Black Girls Do Everything

by Danielle C. Belton

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.

  • http://stillhiphopmom.blogspot.com Hiphopmommie

    You articulated this so well!!! Point well said. I went to a middle school and high school her I was the only black girl in my grade. I think about this all the time being that I live in the mid-west and every job I have had I’ve been the only black person. I really just try to be who i am and not live up to the stereotypes, but often that is not enough because people have in the head what they think and can’t let it go. Or they just think I am the exception to the rule.

  • Lisa Lisa

    I totally agree. I hate that we need clubs for basic stuff. My newest peave is “Black Girls Run” Really.. who is on every track team. But likewise I hate to hear that certain crowds proclaim that Im not black enough because I listen to show tunes, go to musicals bla bla bla. I just think people are people are black people should really stop boxing themselves in with these Black People.. Do or Dont. Well this little black girl does it all and doesnt care about the chior of blk nay sayers.

  • my_reply

    This idea exists because “acting black” and African American culture are defined nowadays by the black underclass. The black underclass is not the black poor or working class. Anyway, these people have decided they are the leaders of the acting black crew. Many times they have an insular view of the world where eating anything other than soul food, listening to music that is not hip hop or R&B, learning about other people’s cultures, and just learning more outside of your culture period is seen as “acting white” or assimilating.

    White people are stereotyped by middle class white people. There are plenty of trashy white people, but they are not constantly in the media showing their ignorance. Black people are stereotyped by the black underclass. They are constantly in the media showing their ignorance to the world. They decide what is and isn’t the norm for black people. A lot of times it makes us look ignorant because these people are ignorant and low class and have no desire to learn more. They say black people don’t do xyz, and what they really mean is that they don’t do xyz because they haven’t been exposed like you said. There are plenty of white people who don’t care about anything outside of country or rock music and their own culture. They are just not viewed as the average white person. The media presents the average black person as an ignorant hoodrat or thug. Look at the majority of black people on TV. The reality TV for hoodrats situation of Basketball Wives and other shows isn’t helping.

    It is definitely a class thing because middle class black people do many of the same things white people do. Upper income black people do many of the things upper income white people do. The bad thing is that since the black underclass is glorified in hip hop culture, many people see no reason to move up the social ladder. There are middle class and upper income black people emulating the black underclass. They think that they have to do so to act black. This is bad because it encourages middle class black people that we need so much to become more insular. The black underclass should be emulating the black middle class. White people make fun of low class white people and celebrate middle class white people. Black people make fun of middle class black people who don’t speak Ebonics and are productive members of society while celebrating the black underclass.

  • Ms. Information

    It is so true….I get a response from whites when I comment on something like “How does she know that?”…lol…one of my white co-workers even lamented ‘She knows a lot, she’s so smart.” Simply because I know what they think I should not regarding art, politics, music, intellgencia, whatever…

  • Lady P

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for this article…this is such a worthwhile conversation. “And I loved it” is my exact sentiments as it relates to the Washington DC/MD area. It’s very refreshing to meet like-minded women (people in general). Where I grew up, it is still an area of “needed” ongoing progression. If you attempt to step outside of tradition, eyebrows are raised. You are right. We are stereotyped as being limited. This is rather sad especially for black women bc the spotlight is sooo readily placed upon us (embedded stereotypes). Yes, it may exist within your area or where ever you grew up, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it is true. I would love to witness a widespread of black women/men embracing more of an “adventurous” lifestyle other that in major areas. Until we do so; individually one has to realize its okay to embrace their uniiqueness where ever they resign. Once partaking in a different type of lifestyle, one may learned they aren’t that different after all. They fit right in if exposed to the right set of people. Really, your lifestyle is depicted by class, curiosity, education, and exposure.

    I must admit I am somewhat guilty of stereotyping as well. I visited home and during this weekend visit; I went mountain hiking with a few of my girlfriends. On this trail, we ran into a few brothers. We ALL assumed these gentlemen were mountain hiking due to that of a sports affiliation. Quickly, one gentleman politely corrected us and stated he was working out simply because he wanted to LIVE. These gentlemen stereotyped us as well. We corrected them, too. We let them know black women do work out and participate in different activities. It is a bad habit we fall into by labeling ourselves. At the same time, we can start by educating ourselves that black women do indeed live an adventurous lifestyle, it depends on where you are and who you are.

