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There are a million and one ways to be Black, or so I’ve heard. It’s too bad it doesn’t feel like it. Between the unofficial, unspoken cookout rules (invite only), the required affliction for fried chicken and the obligatory two-step to Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It,” no matter how many times it’s played, it’s no wonder being Black doesn’t come with a beginners manual.
I came across a lengthy thread in a Black travel group started by a poster who was sick and tired of other Black travelers violating one crucial negro ordinance, the one that requires us to nod in open acknowledgment whenever passing one another in public. The comment section was full of people proclaiming that the head nod simply wasn’t optional, arguing its’ significance was cultural, not just courtesy. I thought to myself, don’t Black people have the right to exist in public and private spaces without performing their blackness for anyone, including each other? Perhaps there are too many rules to being Black, and if that is in fact the case, then it’s no surprise that Black people continue to find new ways to express their blackness. Aren’t rules meant to be broken?
Research says it’s more important to think we have a lot in common with someone than it is to actually have a lot in common with them. Why? Because of a little something called perceived similarity. And what is “perceived” similarity? Well, it’s the belief or perception that we have things in common, which differs from actual similarity or the actual state of sharing commonality with a person. Studies say we place emphasis on our similarities, both perceived and definite, with people for several reasons, the first of them being Consensual Validation. Fan conventions are one of the most obvious examples of consensual validation we have today. Hundreds of thousands of people travel from all points on the globe at least once a year to events like San Diego Comic-Con International, where complete strangers with striking similarities and shared interests in pop-culture come together to feel, well, together. Consensual validation is what happens when our attitudes about the world are validated by someone else’s. It is the desire to experience validation of our reality. Could you imagine being the only person convinced that police brutality was an issue? It’s simply implausible, not just because of our individual experiences as Black people in America, but more so because our experiences have been validated time and time again, consensually validated, if you will, giving us a unified feeling as it pertains to the experience itself. And in a society where we often experience being ostracized by the dominant culture for those experiences, a unified feeling is of utmost importance.
While our intentions are good, our methods aren’t foolproof. That brings us to the second reason we seek similarities in one another: to surround ourselves with people we think will like us — seriously. Upon meeting new people, we complete a series of mental assessments, from a safe distance of course, in an attempt to form impressions that we can then use to generalize from. These impressions, whether accurate or inaccurate, help us identify people with whom we have commonality, and more often than not, we associate commonality with character. Let’s say the biggest Dallas Cowboys fan in the bar, we’ll call him Guy 1, spots a stranger, Guy 2, also in a Dallas Cowboys jersey amongst a sea of Steelers fans. Almost immediately, he will find favor in the fella, having nothing more than that piece of information to go off of. Guy 1 might even go out of his way strike up a conversation with Guy 2, and the two could ultimately have very few actual similarities between them, but based solely on their perceived similarities, Guy 1 is more likely to give the whole thing a shot. Not just because of what he assumes about Guy 2, but because of what he feels about himself. “I’m a good guy who loves the Cowboys,” Guy 1 rationalizes, “so this guy probably is too.” The facts about the other guy are fleeting, but who needs those with such striking similarities in plain site? Secretly, we all operate with the underlying belief that people who are like us will probably like us. Essentially, in our attempts to find like people, we are just looking to be liked.
Another huge component of human interaction is seeking enjoyable engagement. We’re not swag surfing every chance we get because we really just enjoy that song, no, that’s too easy. There is a tangible sense of community present within those interactions that cannot be ignored. We want to be in community with one another, we just don’t always go about it the healthiest, most productive way. And while that is certainly not our doing, it is our undoing, if you catch my drift. A huge motivator in gravitating towards people that we feel we have similarities with is that we anticipate our interactions with them will be fun and enjoyable. That matters, especially when history demonstrates that such a simple goal is harder to achieve for us than for others. We think that by demanding performative unity, we guarantee our safety among one another. A head nod isn’t just a head nod anymore, it’s a signal of sameness, a fictional white flag. We are a wounded people seeking safe spaces among familiar faces, gauging the temperature with the tip of a toe as to not get burned. but everyone’s orientation into blackness is different, and at some point, we have to separate our desire for cultural connectedness from our propensity to deny one another’s autonomy.
Demanding performative blackness is about gauging one another from a distance, attempting to go about regular human interaction in a guarded, calculated, distrusting way. But I’d be lying if I said our culture wasn’t already one of distrust and dysfunction. While other cultures have the ability to unify around things like language, nationality, and customs, we only have what pieces of culture we’ve been left, and outside of our complexions, that hasn’t left us with much. So it makes sense that we would require more from one another to perceive connectedness, even scrutinizing interactions much harder, the problem is that we have much less to work with. I don’t need another Black woman to wear her hair like mine, dress like me, speak like me, or think the way that I think in order to find common ground with her, not to mention her value is not in her ability to mirror mine. We know better than any other people what it’s like to be forced to exist within the confines of someone else’s parameters for your existence. And if we permitted one another to exist in whatever form life would have us take, we’d probably find our interactions to be far more authentic, alleviating us of the anxiety that drives us to be less than our authentic selves. Our Blackness is no more a costume than it is a curriculum, we shouldn’t be asked to tone down our Blackness and we certainly shouldn’t be asked to put on, not even for each other.