One of the most serious questions I have had to grapple with over the years is the question of who I am. Since I was very young, one of the main labels that I have used to describe myself is: black. Like most, I did not choose to be black. My blackness is something that I realised at a young age when I began to realise that having my colour skin meant that there were certain things that I could not do and certain things that I was expected to do.
In other words, “black” was an identity that was thrust on me at an age where I was too young to know what it meant and I was left to navigate the terms and conditions of that on my own. It is also quite interesting that as a middle class black girl who did not speak an African language, “black” was a label that people were as eager to thrust on me as they were to take away from me.
Coconut is a word I heard often. The fact that I spoke English, only English, with a “white” accent meant that in the eyes of many I was and still am automatically disqualified from the title of being “truly black”. I grew up in white suburbs, attended white schools, and when I entered black spaces there was a distinct, uncomfortable feeling that I did not truly belong there. Yet, I did not truly belong in the very same white spaces I navigated in that rejected blackness and accepted black people who were as close to whiteness as possible but did not truly welcome them. I therefore fit the definition of a coconut. Black on the outside but on the inside something close-ish to whiteness but not quite there either.
At the same time, I was frequently, and sometimes violently reminded that I was black. I was reminded that I was black every time I opened a book or watched television and few to none of the heroes and desirable people ever looked like me. I was reminded I was black when I was followed around in stores. When my school declared that my natural hair was against school rules and that I needed to braid it or relax it. When my white friends would put on a
racist “funny” blaccent whenever they were pretending to be poor or stupid as a joke. When a little white boy in my Grade 3 class told me that black people are lazy and stupid. When I saw or heard people saying over and over again that my people were inherently stupid, inferior, and barbaric and would have never amounted to anything had it not been for the White Man.
And most ironically, I was reminded I was black by the very same people who called me coconut, always with a condescending smirk, who believed that they needed to put me “in my place” by reminding me that I wasn’t what they thought I desperately wished I was: white.
And that’s the thing. I have never for a second forgotten that I’m black. I live in a world that would never allow me to. But at the same time, my blackness is something that I have navigated and reinterpreted throughout my life. It’s an identity that I have come to reclaim as my own. I spent a few embarrassing years trying to act according to black stereotypes in order to be seen as truly black, and I have come to realize that blackness isn’t a set of characteristics and stereotypes. It is rather a mentality that opposes institutional racism and the imposition of whiteness. It is a rejection of the oppressive narratives and the destructive and degrading stereotypes dictating what it means to be black. And it is so much more than that. At least, that’s what it means to me.
As a result, I’ve reached a point where I no longer care if I am called a coconut.