For the Days I Don’t Feel Black Enough

TRIGGER WARNING: Bullying and language

Enough

“Oh my gosh, Osheta!  I’m so glad I ran in to you.  This is so God!” exclaimed my friend.  With an infectious passion for the oppressed that I’ve grown to love,  she told me about a seven-year-old black girl in Tulsa who was expelled from school for having dreadlocks.  “That’s…horrible!  Don’t you think?” she asked. I nodded not quite sure why it’s ‘SO GOD’ she ran into me and how I, a black woman who regularly relaxes her hair can help but…like a good progressive, social justice Christian, I nodded and echoed her horror.  “Today in class,” she continued, “I had this idea to encourage her with pictures and messages from professional, African-American women wearing dreads and I need your help because obviously…. I can only do so much ” she pointed to her fine, chestnut hair. Then the other shoe dropped—she expected me to help because I am a black woman.   Stunned, at the reminder that yes, I am a black woman and yes, I should care about these things,  I ramped up my nodding and even laughed at her little joke. We tossed around some ideas and I told her to FB message me the news story—I’ll see what I could do.  We hugged,  gave each other knowing smiles, smiles that said, ‘you go, Social Justice Girl, let’s take down the man” and I rushed away feeling like a fraud.

That night as we brainstormed about this idea online I suggested my husband, who is a marketing genius, could help us with getting this campaign off the ground. But as I approached him, simultaneously angry about the ignorance that perpetuates anything Afro-centric to be “unprofessional” or “faddish” and hell-bent to restore a girl’s self-esteem,  an insecurity I’m well acquainted with nestled up to me, pulled back my coarse black hair and hissed into my brown ear, “You’re not black enough to make a difference for this girl…as a matter of fact, who do you think you are calling dreadlocks beautiful?  Did you forget you relax your hair every six weeks?  What right have you to champion this girl who at seven is prouder of her African-American heritage than you… a thirty-two year old Oreo married to a white man.  You must have forgotten you are Osheta White-ney”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When I was eleven and brought home an  “F”  on my progress report, my father sat me down and explained the ugly reality of being black in America. “You are a black girl, studying in a predominately white school. Everyone expects you to fail.  Everyone. Even the teachers that are nice to you— if they’re white, they expect you to fail. You shouldn’t expect them to help you succeed. Because of the color of your skin, they see a lost cause.”  He went on to paint terrifying pictures of unwed and pregnant, strung out and desperate, ashy and angry black women.

Way before the Hunger Games, my father explained to me how the odds are never in my favor.  Like Katniss and her angry, determined arrow, I had to get their attention. Black women fade into the background, so I needed to stand out!  Play their game better!  And he should know.  My black father, has two Master’s degrees, a successful military career, and possesses a command of the English language that thrills me everytime we speak.  That afternoon, holding my sub-par progress report, he gave me the secret of his success:  A black woman in America has to become better at being white than most white women. “You’ve got to be extraordinary, Osheta.” he concluded, ” No more F’s, no more playing around, and no more Zina.”

Zina was a black girl in our neighborhood.  I don’t remember how we met but the summer before my fifth grade year we were inseparable.  When we swam at the city pool, we’d let our hair get wet because my momma would  fashion cute little puffs atop our heads. We both started filling out with the soft curves for which most black women are adored.  Our skin darkened in harmony that summer; we’d hold up our arms and giggle at the sameness. We were becoming Nubian princesses.

I never felt more beautiful or known or normal than that Summer of Zina.

Zina was beautiful, yes, but she had parts of her that didn’t quite fit in my father’s expectation of a well-bred, young lady.  She had horrible diction that grated his polished speech,  an edgy nature about her that gave away her free ranged upbringing and she said, “yeah” instead of “yes”.   Soon, my yeses slopped into yeahs. My docile nature formed an edge. Then Zina asked outright, “why do y’all say ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’ like you white?” and my Marine trained father nearly had a conniption fit.

I knew Summer of Zina was coming to an end.

When I brought home that “F” and stopped sitting with Zina and her new group of friends at lunch—she knew our summer had come to an end too.   On a field trip to the science museum, that Nubian princess become a warrior the likes I’ve never seen or battled since.

Yo, white girl!”

“You think you’re better than us because you got a daddy at home, right?”

“Bitch, don’t ignore us with that book…oh you’re so smart because you read all the time”

“You nothing but an Oreo—black on the outside but white on the inside”

“Your name ain’t Whitney…. Whitney Houston is a real black woman…you’re Osheta White-ney….No!  She’s O-shitty White-ney…”

White-ney….White-ney…White-ney….

Zina and her tribe of warriors taunted me the whole forty five minutes to the museum. I tried to lose myself in R.L. Stien’s pseudo-horror story — but I couldn’t. They were so loud, so insistent, so sure about my identity.

I understood why white people feared us, because I was terrified of these brazen, loud, angry, black warrior princesses.

When we finally got to the museum, I tore up the aisle, out of the bus and into the cathedral of intelligence and wonder.  Hoping to drown the previous hour’s ignorance with the brilliance of the past, I wandered the halls.  I only made things worse though, because now I was a snob.

