Confessions of an outsider in elite black America


EXCERPT: My cousin swept onstage in a cloud of white, not so much walking as floating. [...] She looks like a dinner napkin. My inner critic snorted. I began a one-woman tirade, railing against and mocking the cotillion, its participants, and the “talented tenth” mentality it espoused. The swirling skirts, sweeping waltzes, and rhythmic stepping of one of black society’s oldest traditions had reduced me from a confident 30-year-old to a sniveling teenager in mere seconds. I was jealous of my cousin, a girl nearly half my age, because she had managed to infiltrate that elite echelon I had always seemed to orbit around yet would never truly be a part of. The feeling took me back to my teenage years, which I spent with my face pressed against the glass of elite black society.

[...] Growing up on welfare in a downward-trending neighborhood came with certain accompanying societal expectations. My mother shattered every single one. We were poor, but she never allowed it to define us. We didn’t use slang at home, but I did learn rudimentary French. ... Instead of watching television, we played Scrabble or chess. Instead of "Goodnight Moon", my bedtime stories were by Tolkien and Shakespeare. Learning was revered for its own sake. “Knowledge, what’s in your head, it’s the only thing you own,” my mother often said.

High test scores and a quirk of fate gained me a benefactress, a woman who personally provided me with a full-ride scholarship to one of the most prestigious private schools in the country: Hawken. I went from an elementary school with 800 students, 99 percent of them black, to a middle school with just over 200 students, 14 of which were black. I went from being the smartest kid in class to being academically adequate. I was far less worldly than any of my peers. To call it culture shock would be an understatement.

[...] there was a strong sense of solidarity among the handful of black and brown students. We all sat together on the back of the bus. [...] The son of a prominent family that ran a funeral home once created a rap that went like this [...] He knew nothing of the ghetto. ... I didn’t like how he used his zip code to lay claim to a lifestyle he knew nothing about, to glamorize a life I was desperate to escape, but I didn’t call him out on it. He knew more about “thug life” than any of the white boys on the bus with us, and black folks had to stick together, whether we liked it or not. There were simply too few of us for it to have been otherwise.

The unwritten rules of blackness that I’d learned in elementary school no longer applied in this environment, but there were new rules to learn, rules for exceptional black folks to help each other navigate a dangerous white world. Some of these rules were no-brainers, like never snitch on another black student, never make fun of another black student’s complexion or call them “ashy” in front of white people, whether you like them or not, always make room at your lunch table for another black student, and of course, if you are in a room full of white people and the N-word is used, you are morally obligated to fight.

[...] For the most part, the black elite I grew up rubbing elbows with were a lot like me. None of them were uber-rich in comparison to our white classmates. [...] My black peers, for the most part, lived middle-class lives. It wasn’t income that made them part of the black elite, but a generational pride and a sense of obligation that came along with being part of “the talented tenth.”

Coined in 1903 by black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, the talented tenth concept was the idea that 10 percent of African-Americans had the opportunity for upward mobility through higher education, and that this 10 percent were morally obligated to be the “rising tide” that lifted the black population out of their intended status as permanent second-class citizens. In other words, due to structural disadvantages in society, black people did not have the same access to opportunities as their white peers, so the few of us who did would have to take advantage of those opportunities and lift up the rest.

The common refrain “you’re not really black” was an insult at home, but at school it was a compliment, a way of saying I had learned the game and played it so well that white people no longer perceived my skin color as a handicap. I understood that my potential for success depended largely on my ability to navigate and thrive within a white, upper-class world. [...] The black students at my school all fed into the talented tenth narrative. When someone said we “didn’t act like other black folks,” instead of reminding them that blackness is not a monolith and that there is no set way to act black, we said “thank you.” We thought we were special, and therefore, deserving.

[...] But no matter what I did, I never had a shot at being accepted into elite black society. None of my classmates would come to my house, regardless of their race. Many black parents celebrated my accomplishments and were kind and generous to me, but they wouldn’t have approved of me dating their sons. I didn’t have the pedigree.

I was reminded of my inferior status every spring, when most of the black students and all of the black girls (but me) had cotillion rehearsal. [...] I did envy the debs in their beautiful white dresses and their escorts in tuxes with tails. Because my mother didn’t pledge the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority at a historically black college, I couldn’t leverage family friendships to build inroads with the black elite like my cousin had. [...] I pretended to hate cotillion. ... I was glad not to have to attend all those long, boring rehearsals...

Eighteen years later, I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself. [...] a golden ticket into predominantly white spaces, but my socioeconomic status ensured that it would never become a backstage pass. I could successfully infiltrate elite spaces, but I would never thrive in them. Eventually I dropped out of college.[...] I gave up a political career to start my own business making small-batch hair and skincare products. ... By October my company had failed spectacularly ... The only time I was truly happy was when I was writing ... What I had learned from my experience in elite society was that as a black woman I wasn’t free to take risks that might not pay off. But I decided to take the leap anyway. Becoming a writer has been an act of liberation because I am freeing myself to do what I love. I have chosen to live life on my own terms instead of by the unwritten rules society has designated for me. By abandoning my pointless quest to become an insider, I have become what I always wanted to be: myself. (MORE - details)

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