    Great article Danielle, I will share.

  • Angela

    Im part of Black Girls Run in NYC and its not only a great way to meet ppl and workout but NETWORKING as well.

  • Kacey

    I mostly agree with you, but let’s not forget black people are not the only ones putting us into the “Do” and “Don’t Do” boxes. Let’s not forget that much of the dos and don’ts arose from the fact that for many years blacks were prohibited or discouraged from doing certain things, going certain places or joining certain organizations…by whites.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not playing the blame game and I whole-heartedly believe we need to let go of the mindset that prevents us from venturing outside the box (as I myself am a black girl who does everything); however I will never forget a recent experience I had of attending a major broadway production, sitting in prime Orchestra seats, where I was one of very few black people in the entire audience and being stared at like a curiosity by a middle-aged white gentlemen sitting across from me. I can just imagine him thinking, “what is she doing here and in those seats?” I looked back at him until he averted his eyes in embarrassment and had a good chuckle to myself.
    We still have to overcome other people’s concepts (dare I say “prejudices”?) about us and where we belong, and that is perhaps what discourages many of us from doing more.

  • http://www.myblackfriendsays.com myblackfriendsays

    I was running a 10K and I saw another black woman with a shirt that said “Black Girls Run.” I can see why she would wear a shirt like that, because while I saw hundreds of white people that day, I saw less than 10 people of color.

    I think we need to avoid the tendency to put some sort of value judgement on certain activities. Drinking sangria is not inherently better than drinking bud light. Playing World of Warcraft is not inherently better than watching wrestling or NASCAR. Even the term “lowbrow” implies that certain things are inferior. Lowbrow according to whom? Oh yeah–the people that have the power and get to decide what’s highbrow and lowbrow.

    I totally understand wanting to expand the definition of what it means to be black. At the same time, I think it is important not to do it at the expense of people that are currently living what is seen as the stereotypical black experience.

  • Ash

    Whoa… if you had said NYC instead of DC, I would have thought this was about me. As a vegan black girl from TX who dates [in- and] outside of her race and loves to travel, I thank you! I wish more black women could escape labels without having to move to a metropolis but alas that was my experience as well

  • grace

    I agree with you 1000%

  • GlowBelle

    Great piece! I too have been the ‘Tootie Ramsey/lonely only’ as I grew up in a predominately White and Latino area, and of course it feels with everything that you do, that you are representing your race…and if you don’t follow a certain stereotype—you’re a “disappointment” to your race.

    I use to fumble around trying to fit neatly into a box of stereotypes growing up. I tried being so engaged in the hip-hop culture once in middle school, but to be honest, I didn’t like it. I loved my boy bands and musicals too much! I found it exhausting to be this way and decided that I was going to be myself no matter if people didn’t deem me “Black enough” by whatever so-called ‘criteria’ is out there. I knew who I was, and I wasn’t going to lie to myself and bend to someone’s ignorant beliefs. Even when I went to college and made more friends with people of my race and felt more of an alliance with them, I found them to be just as diverse in their tastes as I was and was glad that our Black experiences were so variant. I’ve always had a mixed group of friends and was raised to not be small-minded in that way. But I was exposed to this way of thinking by my parents, and my upper middle-class up-bringing also played a role in letting me think this way too. So class and simple exposure to things plays a big role in if you’re going to step out of that so-called box or not.

    To some extent being the only one made me more of a individual and I’m glad for that.

    Thanks so much for sharing this Danielle!

  • moemiel

    I am a black girl,been a black girl for almost 30 yrs and everything I have ever done is sumthing black girls do. And if u disagree i will check u in no time. The fact that we need to even have this conversation means that us black people r still ascribing activities, music,and dating rituals specifically black or non black.

    Peace !!!!

