The first time I went to a school that was majority white it was a culture shock.
While I’d hardly been the most popular kid at my old elementary and middle school, I wasn’t disliked either. I was “Danielle Belton,” the smart kid, the teacher’s pet, the artist, the writer, the weirdo, the goody-goody, and most importantly – the individual.
But at my new school I was something else – the black kid.
And I can’t say I enjoyed that so much the first time around, simply being “The Black Kid.” Suddenly all those labels – both good and bad – I was awarded at my majority black school were now all affixed with a “new” quantifier for context.
I was the “smart” black girl.
I was that “one black girl who can draw.”
I was that “boring goody, goody black girl who wasn’t a real black girl.” After all, I was still holding hard to my individuality. Everyone left me along once they found I was unwilling to indulge in “hood” stories of drug deals and drive-bys – somehow the all-black burb I grew up in St. Louis was devoid of those due to the high number of teacher/preacher, working-class-to-upper-middle-
Other than a gaggle of mannish boys living next door (which I’m partially convinced was the REAL reason why my father wanted to move his three preteen daughters away), it was a pretty nice place to live.
I wasn’t going to play “Ghetto Blackface” for the amusement of the young and racially bored in Florissant, Mo.
So I went from “that black girl” to that “nobody.”
Needless to say, it was pretty soul crushing. Before 2001, my eighth grade year after I started at the mostly white school was the worst year of my life, mostly because I ate lunch alone, had few friends and dealt with some passive-aggressive racism from instructors and students alike.
But I can’t say I’d take back this experience at the end of the day, because it did teach me a valuable lesson – I could be who I am anywhere, with anyone and still make friends. Eventually.
I thought about this as I read a recent New York Times article about the lack of diversity in New York’s Upper East Side where passive-aggressive co-op housing boards, wealth disparities and – that simple apprehension about being the ONLY black person wherever you go, had kept diversity low.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of black New Yorkers who can afford to live in whichever part of the city they please, including the brownstone streets of Brooklyn Heights and sparkling Fifth Avenue penthouses. And many of them do decide to live on the Upper East Side, where they stay happily put for decades.
That choice, however, does not appear to be the default. According to recent census data, there were about 450 black households on the Upper East Side with an income of $100,000 or more, and more than 4,600 in Harlem.
Academics say that there can be pressure on well-to-do African-Americans to live in historically black neighborhoods, to “lift as we climb,” as the mantra goes. For others, the decision hinges more on a reluctance to live where they are such an extreme minority.
“You can have a co-op on Park Avenue and 88th Street, but everywhere you go people are going to look at you like, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” said Mark Naison, a professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University. “That’s part of being a pioneer. I’m not saying people can’t deal with it, or even laugh at it, but it wears on you.”
Carla Shedd, an assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia University, agreed that some black people were wary of living with that day-to-day experience. “If I can really exercise a choice,” Dr. Shedd said, “maybe I want to live in Harlem rather than, perhaps, people thinking I’m a domestic worker when I live in the building.”
I can really empathize with this, as there was a time I was a lot more conscious of “standing out,” and didn’t like it. It was awkward and uncomfortable. But a strange thing happened on my way to now.
One day, it just stopped mattering to me anymore.
Once the goofiness of youth was long gone and my skills started to possess more weight than the superficial things of your teen years, I found less and less that I felt like “the black girl,” even when people still insisted on defining me as such. Who cared? I was me. If you didn’t like me? Your loss. But I wasn’t going to censor or alter one bit about me if it was about my core personality and beliefs. If I was wrong, I was wrong and willing to correct that, but the way I talk, walk, dress, look, act, and what I believe? No. Not for anyway no matter their gender or race. And, in the end, that worked for me.
For the longest time, every place I worked post-college I was the only black person working there. I was the only black person at my first internship, the only black person at my first job in advertising, the only black reporter at the Midland Reporter-Telegram in Texas and the only black reporter at The Bakersfield Californian. But I didn’t “feel” like I was alone. Even though, at times, a few people refused to see me as a person, I never stopped judging others on their individual actions and merits – not the “sins of the whole.” Some black people were good and some were bad. It was the same for every group of people. So while being in mostly white or Latino enclaves like Midland and Bakersfield should have been isolating, they weren’t. I went about making friends the same way I did in my mostly black world in St. Louis. I sought people who shared my values and interests. I also sought people ENTIRELY different from me. (Lemme tell you about my Bakersfield punk rock experience sometime.) I learned the world is bigger than just North St. Louis County and black and white and came to appreciate both the world at large and my own culture MORE for it. Learning to love one didn’t diminish the other. It only seemed to better clarify it an enhance it.
Therefore I continue to go out there and talk to people and since my early 20s, have never once doubted that I wasn’t supposed to be somewhere (or feel like I had to be someplace else) simply because of my race. If someone looked at me like I wasn’t supposed to be there I laughed it off because – obviously – this person was confused, mistaken. I’m supposed to be here. I’m bright. I’m talented. I’m charming. I can afford it. I’ve earned it. I want to experience it.
If you don’t like it, that sounds like a personal problem.
There’s no place that isn’t the right place for me.