clearly Black, African-American, a person of color. And yet I had to face certain white people who for one reason or another did not consider me Black.
I have tried to figure out why so many people look me in my eyes and tell me I am not Black. These declarations are even more confusing when they themselves are white and have no meaningful relationships with Black people (or any person of color for that matter). I have no good answer from these people themselves. Whenever I pressed them on the topic, they could offer no substantial evidence. However, I believe that these people who claimed I was not Black simply did not know what to make of me. Most of what they had learned about Black people did not come from firsthand experience. They gained their information about Black people from a constant stream of banal, materialistic rap videos, overwhelmingly negative news reports, and the opinions of their friends and family who all held similar views. This creates a vicious cycle of misinformation which can only be broken by actually taking the time to learn about other cultures.
Most people do not even realize that their worldview is skewed until they come upon something that breaks their commonly held notions. I broke most of what they understood “blackness” to be. I do not listen to much mainstream rap. Although I did play sports, I do not closely follow professional sports commonly associated with Black people (read: basketball and football). I spoke with proper grammar. I was involved in many extracurriculars and received good grades. I had read the works of Richard Wright, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X. I was informed about the new Black Lives Matter movement. Every Thanksgiving I’ve eaten sweet potato pie, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese. (And there is a proper way to prepare macaroni and cheese).
I was black. I am Black. I knew that. I know that. My peers, however, had no concept of a Black person that did the things I did. So in their minds, I simply could not be Black because I did not fit in the mold. I was not seen as a white person either. I existed in some odd space in between.They had unwittingly been given a one-dimensional picture of Black people, and I did not fit the mold.
This is yet another reason why I believe that diversity in the media is so important: it breaks down commonly held stereotypes that we see. But, there is something more pressing here. It is not solely the duty of Black people to reaffirm their humanity to their white peers. The burden of addressing racism and speaking out against oppression far too often falls on Black people, and people of color in general, which for some reasons is understandable. The dominant class in a society has no impetus or incentive to understand those who are oppressed.
They can generalize all they want, as I have experienced first hand. But, there are members of the white community who recognize the bigotry and racism of their peers, who must educate their own families and friends. This may not be easy, but it is necessary work that people of color simply cannot do. I could count on two hands the number of my peers who took it upon themselves to check their own. It usually felt like I was by myself, arguing with people to reaffirm my Blackness. If the words of a Black person could not convince them, then perhaps someone they could identify with could help them see the truth. But then again, if they could look a Black person square in the face and tell them they are not Black, then maybe they are too far gone.