- Sarah Bunin Benor
Language and Identity Autobiography
By Amaria Stern
I sit helpless under the gaze of several of my overly intrigued white friends like a small docile puppy who wants nothing more than to be petted and caressed.
“Since you don’t have to wash your hair every day, do you shower every day?”
“Why don’t you straighten your hair?
“Your hair is so cool, like you’re so alternative!”
There was a time when I mistook these statements and questions for a healthy interest in black culture. I basked in the glory of white approval when my Caucasian counterparts seemed so eager to touch my afro. I was ecstatic to be everyone’s token black friend, but as I grew older, shed my insecurities, and began to fall deeply in love with every part of my identity, I realized that my culture was not to be put on display for the white eye. In these realizations, I learned to stop apologizing for my occasional slips into Ebonics or looking down on people who had no intention of using standard English. While being black is not the only important aspect of who I am as a person, it plays the largest role in others’ perception of me, and I have gradually learned to place less value in those perceptions and more value in the richness of my culture despite the way people view it.
I always wondered why my mom (I was always careful not to use the title “Momma” outside of my home and conversations with my close black friends) slightly altered her voice when she was on the phone with someone other than a relative or close friend, but now I realize it to be what I now refer to as the “tip-toe” lifestyle. She was careful not to sound “too black” over the phone, for that could jeopardize whatever business was taking place. I too acquired the tip-toe lifestyle; I tip-toed my way through elementary school, middle school, and halfway through high school. Even when I attended predominantly black schools, I was careful not to be classified as “ghetto” or “ratchet” like some of my other classmates. I was cautious about my appearance, never understanding why my mom wouldn’t allow me to chemically straighten my hair. I was cautious about the music I listened to, or the music I let my white friends think I listened to. I was cautious about the way I spoke. I didn’t realize that I was conditioned to believe that being black was synonymous with being “wrong” as opposed to simply being different and equally as beautiful as any other culture. Even within the black community, I was told that lighter was better, and because I had darker skin, I was less than. I have endured conversations based on the fact that if black people were still physically enslaved, I wouldn’t be allowed in my master’s house, as if the lighter skinned friends that I was speaking with had this great advantage over me because they would be allowed to work in the kitchen. Trying so hard to hide my insecurity about my skin, I always rebutted with my favorite Hairspray quote, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” Despite this awful reality of colorism within the black community, I still choose to embrace it and devote myself to being a part of change.
Even though I was physically considered to be “too black”, in a social context I wasn’t black enough. Being the child of a pastor and growing up in a strict Christian home, I was what some may call sheltered. Very seldom were my younger sister and I allowed to listen to secular music or watch certain television shows, including seemingly innocent cartoons that my parents thought were subliminally damaging. This meant that our television was never turned to BET or MTV so I missed out on programs that my friends thought were a requirement of being black, like 106 and Park or The Game. On top of this struggle, I battled between my parents’ unnegotiable conservative views and the liberal beliefs held by a majority of people at my performing arts high school. Somehow I managed to please both parties, but one of the most contradictory aspects of my identity was the intersection of being the child of a pastor and eventually the product of a home hit by divorce. I was required to face the confused looks of people who knew my religious identity when they heard me talk about a weekend at my dad’s house. This was yet another example of my aggressive attempts to not be “too black”. I needed people to know that I too had a dad who I saw just as much as my mom and that I was not another stereotypical black child who didn’t have a relationship with her father.
In the midst of this tension, I found peace in my identity as an artist. I have been dancing since I was four and plan to pursue it as a career, but I also have an intense passion for music. This passion for music is influenced largely by my experience in the black church, which is evidence that my identity as an African American and a Christian are extremely interconnected. I consider the black church to be art in itself. Through gospel music, praise dance, and the sermons, the black church offers such a profound sense of purpose, and the intense soulfulness in a service overshadows the lack of value placed on “standard English”. You might hear the pastor exclaim a phrase like “Ain’t God good!” and in response you might hear a member of the congregation shout “Hallelujah!” This practice of call and response is just one example of the sense of family emphasized in the black church, and one of the countless reasons I will always consider it the birthplace of several parts of my identity.
During my freshman year in high school, I transferred from a predominantly white high school in the northern part of Dallas, Texas to an ethnically diverse performing arts school in Downtown Dallas. Because of this change in environment, I felt more comfortable in the way I looked and spoke and my friend groups were much more diverse, but I was still not able to escape this uncomfortable fascination white people had with my blackness. This fascination was accompanied by the unconscious mimicking of the way I expressed myself. If I happened to say something especially “black”, like extending the word “girl” or “boy” before a sentence for dramatic effect, borrowing a phrase from the black roasting culture like “boy if you don’t getcho(instead of “get your”) ole…”, using a facial expression that is infused with some “attitude”, or yelling “YES HONEY”(which I have recently been made aware is borrowed, and often appropriated, from the gay community) when I see a dance move that I like, there is a possibility that a white friend of mine would try their hand at their best impression of me. If I happen to use the slang word “finna” in place of “about to”, or say “Oh Fatha God” when I’m exasperated, or slip into what non-Texans consider a Texan accent and use the word “y’all”, anyone around me foreign to my culture feels quite entertained.
And this is where the issue lies. For such a long time, I saw myself through the eyes of others, and to others I, along with many of my other African American friends, was lunchtime entertainment. My identity was held solely in who others thought I was, but I eventually had to find value in who I was for myself. Learning to appreciate every life experience and how each of them shapes my identity has led me to the conclusion that my culture is more than entertainment and should be treated as such. This allows me to have a deeper respect for other cultures and understand that deviation, especially a deviation in language, is not a downfall.