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I went to school in a historically racist, predominantly white school district for my entire K-12 education.
I've seen racism in many different shades, with many different faces.
But one that I think is the most harmful yet the most subtle is the "angry' black women stereotype.
The one that paints black women as loud, aggressive, confrontational, "ghetto", and unlovable. The one that says black women aren't beautiful or that we are undesirable. We are seen as scary, anti-submissive, and anti-feminine.
In middle school I had an identity crisis due to this. I believed that I wasn't "black enough" to fit in with the small group of black girls at my school that were acting as caricatures of the black women stereotype and yet "too black" to fit in with my white friends.
I tried very hard to fit in both circles; simultaneously.
I tried to be loud, relatable and ready to pick a fight at any moment to fit in with my black friends. I tried to be quiet, funny and calm minded to fit in with my white friends.
I was something I was not for my black friends. I was hiding who I really was for my white friends.
I had been so immersed in the subtle racist culture that I wasn't aware that black culture was broad and expansive and that being a black women wasn't a "one size fits all" experience.
I didn't know that I could be gentle and sensitive and also stand up for myself in the face of disrespect. I didn't know that I could enjoy R&B and white boy bands. I thought I had to choose.
I didn't know that my blackness wasn't a check list of requirements that I had to meet. That it didn't matter what I wore or how many black movies I had seen.
I didn't know that being a black women was all that I needed to be "black enough."
And yet, even though I left pretending to be the black women stereotype back in my middle school days, I still find that I'm still perceived that way even by people that know me well.
Even though in most social situations I tend to be quiet and reserved that some how ends up with me being labeled as attitude-filled and "unapproachable."
If I stick up for myself even a little bit, then I'm "aggressive" and "scary."
Any emotion expressed on my face other than a wide smile makes me look "angry" and "unapproachable."
I'm black, and while that speaks for a big part of who I am, it shouldn't get to speak for me. No one should have their minds made up about me before I even open my mouth.
Because the truth is, I am a terribly complex human being and while my blackness makes up apart of my complexity, there are so many parts of me that my race has nothing to do with.
I really wish that I could tell my younger self that I can be black and still be fully myself and that no one has the right to make me choose between the two.
So if you're a young black women still trying to figure out your own complexities, I encourage you to be 100 percent yourself, whatever that looks like for you. Don't settle for squeezing in to the "one size fits all" version of the black experience. Where your own experience, it's much more comfortable.
And if you're not, I encourage you to see all the black women you are graced to have in your life as human before you see them as a stereotype. We're not all the same and yet we're all alike.
And that's the beauty of black women.