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Color Me Different
Jamal Greene
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I am black. Yet, since I was 12, I’ve gone to a school almost totally devoid of black people. I don’t speak in slang. I don’t listen to rap or reggae and, try as I might, I have at best a 50-50 chance of converting a lay-up. Except for the fact that I’m not white, I am not all that different from a stereotypical white kid from the suburbs.

Because of this, when I’m around other black people I usually feel a certain distance between us. And so do they. For example, this past summer I took a journalism workshop at New York University. After it was over, I was on the phone with one of the girls in the workshop, a black girl, and we got to talking about first impressions. She said that for about the first week of the workshop, she was saying to herself, “What’s wrong with this guy? Is he white or something?” She said that I talked like a “cracker” (as she put it) and she made a lot of offhand remarks about me not being a “real” black person. It irritated me that this girl thought that just because I didn’t speak “black English,” I was not a genuine black person.

I Don’t Talk the Talk

I have often heard people criticize a radio announcer for the New York Yankees for the way he speaks. He’s black, but you would never know it from the way he talks. They say he’s trying to be white. I don’t “sound black” either and I’m not trying to be anything but who I am. It’s just the way I talk. Black people who speak standard English don’t do it because they want to dissociate themselves from other black people but because they grew up hearing English spoken that way.

Just look at the English boxer Lennox Lewis, who won the world heavyweight championship three times. He’s black but his accent is as British as can be. Is he “trying to be English” and denying his black roots? Of course not. He just grew up around people who had British accents.

No Rhythm

I don’t dance like a lot of other black people either. I never learned to move my hips and legs the way most kids you see at parties are able to. I lose the beat if I have to move more than two body parts at once and so my dancing tends to get a little repetitive.

When I go to parties with black people I often find myself sitting at the table drinking a Coke while everybody else is dancing. “Why aren’t you dancing?!” people ask. And then when I do get on the dance floor, the same people sneer at me. “What’s wrong with you?” they say. “Why do you just keep doing the same thing over and over again?”

Contrary to popular belief, black people aren’t born with the ability to dance and play basketball. Even though I have speed and leaping ability, I can’t drive to the hole without losing my dribble. Those skills have to be learned and perfected with practice. It only seems like they are innate because the black community in America is culturally very close-knit and people share the same interests.

Out of Their League

Another thing that constitutes “blackness” in a lot of people’s minds is an interest in or a feeling of pride and identification with things historically black. I collected baseball cards until I was 15. I had a pretty substantial collection for a kid. At least, I thought I did. One afternoon, my cousins came over to my house and were looking at my baseball cards.

“Do you have any Jackie Robinson cards?” one of them asked.

“Of course not,” I answered.

They were visibly displeased with that response. Of course in my mind I knew that the reason I didn’t have any Jackie Robinson cards was the same reason why I didn’t have any Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio cards. I just didn’t have the money for Jackie Robinson. Even if I were going to spend that money on baseball cards, I would buy a Mickey Mantle card before I would buy a Jackie Robinson card of the same price. Jackie may have been the first black major leaguer but Mickey hit home runs and home runs increase in value faster than historical novelty. It’s that simple. But my cousins thought that the reason I didn’t have any Jackie Robinson cards was because I didn’t like black players as much as white players.

image by Mario Regina

An Added Responsibility

My family has always had a problem with me liking baseball—a game that did not integrate until 1947—as much as I do. They keep getting me these Negro League postcards because they are worried that I don’t know enough about the subject. And they’re right. But then again, sports enthusiasts in general don’t know enough about the Negro Leagues. My family feels very strongly that as a black sports fan, I should feel an added responsibility to know about black baseball players. If I don’t learn about them, they say, then nobody will.

Minorities are often called upon to be the spokespeople for their races. The only black kid in the class is almost always asked to speak when the subjects of slavery or the civil rights movement come up. The question is, does he have a responsibility to know more about issues pertaining to blacks than his white classmates? I would like to think that he doesn’t.

If we really believe that everyone should be treated equally, then ideally my Jewish friends should be expected to know just as much about black history as I do. Of course I should know more about the Negro Leagues than I do now, but so should a white baseball fan or a Japanese baseball fan or a polka-dot baseball fan.

I’m a Square Peg...

So I guess I don’t fit in with the black people who speak in slang, dance with a lot of hip motion, and hang out with an all-black crowd. And I don’t feel any added responsibility to learn about black history or go out and associate with more black people either. Nor do I fit in with blacks who try as hard as they can to separate themselves from blacks altogether, vote Republican, and marry white women. I wouldn’t do that either.

Even though I grew up playing wiffle ball with white kids in Park Slope instead of basketball with black kids in Bed Stuy, even though I go to a school with very few blacks, and even though most of my friends are white and Asian, I can’t say that I feel completely at home with white people either. Achieving racial equality is a process that still has a long way to go. Blacks were slaves for hundreds of years. And we were legally inferior to whites up until just a couple generations ago. Blacks may have achieved equality before the law, but it will take another few generations to achieve full social equality.

The Invisible Line

There is still a stigma attached to interracial relationships, for example, both romantic and otherwise. Whenever I’m around the parents of white friends, I get the sense that they see me not as “that nice kid who is friends with my son or daughter” but rather as “that nice black kid who is friends with my son or daughter.” There is still a line that certain people are unwilling to cross.

So after all this analysis, I’m still confused about what it means to be black. What is race, anyway? According to Webster’s dictionary, race is “a class or kind of people unified by a community of interests, habits, or characteristics.” Well, anyone who’s ever called me or any other black person “white on the inside” because we didn’t fit their stereotype can look at that definition and claim victory. “There it is, right in the dictionary,” they’re saying. “Black is an attitude, not just a color.”

By that definition I’m not black at all. But I was black the last time I looked in the mirror. So I went back to the dictionary and found that Webster’s has another definition for race: “a division of mankind possessing traits that are transmissible by descent and sufficient to characterize it as a distinct human type.”

Who to Believe?

Wait a minute! Does that mean that a black person is anyone with dark skin, full lips, a broad nose, and coarse hair? These are traits transmissible by descent and distinct to black people. By the second definition, to be black means to have these physical characteristics. Speaking in slang and dancing well are not genetic—they are cultural.

Which definition is right? I would like to think that it is the second. I would like to think that race is nothing more than the color of your skin, but clearly in most people’s minds it’s more than that. I feel distanced from blacks because I am black but don’t act the part and I feel distanced from whites because I act white but don’t look the part. As long as other people expect me to act a certain way because of the way I look, or to look a certain way because of the way I act, I will continue to be something of an outcast because I defy their prejudices.

Society has different expectations of blacks and whites, and becomes uncomfortable if any of us strays from those expectations. Just ask anybody who’s ever picked me for two-on-two just because I was black.

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(NYC-1994-09-03)

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