Love

My Husband Is Either "Too Black" Or "Not Black Enough"

Photo: nappy | Pexels
Man walking in two directions

In my 20s, I dated a man who grew up Mormon in Salt Lake City. He was in the Boy Scouts, adored Star Wars, and played football in high school. When he came of age in the 1990s, he loved listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers. His mother worked for the state and his stepdad, a retired army drill sergeant, fixed cars. When this man and I started dating, he had just completed EMT school and was studying to be a paramedic.

In my 20s, I also dated a man from Cincinnati who went to 11 different schools as a child. He never finished high school, hustled as a young adult, and spent half a year in jail. When he came of age in the 1990s, he loved playing basketball and listening to Tupac. His mother managed a 7–11 and his father, who lived in another state, was largely absent from his life. About eight months before this man I started dating, he had split up with his five-year-old son’s mother and been laid off from his factory job.

Which one of these men do you think is Black?

You may be feeling distinctly uncomfortable right now, wondering what point I’m trying to prove. But you can stop squirming because it’s a trick question.

The two men I’ve described above are the same man. And yes, he’s Black. He’s also my husband of 14 years.

   

   

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No one knows what to make of my husband.

If they meet him while he’s wearing his favorite Jordan sweatsuit, with his dreadlocks down, his LeBron sneakers on, and his platinum chain glistening around his neck, they cannot believe that he grew up Mormon in Salt Lake City, Utah.

If they catch him on his way to or from work, while he’s wearing his custom button-down shirt, with his dreadlocks up, his cowboy boots on, and his hipster glasses perched on his nose, they are shocked if he reveals anything about his checkered past. They had assumed he wasn’t “that kind” of Black guy.

When he moved to Salt Lake City from Cincinnati at the age of six, he was initially put in remedial classes because he talked “too Black.” When he moved back to Cincinnati during his troubled teen years, everyone in the nearly all-Black neighborhood of Avondale told him he talked “too white.”

When he first became a paramedic and worked at an all-white private ambulance company in New England, his coworkers were wary of him. He wasn’t a good ole boy. One female EMT told her boss that she felt “uncomfortable” during an overnight shift with him.

When we moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for a mostly Black private ambulance company, his coworkers were wary of him. He was the only Black paramedic and he had a white fiancé. One EMT declined a dinner invitation at our house because he doesn’t “do white people.”

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We all have notions about what it means to “be Black” — about what constitutes the “Black experience.”

   

   

And yes, there is no doubt that my husband can claim some shared experiences with other Black Americans as a result of navigating an often hostile world. By the same token, he’s likely to relate to music, clothing styles, and other forms of cultural expression that speak to this shared experience.

And yet, Americans on both the right and left tend to think of Black people, and in turn, “the Black experience,” as monolithic. These notions of what it means to “be Black” in America extend even into Black communities, as my husband has experienced in Cincinnati, New England, and Washington, D.C.

In the words of comedian W. Kamau Bell:

…While we easily accept that white people in Alabama are different than white people in Connecticut, we, as a society, often don’t give Black people that benefit of the doubt to differ on things.

White people are “allowed” to like hip-hop, but if my husband mentions that he likes Aimee Mann, eyebrows are often raised. No one bats an eye if he talks about liking Tupac in high school, but Red Hot Chili Peppers? Really?

My husband is a Black man whose daily realities are shaped by systemic racism and he’s someone who grew up practicing Mormonism in Salt Lake City and he’s a person with his own tastes, interests, and experiences.

It is a natural human tendency to categorize — our brains default to categorization to help us process the formidable waves of information that are constantly crashing down on us. We are often quick to judge (some of us more quickly and loudly than others), but part of the process of getting to know someone is realizing that they have layers and dimensions that contradict our first impressions.

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And yet, we are particularly reluctant to “grant” Black Americans these contradictions.

   

   

Cartoonist Keith Knight created a brilliant strip about “That One Black Kid,” the one “who was not into hip-hop in high school,” or “who gets told they’re not really black,” or “who gets used as the reason why someone isn’t a racist.” The last panel zooms out to reveal an enormous crowd of those “one” Black kids.

In The New Kid, an excellent graphic novel that my children have read multiple times, Jordan Banks is “that one Black kid” at his prestigious private middle school. Parents in Texas were recently up in arms about The New Kid because they claimed it promoted critical race theory.

I suspect something else made white parents uncomfortable that has nothing to do with critical race theory — namely, that Jordan Banks is a highly relatable and complex main character who is also grappling with all the challenges of simply being a middle schooler. White people are not particularly used to complex main characters of color — we’ve long been more comfortable casting them as the sidekicks and entertainers.

White children might be able to see themselves in Jordan Banks. He is not a distant historical figure defined by his resistance to oppression, nor does he fit neatly into any modern-day Black stereotypes. He is a multidimensional adolescent, straddling multiple worlds, trying to figure out where he belongs.

And we love him for it. You can’t read The New Kid and not root for Jordan. I suspect that even those white parents in Texas were rooting for Jordan if they bothered to read the whole book, and that’s precisely what rankled them.

Most of us would bristle if anyone else tried to paint us in sweeping brushstrokes. We don’t want to be denied our complexity. A denial of our complexity is a denial of our very humanity.

I think often of my multiracial children, who also straddle two worlds, who will undoubtedly grapple with the “too Black/not Black enough” conundrum. What I hope for them is that they will come of age in a world that celebrates the rich and varied contributions of their Black elders and ancestors; acknowledges Black Americans’ shared and persistent pain; and allows them the latitude to be their unique, idiosyncratic, contradictory selves.

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Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.