AssimulateIn a time when a lot of my peers were being named Keisha (by far the most popular black girl name of the 1970s and beyond), they named me Danielle. They had a lot of reasons for choosing the name “Danielle.” Both my parents’ names began with “D”  so they were giving all their kids “D” names. My mother thought I just “looked” like a Danielle when I popped out of her yoo-hoo. And also they wanted me to assimilate.

Assimilate is a dirty word for me because in reference to black people surviving in America it’s both necessary and completely worthless all at the same time. Necessary as in, having the name Danielle Belton could mean my resume didn’t immediately go into the garbage when they were screening out all the Keishas that day, but futile because I started a site called “blacksnob.com” and it’s on my resume along with me being a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. and a member of the National Association of Black Journalists. Never mind all the black publications I’ve written and worked for. So everything about my resume screams BLACK LADY even if my parents tried to turn me into some racial Terminator, stealthy moving about society, showing up at job interviews all “SURPRISE BLAKC GIRL!”

You can name me Danielle, but you can still see I’m black.

And I can straighten my hair for the job interview so I can seem more “approachable” or whatever straight hair is supposed to mean, but you can still see I’m black.

And I can speak the King’s English, dress posh and throw my college degree and upper middle class background around and … that’s nice and all, but you can still see I’m black.

Assimilation is the greatest and most important waste of time any black person will ever engage in. Because it essentially means spending your life anticipating someone else’s prejudices, then trying to modify your behavior to prove you’re a special, different, extraordinary Negro, not to be confused with Lil Wayne or the guy on the evening news who rammed a car in to a hair weave store and ran off with $10,000 worth of Indian Remy.

But what good does it really do? A random black woman you do not know “gets loud” in line at the store and the store is full of white folks and you. And some of those white folks, they look at you like you know some special Negro Whisperer magic that can make this woman stop acting a fool. And you’re like, what? You don’t know that woman. What are you supposed to do? Avoid eye contact with everyone and experience secondary embarrassment and wonder why on Earth do you have to feel responsible for the strange loud black woman you don’t even know? What does she have to do with you? Maybe they messed up her order? Maybe she has every right to be mad? But you want her to shut up, if only because someone keeps looking at you and you are not the Negro Whisperer.

Assimilation is sort of this way to say, “No wait, but I’m cool” to white people who may or may not be prejudiced against black people. But it almost never works the way it should. It never goes “Oh, Danielle is nice. I bet most black people are just regular human beings and stuff.” It always goes, “Danielle is nice. She must be magic and special unlike the rest of those crazy black people who frighten me.” But I am not magic, nor am I special. I am just wearing some straight hair, King’s English camouflage. If you turn on the song “Poison” by Bell Biv DeVoe I’m just as likely to shout, “OH SNAP, THAT’S MY JAM” and start dancing like any other person who has an affinity for such music.

I’m still black.

Racism has played some pretty horrible tricks on black people but the worst is the one that teaches you that if you just modify your behavior, if you just dress, talk, walk, act differently, the doors will open and the prejudices will melt away, but that’s a lie. The prejudices stay the same, but your individual treatment might slightly improve. For example, the President of the United States can’t say bluntly anything about race and he has the nuclear launch codes. Somehow, for certain white folks, the potential of blowing up another country is less controversial than admitting racism still exists in America. Why? Because President Obama has to assimilate. Yet, for what? All you ever hear from racists are fried chicken and watermelon jokes and how he’s such an “urban” president and how his obviously not overweight wife is “fat.” For all the good assimilation has done to get him where he’s gotten in life (it got him all the way to the White House!), at the end of the day he still might as well wear a doo-rag and smoke a Newport on the South lawn because he’s not fooling anyone.

They can still see you’re black. They can still see we’re all black. And yet we try and try and try.

Nice work, racism.

  • dashawnlaquitashaqarn

    PHELPS: Who cares so black people wont do fine without them in the conversation either? This person claims job discrimination is nto a racial thing. Are you kidding me? Look at the statistics and look at the hiring practices of your white friends etc and tell me it is not. Phelps whether you agree with me or not, history, statistics and current research overwhelmingly supports the fact that white men (not white women) white men get benefits in hiring ALL the time.

  • labudich

    Yes, speech is, in a way, like clothing, and one changes it according to where she is, according to whom she is addressing. But what is at stake here is a power dynamic, where some kinds of speech and some cultural identities are clearly seen as inferior to others, not merely different. I am white. But I can speak of this from the perspective of a white migrant, and the experience of immigration makes it somewhat easy to understand what the author of this article is referring to and to fully sympathise with her. Immigrants come to the US and are offered “opportunities” that they have to be grateful for in the eyes of their hosts. But the price of these opportunities is the erasure of their culture and identity. And immigrants agree to this, more so if they plan to, like the author of this article, get a good college education, get a good job, to live a middle class life. Assimilating, melting into the “melting pot,” normally, does not mean, for example, adopting black culture, which is also American, and at that has an amazing tradition, or hispanic culture, but the culture of the white establishment, which stands for “American values” that American exceptionalism glorifies and celebrates. When I came to America, my hosts first pointed out that my, pretty clumsy, English better than that of half the country, meaning the blacks. At the time I was happy about that, without questioning the weird notion, and happy to integrate into white middle-class culture, eager to “make it” in life. But, like the author, I was never really accepted and considered exotic, at best, because of my name and my accent. So it was about my own social-climbing effort to leave my culture behind, to erase any memory of my cultural belonging, and the awareness of total futility of that effort. I am white, and my kids, unlike blacks have the opportunity to become “normal” whites, especially if they change or simplify their names. I am white, so I do not bear the burden of centuries of harassment. But I also see that we are having cultural homogenisation where everybody, in the end, mimics the white upper class, or do we want a multicultural America, which would be culturally rich and in which all kinds of “speech” are equal, and one does not have to be ashamed of their culture. This would mean, for example, bilingual education. A respect for “other” cultures, where one does not need to be ashamed of her origins. Curiosity for cultural difference, rather than dismissal. And, in recognition of blacks and their contribution to American culture, a situation in which so-called “ebonics” are recognised as one of the legitimate variants of the English language and taught in school as such. Go Danielle!

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