The following situation is something I think all persons of color can relate with. This post comes off the heels of this post I made a year and a half ago (please read!). If there is any reason that you, the reader, may think this is an exaggeration: please talk to me or better yet talk to one of your friends who are persons of color (POC) and listen to their stories. While they are not the same, there are a lot of similarities.
Adolescence is the necessary evil that everyone has to go through. In the past I have compared adolescence to a walking hormonal time bomb that isn’t defused until your mid twenties. However in recent years; I have said it is more like a bridge. At the start you have childhood: young, impressionable, and for the most part just wanting and waiting on the approval of those around you knowing that if you do what they say, you should be fine. On the other end; the fledging feeling of independence that comes with adulthood (for this instance, I will reference adulthood as 26 years old or older). In oder to get to the promise land that is adulthood, you have to cross the bridge of adolescence with middle/high school being a central part of that journey. A 15 year journey filled with uncertainty, newness and and challenges. For the sake of today’s story, let’s focus on the challenges of that time.
The universal truth that being a teenager is difficult in one that transcends generations of people. Each new decade presents a new set of benefits, improvements and therefore the issues that arise from those situations. No matter the decade, the need for acceptance is one that is only amplified in these years. With peer pressure temptations seemingly around every corner, every adult who has navigated adolescence can attest to these temptations. Going back to the bridge analogy: peer pressures can seem like a creaky or uncertain step without a lot of support. Do you go with what was important to you at eleven years old when you’re a junior in high school or in an attempt to be “accepted” do you follow the crowd? At times the crowd noise seems inescapable and eventually you cave to it. Even if the “crowd” is one other person, the basic human need to be accepted becomes too great to bear. Not all instances of peer pressure are negative, but the level of unfamiliarity that goes with following the crowd in an effort to be accepted is one that I believe all people can recognize.
Like an odd looking puzzle piece…
You often read about POC sharing their experiences when they dare to occupy “white spaces” Whether in academia, the work force or even in personal living, I can attest to the pressure and anxiety that coms with being the token in a situation. Media, specifically books, with characters like this resonate with me the most. Books like “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “Black Buck” by Mateo Askaripour show their respective protagonist balancing their ethnic and cultural experiences while being seen as “normal” by their caucasian peers. This balancing act is not done with maliciously however, actually the opposite. For the sake of acceptance and survival.
As stated, there is an inherent need for humans to connect with others and feel belonged to a group. When you are a person who does not look like your peers, no matter in which context, the first thing on your mind is finding safety in someone accepting you. Once that has been met, then what usually comes the effort to blend in with the majority. In my case, I wanted to be seen as just another kid in high school, who happened to be black. I was trying to get people to not see one of my most distinguishing features because I did not want to stick out more than I did. What many POC do in this situation is assimilate theirs actions to that of the majority group. In the process of doing this assimilation, I started to abandon my foundation principles and what made me happy prior to attending high school. What I am describing is again not foreign to being a teenager, however when I tell you that I started to lose contact with my cultural and ethnic foundational principles, that is what makes this act of blending in so dangerous.
…I just want to fit into the picture
Assimilating to a white dominated society, for me, was my first real taste of being accepted by my peers at school. The feeling of being welcomed in, as long as I fit some qualifications, was my genesis to having issues with my blackness. It started off with the clothes I wore. I went from FUBU and Phat Farm to American Eagle or Hollister. I switched out my baggy loose fitting clothes for a more preppy/athletic look. I also stopped talking about rap music as much, because many of my friends listened to pop and rock. This also meant watching shows like Seinfeld, Friends and Gilmore Girls while not catching up on Boondocks, Martin and Living Single. The reactions were mixed for the most part. I had people who loved that I could talk to them about stuff they were familiar with and I really felt accepted. However there were some who openly expressed “why don’t you like more “black” stuff?” And that’s when I discovered why this process of assimilation is so dangerous: you think you’re pleasing everyone except for the one person who you need to make sure you keep happiest: yourself. Truth be told at the time, I did like clothes from American Eagle a lot more. Seinfeld was a pretty funny show and Avenged Sevenfold became one of my favorite bands to listen to before football games. However, I missed hiding the world that I was familiar with and sharing that world with my peers. I wanted to introduce Huey and Riley Freeman to my lunch buddies, and vibe to Ludacris on car rides. I wanted to show the proper way to wear hightop Air Force 1s and a good, down home catfish and spaghetti dinner on Sunday nights. However, none of those things happened with me. Because I was in the minority, I had nobody else to back me up. I was literally trying to vouch for something that the majority knew nothing about and did not have the hive mentality to assist my efforts. So I continued to repress and even in some cases, reject my foundational principles to the point where I grew to be a man and had no real connection to black culture.
Making a choice
What I am not saying is that fitting in is not important, not at all. But realize if you have friends that are POC, they are trying to toe the line between two worlds. And the associated pressure with trying to be part of a world that only wants them to fit into a certain cookie-cutter way of living that wants them to forget their cultural norms. The other world is pulling them to this world of who they probably the most comfortable with, however this world comes with two caveats: 1) their POC community will often reject the world at the risk of being labeled an outsider by the dominating group and their [European] standards. 2) their cultural norms will only be seen as good if they can be used and made popular by the dominating group.
Please try to take this into consideration. It is a lot to ask our POC friends/family. Just try to be understanding that the choices that we have to try to make in the name of fitting in.
Take care and be well!