The Miseducation of CHATTYAFRO
I’ve always had a lot to say. My elementary school teachers at parent-teacher conferences would comment, “Jocelyn is bright. She’s a natural leader, but we’ve got to work on that chattiness.” I was regularly disciplined for my smart mouth, and my loved ones have tons of stories that highlight the funny things I used to say as a kid. My mom recently shared a particularly telling one.
Flashback to a crowded Walmart checkout line circa 2003. Two women--loud in dress and volume--argued back and forth for what seemed like forever. Apparently, they were cursing each other out and making a scene. Like most precocious toddlers, I was good at parroting the sayings and mannerisms of my loved ones. My grandmother had a habit of calling people, things, and ideas ugly, but she never meant physically ugly. For example, my grandma would call someone’s attitude or our current president’s perpetual lying “ugly.” Well, five-year-old Jocelyn thought it was a great idea to pay homage to Grandma that day in Walmart. I turned to my mom and said, “Mommy, that’s ugly! They’re being really ugly!” Suddenly, the argument stopped. The steady beeps of the cashier just trying to mind his business and do his job heightened the silence. Everyone in the checkout line waited to see how the two women would respond to the five-year-old who just called them ugly. My mom quickly apologized. Apparently, they just looked really embarrassed and stayed quiet for the rest of the time. Mission accomplished? I accidentally silenced two black women. (yikes). I got in trouble as a kid because I didn’t know how to keep my mouth shut. Yet as I transition into womanhood, I’m realizing that I deal with the same trouble when I don’t open my mouth in truth. And this trend of inadvertently silencing other black women in attempt to assert my own voice didn't stop in childhood.
When I first applied to college three years ago, I wrote my CommonApp essay on the loud black woman stereotype and how I wanted to reimagine and reclaim it through my art, career, and overall life. While I don’t have access to this essay anymore, I vaguely remember arguing that the loud black woman stereotype was a tool of white supremacist patriarchy to keep black girls silent. I also commented on my privilege as a black girl who has been told she “talks white” and how I felt compelled to use whatever platform I’m given to amplify the voices of the black girls our society ignores. Looking back, it troubles me how easily I fell into tokenism. I’m disappointed in the subconscious pride I had in being a black voice white people didn’t mind listening to. Why did I feel like I was qualified to be the voice of all black women and capitalize on narratives that weren’t mine?
While I refuse to condemn eighteen-year-old me for sharing what I felt in the best way I knew how; I now hold different views. Over the past few years, I’ve had quite a few experiences that have forced me to process things differently. I can’t put my finger on the exact moment the switch happened. Perhaps it was when I realized how uncomfortable I felt being the only black girl in most of my classes at NYU. It was really weird when some of my non-black classmates would call me a “queen” and (in my opinion) force themselves to hype me up non-stop. It was also weird when I was virtually invisible to the rest of my non-black peers until it was time to talk about race in lectures. I didn’t know how to feel about my professor who always called me “honey-child” and “girlfriend” even though she didn’t talk to anyone else that way. And I honestly just have to laugh when I think of my other professor who quoted Nina Simone and Michelle Obama every time I visited his office hours. A lot of these micro-aggressions just come with the territory of being “other” in a space like higher academia. In the words of Nina Simone, “It beez that way.” (Side note: My professor said that to me verbatim one day). Regardless, I quickly realized I didn't like the responsibility of being the only black voice. I wasn't equipped to speak for the all the black people my peers and professors wanted me to.
I was keenly aware of my super minority status at NYU. Yet, I was also aware of the fact that NYU is located in one of the top ten most expensive zip codes in the country, and as a result, I lived there too. I had access to resources, opportunities, people, and spaces that most people regardless of race could only dream of.
With that in mind, the way many of my black peers and me talked about our blackness at NYU rubbed me the wrong way. We’d sit in dorms, classrooms, and dining halls ranting about the all racist/sexist/classist/xenophobic chaos we seemed to always be experiencing.
“Tisch is so anti-black.”
“This curriculum is so violent.”
“My roommate never takes out the trash. I ain’t her slave.”
“This guy in my Econ class is such a colonizer.”
Sometimes these things were said in jest, but most of the time… not so much. Now, don’t get me wrong. Despite plastering their successful black alumni’s faces everywhere, NYU Tisch is pretty anti-black. And maybe just maybe Conor from Boston in Economics 101 gives off colonizer vibes. But it got really old hearing my extremely intelligent, ambitious, hard-working, and accomplished black peers embrace the victim position constantly. I’m not saying that black people haven’t had to struggle against injustice on micro and macro levels for generations. If anyone has been victimized by the evils of recent history, it’s definitely us. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what other black people would think if they heard our rant sessions. How would black people who are directly affected by gun violence react to us calling our tone-deaf teachers “violent?” How would an actual enslaved black person react to us hinting at our white roommates being our enslavers? How would the native black New Yorkers we were displacing simply by attending NYU and contributing to the gentrification of Lower Manhattan react to us calling our classmate a “colonizer?” Were we not technically colonizers too? The most ironic thing about all of this is that the black people saying these things were usually more than well-off. Most of us came from private, selective high schools. We had high paying and/or very sought after jobs and internships. We were attending one of the world’s elite “dream schools.” Despite all of our grievances, we had pretty bright futures ahead of us.
We were being groomed by our professors, employers, and peers to become the people that would speak on behalf of all black people. We were gearing up to speak on the traumas and experiences of people that weren’t even a part of our world. We were preparing to defend neighborhoods we didn’t live in. We were introduced to certain realities of our oppression through textbooks and Black Twitter just like the white students we rolled our eyes at. We reduced black people, black minds, and black souls to “black bodies” in academic discussions just like our white professors did. We pimped out our personal experiences of racism and erasure for our social media accounts, artwork, and college essays.
I eventually snapped out of it. I didn’t feel right walking past the many homeless black people in NYC every day on my way to a cushy dorm on the Lower East Side while simultaneously believing I was so oppressed as the only black girl in my class. Am I going to tap dance and kiss the president of NYU’s feet for letting me "lil ol black me" in? Never. But I’m not going to forget the thousands of people who would trade lives with me any day.
We have to be critical of why certain black people--the black people who talk and tweet white enough for the world to listen--are able to capitalize on these co-opted narratives and speak over those they claim to speak on behalf of.
I guess that’s why I cringe at the fact that I thought I was qualified to reclaim the loud black girl stereotype. It was never mine to claim. Yes, I’m black. Yes, I can be loud. But my story is just my story--not all black women’s. My voice is just my voice--not all black women’s. My perspective is just my perspective--not all black women’s. We live in a society that likes to lump everything black together, and historically, privileged populations of black people have benefitted from this the most. I’m very excited for the day black people like myself don’t feel the need to assume the responsibility of speaking on behalf of every black person and co-opting experiences that aren’t personally ours. We may feel like we have the words, degrees, and range to speak to the issues of all black people effectively. But we have to humbly realize that may not be so. We have to be brave enough to speak truth and be ourselves without packaging it in the way we know the world expects from us and would reward us for.
I will always support stand by other black female voices, but I no longer want to be "the loud black girl spokesperson." I just want to use my voice for good and listen to others do the same. Every impactful voice needs strong listening skills.
I suppose the next thing I need to process is how I can speak the truth in humility yet still speak the truth. I mean, who am I to critique the brilliant black activists, artists, authors, and anthropologists who’ve blazed trails while telling stories that weren’t 100% theirs? Who am I to admonish the next generation of black world changers? I guess that five-year-old unashamedly saying “That’s ugly!” to people who never asked for her opinion still has a lot to say.
all thoughts by CHATTYAFRO