Secondhand Blackness. Like most phrases I’ve coined on this blog post, pure circumstance brings them about and this particular feeling prompted me to share a piece of my truth as a young, educated, Black woman.
To be clear, however, this is how I define it:
/sɛ́kəndhæ̀nd blǽknəs/ noun
Similar to secondhand embarrassment, it is the feeling one Black individual feels on account of and for another Black individual in a White space. Often a suspenseful experience.
That being said.. let’s get to it.
Armed with my notebook and pen, I was sitting at an Ivy League University’s student center with members of the law community discussing a recent Supreme Court decision. At this point, I had already spent three hours listening to how this new ruling would play out practically, as well as it’s effect on future litigation in other similar areas. Intrigued with all I’ve heard and learned, I perked up when a young and oh so eloquent Black attorney was being introduced to speak. After giving his succinct, well thought out spiel, I felt my heart do a little cartwheel. Like Issa Rae, I love seeing Black people win and being that he was one of six (including me) in the room, we needed to show out. When he finished, the announcer came back up and to my surprise, was introducing yet another Black man to speak. I had seen him seated in the audience but was unaware he was one of the panelists. As he walked to the podium, I felt my body begin to tense up. This young brother was wearing baggy dark wash jeans, a terribly ill-fitting metallic black and gold blazer (think Migos meets 2018 prom season), some navy blue/black faded tie-dye t-shirt and a matching metallic black and gold snapback. Granted, he had an insanely dope resume and his unique perspective provided input on the topic that furthered the conversation to discussing larger socio-economic effects of the ruling… AND yet I was still holding my breath the whole way through his presentation. I kept thinking to myself, “please don’t fuck up…they’ve already wrote you off…please don’t make us look bad…please sound smart…please just don’t fuck up”. My secondhand Blackness was on 10!!! So much so, I was barely listening to what he was actually saying.
I quickly realized that the fear I had for this Black man (who completely held his own) was a projection of my own fears about myself and my Blackness.
Law school has a way of tapping into your innermost self-doubt storages and setting a bomb off. So much so, that you battle the workload as much as you battle your own insecurities. For me, my self-doubt manifested itself into a newfound hyper-vigilance of how my Blackness was perceived in predominantly white spaces.
At one point during the first semester, I wanted to get braids. It would’ve been a huge relief not to deal with my hair for a few weeks and eliminate time spent in the morning, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was unnecessarily code-switching in an effort to assimilate to the white spaces I found myself in every day. I told myself I would never want something as trivial as my hairstyle (but important to some ignorant fuck in a position of power) to stand in the way of attaining my goals, so it wasn’t a big deal to sacrifice that. I told myself that my braids would bring attention, attention I didn’t want and questions I didn’t want to answer. I didn’t have the time or mental capacity to be patient with Becky when she asked me “Omg did it take like twelve hours?” or “Wow can I touch them?” I told myself I had to wait till I had my foot in the door before I could really be me… or so I told myself. Now I realize how dangerous this way of thinking is.
I had convinced myself that remaining enslaved and adhering to the perception of what the slave masters thought an “ideal ni**er” is, was worth sacrificing expression of my Blackness. This idea of remaining mentally enslaved that our dear troubled friend Kanye, poorly alluded too, is REAL. You don’t have to look too far or to Hollywood’s latest interracial couple to find Black people in the sunken place. It’s at the top of the corporate latter, its Justice Thomas in the Supreme Court, it’s in interviews happening all over this country. I play tug of war with Val the individual v. Val the Black woman on a daily basis and my consciousness of the latter overshadows the former significantly more than I’d like to admit. I battle not with who I want to be but who I can be in varying spaces. “Mixed company” as a friend of mine likes to call it, forces me to reassess how I sound, how I look, and what I am saying.
I cling to Black spaces to experience freedom. Whether that is in my relationship, friendships, or getting drunk at the nearest Black brunch, I crave Black people. I need to be surrounded by Black people.
I’ve come to realize that my brain; the same brain who mentally counts the Black people in a room every time I walk in somewhere, the same brain who notes that all the Black people in D.C. are actually Baltimore commuters taking my order at every restaurant and not at the law firm events I frequent, the same brain who told my body to tense up when seeing a young educated brother expressing himself through his wardrobe… is going to make me fucking lose myself in this assimilation mess.
More than anything, holding on to your sense of self is most important to becoming the best version of yourself.
If I keep giving up pieces of myself to make the White man more comfortable with my existence, what will I have left?
I need to de-slave my mind. I need to focus on reaching my goals so the next Black person can count one extra person in the room. And most importantly, I need to own my Blackness, and the find the confidence to do that every day and in every space. Representation is as much for us as it is for the next generation.