I would like to think I'm black. And at first glance, it's apparent I am. My skin and hair say so. My musical tastes, ranging from Luther to Janet to Kanye, agree. My parents, aunts, uncles and cousins are all black. And if anything, I've got a birth certificate that solidifies my heritage. I would like to think I'm black. But sometimes, I'm not sure if others of my race agree.
I'll admit, I'm not the typical African American young man. Even though I grew up in and around Montgomery, AL, a city with an African American makeup of almost 60 percent, I rarely interacted with many. I attended a private school with only one other black kid in my class until sixth grade, and no black girls until freshman year of high school.
Being constantly surrounded by mainly white kids has never been anything but normal for me. As I grew up around the children of prominent lawyers and doctors, I became comfortable. We wore uniforms at school, but that didn't prevent the unfortunately stereotypical but accurate "prep style" from rubbing off me.
Everyone shopped at Kinnucan's, Ralph Lauren shirts were the standard, and why even bother showing up to school if you weren't equipped with Sperrys or Wallabees on your feet? And I, like any other indoctrinated private school kid, subscribed to these trends. To me, following this particular wardrobe made me no different than Richie Rich or Johnny Warbucks. I was a part of the crowd... until I wasn't, when comments like "Jared, you're the whitest black guy I know" or "You dress so white!" shattered my perceptions.
How do I dress "white"? Everyone dresses like this? What do they mean? I always downplayed the comments effortlessly, with laughter or a feigned "whatever". But the questions continued to plague me, especially "If I dress 'white,' am I still black?"
A couple weeks ago, I received an answer.
Summer had begun, and my friends and I were ready to ring in the late nights and good times with a teenage American classic: a house party. Out in the middle of the Alabama country, we pulled up to a trailer filled with kids. As the hours passed, some people left, others showed up.
After coming off the deck, where I had been taking pictures with my friends, I walked into the kitchen for a drink. I was greeted by three black guys, leaning against the countertop, listening to music. I gave "The Nod" when I made eye contact with one, but received a stifled smile in response. As I turned my head to extract a soda from the refrigerator, I saw the guy turn to his friends, all silently chuckling in my direction.
It was my shorts. Through my eyes they were a regular pair of khaki shorts. But, they're short -- probably a 7' inseam, resting a measurable distance above my knee. Completed with a shirt embossed with a dog's head and green Chacos, and I must have been a sight for them to see. I coolly grabbed my drink and walked into the living room, trying to ignore the ensuing snickering as the distance between the kitchen and me grew.
And the next weekend it happened again.
Different house, different party, same scenario. This time I left the Chacos at home, substituting a pair of pizza socks I had received for Christmas and sneakers. In an attempt to grab the sole bathroom before someone else got the chance to occupy it, I hopped up from my seat. A group of black guys leaning against the wall across the room watched.
"Aye, aye, look at this nigga."
Though hushed, the words were audible across the living room.
Their whispered jeering scored my back, as I felt at least six pairs of eyes watch me leave the couch. Overcome immediately with self-consciousness, I grappled with my options. Should I ditch the socks? Wait, maybe they weren't talking about me? Why did I wear these damn socks?
The rest of the night went fine. I left the bathroom (still socked) and brushed off the whole thing. Other than occasional humor-filled glances when I walked into a room, I didn't hear anything else about me. And on one hand, I'm glad. I've never been physically bullied or felt threatened by anyone because of the way I looked. But after the party, when I had a chance to mentally revisit the incident, I realized how sad it is for it to be an "incident" at all.
And here we reach one of the great enigmas of black culture. We, as a people, seem to look for opportunities to divide ourselves. But, only when it's us. The moment a member of a different race (especially a white person) comments on black style or dress, it seems almost all 37 million of us are jumping up in defense. If this is so, why is it then okay to chastise members of our own community for expressing individuality? Because I wasn't wearing chains, oversized pants, and basketball shoes, I was made to seem like something other than a man, something other than black.
Unlike in other cultures, where masculinity can be seen in a farmer, a long-haired metrosexual, a surfer, or a scholar, African Americans tend to have a very linear idea of what is the Black Man. Think imposing, hardened and sometimes even angry. How did we become a culture where men are expected to exude the persona of Lil Wayne or T.I. solely, while the Jaden Smiths are mocked and demeaned?
And unfortunately, this cultural rejection of identity individuality doesn't just find its home with men. Women are equally subjected to negative commentary when their dress breaks stereotypical cultural norms. One of my good friends has, like me, dealt with this problem constantly. As one of the few African American women in the University of Alabama's Greek system, she grew up dressing with a more "preppy" style, and was raised in a household where textbook English was the rule:
When I was younger, my dad did a lot of work for Nigerian churches in the Atlanta area. He would film the seminars and do tech work and everything, so the whole family went. Everyone there was pretty much from the inner city of Atlanta, and they would always make fun of me for "talking and dressing white." I was a complete outcast.
Being an outcast in your own race and community is sad. At my age, my parents couldn't attend school with other races, let alone live with them. Today, we are free to own a home (or five) in any neighborhood, complete with a white picket fence and a Golden Retriever in the backyard. Our children rub shoulders with those of CEOs and royalty in Ivy League institutions. But in 2015, with a black man in the White House, our race is virtually resegregating ourselves -- not physically, but socially.
Speaking differently is interpreted as "acting uppity." Dressing in an non-urban style results in shunning or laughter. It's time for us, as a community, to eradicate this pattern of ridiculous behavior. In a culture where "you do you, I'll do me" and blatant individuality are heralded in music and film, we do a poor job of actively following these ideas in real life interactions.
Weeks have passed since the Kitchen Clash and the Pizza Sock Party. I've had time to contemplate the situation more deeply, and my mom recently raised an interesting question: "If you were with your friends, and only one guy walked in, neck hanging with chains and boxers showing, would you comment similarly?"
That's a scenario I had never considered. And honestly, I can't answer it, because of my numerous personal experiences having my appearance critiqued. However, I have no doubt it happens: preppy or traditionally dressed young men (and women) scoffing or belittling others because of their more urban style.
I don't know what can be done or said to eliminate this hardly discussed, yet definitely prevalent problem. I do know, however, that until something is done and our attitudes change, we are doing nothing but further separating and fragmenting our race. And in a world where so many negative stereotypes about African Americans still abound, we owe it to not only those who came before us, but also future generations, to continue working to build a more equal (and tolerant) America.