  • Andrea

    I love this article!!! I was at a bar recently and in the midst of a conversation with an older White male, he was disgusted to learn that I didn’t the BET awards. When he heard this, it was as though he wanted me to tear up my Black card….I said to him, “Are you serious?” Not every Black person watches BET.

  • Candi83

    Thank you Danielle for writing this. Sometimes I felt like I didn’t fit into the stereotype of what a black woman should and should not be doing. In the last few years, I realized screw what other people think you should do and be myself. If someone says, “Really? I didn’t know that black girls did that.” I just say that black women or people aren’t a monolith. Free your mind!!

  • Dee

    And foreign-born black girls who don’t spend as much on their hair as they do on sushi AND ballet usually get the “Oh, you’re not from here that’s why” brush-off. I STILL haven’t figured out what things black girls are not supposed to do/like and, damn, I am old enough now that I much don’t care!

  • http://Www.unconventionallibrarian.com Pammypam

    I remember before there was BET. We just watched tv.

    Your point is spot on. If I do it, then black people do it, cuz I’m black. But of course our people always have been pioneers.

  • Strphanie

    I am a member of The Atlanta Track Club and when I tell other black people that, they look at me lIke I have 3 heads. There are black members and there may not be many of us bring represented at the races, but we are out there. Being in shape, and having a wide range of interests shouldn’t be a race thing, it should be a health and well-being thing. I’ve had the “acting White” label for years-it used to annoy me, but now I think it’s just sad. People who use that term for others are usually insecure about themselves. I’m Black on my own terms and don’t care if I fit into other people’s box.

  • http://Www.lovemoniquemusic.com Monique

    Finally! The world cannot define black by American standards! We are all different.

  • Jess

    Cosign 100% lisa lisa about the track teams – great point! Black girls have been running forever

  • Jess

    “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. ”

    I totally agree with this, and even I have to be careful not to fall into that bad habit, particulalyif emotional or angrya about something.

  • http://losingsmartly.wordpress.com thequietvoice

    this times a thousand

  • Queen

    Yesssss! This article is spot on! I was just talking about this the other day. My coworker couldn’t understand why I listened to classical music. Apparently, it wasn’t the black thing to do. It’s a really awful habit, that unfortunately, some of us fall into.

  • clevagirl1922

    Class is such an under-studied phenomenon in America because as soon as you mention class, you must be a Communist (though most people don’t know the difference between Communism and Socialism). Class gets subsumed under race where race becomes the signifier of difference even if it is class that determines your lifestyle choices, etc. For African American women plagued by racism and sexism, it’s easy to ignore class because even Black scholars see race as primary when in face race is used to determine class. Racism and sexism are seen as more pervasive than class oppression in part because we keep recycling the same “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric that we forget to pause and ask, “What if you don’t have any boots?” In essence, discrimination and oppression is very much linked to class status. This article really helped to drive home the point that our lifestyle choices are often circumscribed by our access to wealth and opportunities; not simply our race. Great article!

  • Pat

    +1 yesssssss! True and its frustrating. An example of what you have stated is the attack on Willow Smith for being well different.

  • mortal

    beautiful!! 100% agree

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com Val

    I used to be a Black “girl” but then I grew up and became a Black “woman”.

  • KB

    I agree …. it’s definitely great for social. I’m part of BGR-Atlanta and I’ve met SO many wonderful women.

  • EssDot323

    You nailed it! The Black underclass has hijacked Blackness and I am so over them.

    @ Pat:

    You see that, right? Like what’s the big deal with Willow chopping off her hair? Black people and our hair issues #ICant

    I remember when silly Negroes were complaining about the Obama girls being fans of the Jonas brothers. Yeah, because it’s better that they touch their toes and clap their asses to mainstream Black music.

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  • Kia

    This article is so on time! I moved to DC in 2011 and have had a blast since!

  • Maria

    Oh my God, what an ignorant moron

  • http://sweetjobspot.wordpress.com Siegrid Ree

    Thanks for this fun article. Inspiration for Black Girls Work! Check us out at https://www.facebook.com/groups/blackgirlswork/

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