We all have our own unique identities, shaped by our individual experiences. But what happens when our social identities become politicized? When the way we dress, speak, and behave is no longer just a personal expression of who we are, but a political statement? This is the reality for black people in America. There is no one right way to be black, but there are definitely wrong ways. And often, the line between right and wrong is blurry. In this article we'll explore some of the different aspects of black identity in America and how they've been traditionally policed.
How We Speak
The way we speak is often one of the first things that other people judge us on. For black people in America, there is a long history of being judged and discriminated against based on the way we speak. Black English, or Ebonics, has been traditionally ridiculed as incorrect or uneducated. Even today, many people make assumptions about intelligence or abilities based on the way a person speaks. Standard English has always been seen as the preferred way to communicate, while Black English is seen as inferior.
This creates a problem for black people who want to succeed in settings where Standard English is the norm. We're forced to choose between speaking in a way that feels natural and authentic to us, or speaking in a way that will help us be viewed as competent and qualified. Neither choice is easy or without consequence.
How We Dress
The way we dress is another important part of our social identities. For black people, there is a long history of being policed for the way we dress. In the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves were required to wear clothing that was both distinctive and uncomfortable so that they could be easily identified as property.
After emancipation, many states passed laws called "Black Codes" which restricted the type of clothing that black people could wear in public. These laws were designed to humiliate and control black people, and they were enforced through things like public beatings or Sharia-style punishments like cutting off an offending article of clothing.
Today, while there are no laws dictating what black people can or can't wear, there are still strong societal norms around how we're expected to dress. In professional settings, for example, there is an unspoken rule that black people must dress "respectably" or "modestly" in order to be taken seriously.
But what does that even mean? It's different for everyone, and it's something that we all have to figure out for ourselves.
How We Behave
Finally, our behavior is also often policed by society at large. There are expectations around how we're supposed to act in different situations - how loud we should talk, how much eye contact we should make, whether or not we should smile - and these expectations vary depending on who we're interacting with.
There are also expectations around how we should behave within our own community. These can be positive or negative - for example, being told to "act like a lady" can be seen as a sign of respect, but it can also be seen as constricting and limiting. Again, there isn't one right way to behave - but there are definitely wrong ways. And oftentimes, the line between right and wrong is blurry.
So, there's no one way to be black - but there are definitely wrong ways. And sometimes those lines get a little blurry! We all have our own unique identities shaped by individual experiences; however when social identity becomes political--when the way we dress ourselves up in society isn't just an expression of who you are...but instead represents change for others around us- then it can become hard figuring out what exactly falls under "the right thing."
What are some wrong ways to be Black? Comment below!