Life’s Matters: Gray People
To be black in America is to be “gray,” born into two disparate societies, each with its ideals. Navigating the rocky terrain of both societies is an everyday challenge faced by every black person in the United States. Blacks are expected to adhere to the cultural norms of white society while keeping their “place” as members of a marginalized community. Assimilation is a means of survival for black people. We are to remember we’re black, but not “act black.”
I’ve spent a lifetime trying to be “gray,” a neutral shade of black and white, knowing I do fit into the mores of black culture, and knowing I am not white. As I try to navigate the rules of the white community, the black community sees me as a defector, someone who is “trying to be white.” For example, as I try to speak clearly on the telephone, some black people have accused me of trying to sound “white.” Black people view me as arrogant and aloof. White people view me as friendly and intelligent—and black. So-called “assimilated” black people are still black people in a white society. My lifelong tussle with race relations is a matter of racial identity. Despite my best efforts, I am and will be—for the rest of my life—black. I am not a white woman in a black body. I am a black woman facing racial identity.
I sometimes feel alone amidst my white friends, as I am usually the only black person in attendance. I experience the same sense of isolation when I am among black people, as I have little in common with the people around me. I struggle to “fit” into both worlds. I experience confusion and shame about the position in which I find myself—physically in two worlds, and emotionally grappling in both.
I face a delicate balance between honoring my heritage as a black descendant while maintaining a presentation that makes me acceptable to—but not accepted by—the white community. It means I straddle a very high fence as I attempt to walk amicably in two worlds, both equally capable of determining my fate. It means I am always on guard to be sure I am behaving appropriately for the culture I face at the moment. It means that my heritage as a black descendant permeates all that I am while I am required to live according to the expectations of white culture.
To qualify for jobs, raises, and promotions, I cannot act too black, too far out of white culture. Even when I do my best to meet the standards, even exceed the standards of expectation, I am denied the fruits I seek to obtain. I am subjected to the “ebony ceiling,” which is much lower than the so-called glass ceiling that affects white women. My success as a black person threatens my white colleagues. Whites are addicted to their status of superiority; blacks are resigned to their status of inferiority.
Exceptions do abound on both sides of the fence where people work diligently to equalize conditions for everyone and to create a livable, sustainable life for everyone. But, there remain firmly entrenched beliefs and opinions that feed stereotypes and negative messages (see my post on implicit bias, link below) that judge and dehumanize me.
Today, I spend time with white friends, people who are open-hearted and accept me as I am—introverted, easy-going, compassionate, sometimes needy—emotional pain and all. They delve into issues of race relations in a genuine effort to learn about what makes me who I am. They do not just tolerate me; they embrace me. At the same time, I crave deep, reciprocal relationships with black women, but I have not yet found a circle. I want to discuss with them what their lives have been like as black women. I want to discuss with them the issues that affect us the same as they affect white women. I want to inhale the perfume of their grit and their wisdom. I want to share who I have become because of the road I have traveled. I am just beginning the work of finding black women with whom to share my journey. I am contacting women I have known in the past who may be willing to join me.
Adaptation and civility become difficult when people are born into an oppressive society in which different rules apply to different people. The answers to this quandary lie in education—learning about other people at the heart level. I would appreciate continued efforts by my white friends to explore what makes me different and how they feel about the restrictions I face. I would appreciate efforts by my black friends to share with me their experiences and how they have been affected and successfully, or not so successfully, navigated life as a “gray” person.
Young black girls are told by school administrators how to wear their hair. Black models are admonished for makeup and hair choices that are copied and promoted on white models. Young black men are profiled because of their clothing choice while white men make those same clothing choices unencumbered. Imagine what it means to live a life that does not honor and cherish you as a human being. With “step into my shoes” education, both black and white society might be able to expand their mindsets.
Blacks and whites alike can contribute to understanding the plight of living in two vastly different worlds. Black people can talk to white people about the devastating and demoralizing effects of living as a “gray” person. White people can listen, really listen, to black people and make an effort to accept the cultural differences of black and white society. Think acceptance and inclusion. Think equality and collaboration. Think cooperation and collective strength. We all have a responsibility to each other. I have learned much about white people’s expectations. How much have they learned about me?
Billie Wade is a gregarious introvert whose day job is retiree from human resources administration, chemical dependency counseling, and magazine editorial assistance. Her primary interests are issues of Black American race relations, women, LGBTQ, seniors and the effects of life’s vagaries on us all. She engages with life through open-hearted inquisitiveness, introspection, and relationships with diverse people.