Once upon a time I lived in a town where I was pretty much the only black person I knew and I thought I was unique, because when you’re the “lonely only” you pretty much are. I didn’t know any fellow black geeks, gamers, book lovers, investors, history buffs, politicos, journalists, academics, hikers, wine aficionados, or world travelers.
But then I moved to Washington, D.C. – the destination for many over-achieving lonely onlies – and suddenly found I was not as special as I thought I was.
And I loved it.
But there’s still this pervasive belief of what black people – particularly black women – do and what they don’t. It’s implicit in how we talk about ourselves and in how we’re presented in the media. We’re shown as being grouchy do-nothings who, well, do-nothing for fear of mussing our hair (which we try to counter with campaigns like “Black Girls Work Out Too.”) We’re stereotyped as being limited and middlebrow (or worse, low brow) in our tastes. It’s a narrow view, where certain black women are labeled as being closed-minded and not adventurous, while another group of black women break their hands patting themselves on the back for being so “different” from other black girls.
But how different are you really if there’s enough of you to be a team and print T-shirts proclaiming your very similar individuality?
When people say that black women “don’t” do something – like exercise or go vegan or date outside their race – what they really mean is a certain subset of black women don’t. Obviously there are plenty of black women who fiend for a workout, lord their vegetable superiority over others, and date, love, and marry people other than black. But there are a lot of people who “don’t” do these things, and most of those people are “Americans.”
Often the traits black women are accused of having are more so signifiers of class than race. Blue-collar whites are just as unlikely to travel abroad (in a country with a population of more than 300 million, only 30 percent have passports to travel abroad), go vegan, and date outside their race. They also don’t work out as much (as evidenced by the obesity epidemic that is a crisis countrywide, not just with black people) or learn second languages.
It’s not just unique for a black woman to decide to run a marathon; it’s unique for most Americans.
It’s a bad habit we fall into, labeling ourselves by race (and then assigning negative connotations to it), when often what we’re experiencing are simple differences of class, curiosity, education, and exposure. Being incurious and set in your ways is a time-honored American tradition. And black people (last I checked) are the most American Americans running around.
But because white people aren’t often seen as a “race,” they don’t get lumped in. A bunch of overweight white people aren’t seen as “white people sure are fat.” They’re seen as fat “individuals” unto themselves, not tainting or representing the whole. White people (and black people) tend to focus on the coastal, urban, financial, or education-based outliers of the white community and not the large, swaths of white folk in the middle who love NASCAR, watch FOX News, eat at Hardees and favor the Tea Party, Jesus, and American football in near equal measure. Those folks don’t do any of the things black women “allegedly” don’t do, either.
And just like with white people, if a black woman is exposed to it, she’ll do it. If she’s not exposed to it, like most Americans, she probably won’t. It’s not rocket science. I once thought sangria and sushi were for fancy people. Now that’s just Tuesday’s take-out menu. I don’t feel any fancier, but that’s really all that is, just being exposed to different things and being open-minded.
The reason why moving to Washington, D.C., made such a difference in meeting more black men and women who did things that most Americans in general don’t do is that D.C. is a city that attracts people of all races and genders who are statistical, educational, professional, and financial outliers. Almost 30 percent of blacks in nearby Prince George’s County (Maryland) have bachelor’s degrees or higher, and in nearby counties in Virginia, that number is almost 40 percent. But the national average for African-American college grads is just barely more than 17 percent.
That’s a lot of people who possibly could share educational, financial, and similar life experiences to my own. Much more than in St. Louis County where I grew up and the average is near 18 percent. And it’s extremely better than when I was living in Midland, TX, and Bakersfield, CA, where the grad numbers were around 11 and 10 percent respectively.
You’re not an outlier if you move to a city where everyone is hiking, running, biking, swimming, reading, writing, and doing all the things everyone says black people (and, by proxy, Americans) don’t do. You’re simply you.