Then my own hair betrayed me, telling me, ‘you’re not even black enough to take better care of me’.

I have this nervous habit.  I hate it.  It’s worse than fidgeting and “ummm-ing” all the time. I take down and put up my pony-tails incessantly.  If I’m uncomfortable, I’m always messing in my hair.  I know Ebony magazine suggests not over manipulating our fragile hair, but I can’t help it. It’s comforting and keeps my anxious fingers busy.

But this habit has a cost.  I break hair ties all the time.  The constant tug, pull, wrap, twist, up, and down, of doing and re-doing my ponytails is just too much…and they snap. This is what happened as I walked the halls of dinosaur bones, thinking it must have been much easier to identify your enemy by his blood-stained teeth and jagged claws—your enemy shouldn’t look like you, with matching mocha skin you marveled at just weeks before.

As I thought and prayed to God what to do, I played with my pony-tail.  Tug, pull, wrap, twist, up, down…tug, pull, wrap, twist, up, down…and on and on as I walked the halls with my class.  Until finally…snap!  In that moment, more than my hair elastic broke because Zina and her friends were not too far away. When they realized my hair was a hot mess and I didn’t have a back up hair tie…they pounced.

“Wish you had white girl’s hair now don’t you?  At least your outside would match your inside, Oreo!”

My teacher, my poor Southern, white, well-meaning but out-of-touch teacher muttered something about being kind and suggested I use a pencil to twist my hair into a bun.

A bun that kept falling all day long. To which Zina and her friends responded by surrounding me at the back of the bus and in concert  sneezed on me, showering me with a slimy, chemical smelling substance I later learned was hair gel.

And that afternoon I thought they were going to kill me. 

They chased me down on my walk home from school, yelling “White-ney, White-ney, O-shitty White-ney” while Zina, their general stood back and watched.  Knees skinned, eyes squinting at my Sister assailants, hands burning from the hot concrete and sweat running down my new polo top, I screamed at Zina, “I thought you were my friend!”

Stepping into the circle,  she crouched down and coldly replied, “I ‘aint friends with no white girl.” she then turned around said something about getting out of there and they all sauntered away, sure and confident in their blackness.  Those Nubian princesses left one of their own crumpled on the sidewalk. It would be ten years before I would think of myself as a black girl. As one of them.  As beautiful in this brown skin.

When I was sure they were gone, I ran away.  I ran home and sat on my porch and waited for my dad to pull up from work.  I was going  to tell him he was right.  Black is bad and I needed to be whiter than the whitest girl I knew.  I needed to get the hell away from Texas City with their bigoted whites and uncouth blacks.  I needed the power of a degree, silky fine hair, and a well-spoken manner.  I was going to become Osheta Whitney, Attorney at Law, and then come back to rub my success in their unwed, pregnant, strung-out, desperate, ashy, and angry black faces.

***************************

God got a hold of me years later through a white man who loves black people. He explained the wisdom in Lauyrn Hill’s lyrics and called me beautiful when I wrapped my hair in a scarf.  He fused SAT vocabulary and street slang seamlessly.  He gave me compassion for those “uncouth blacks” because desperate people do desperate things when they want to be loved. He showed me my black is beautiful.  This short, Irish-Jewish man understood the black experience and he passed his knowledge onto me.

So most days, I’m ok with being my particular shade of gray.  I’m not Osheta White-ney, but I’m not brave enough to wear dreadlocks or read an Alice Walker novel.  I’m a black woman in the process of figuring out how to love my heritage when I’ve been so hurt by my Sisters and I think there’s grace for that.

I have my days though, like the night I went to approach my husband to help with the dreadlocks campaign. Those days, I’m reminded of that girl curled up on the side walk, skin sticky from sweat and dried hair gel.  I’m reminded of that year and how being a black woman in a white world, yet rejected by your black community was the worst form of isolation.  Worse than solitary confinement, because life and connection and love sings around you, yet your ears cannot comprehend their melody.

On the days I don’t feel black enough, when that slippery accuser comes to remind me that I’ve forgotten I’m Osheta White-ney I stop and I think of Jesus.  A man who was not what anyone expected. To the Jews, his own people,  he wasn’t Jewish enough because he rejected the law for love.  And I wonder when he watched Zina reject me as her own, did he remember the cross and how he was rejected by his very own people. And I wonder….did he cry for me?  I think he did. The Lord is gracious and compassionate.

On the days I don’t feel black enough, I remember a song we used to sing in church that Jesus is more than enough.  That his love satisfies the feeble places in my heart that lack confidence in my racial identity.  That I’m a Kingdom Woman and that trumps American, white, or even black.

On those days I don’t feel black enough, I remember my King gets it!  He gets rejection, confusion, identifying with the Jew and Gentile, loving aspects of it all and wanting to bring peace to both sides. He gets reconciliation and his confidence as the Beloved Son satisfied his need in the obscurity of identity.

On the days I don’t feel black enough I stop and buy Oreos.  I remember every hateful word spoken because I love both Lady Antebellum and Lauryn Hill.  I remember the skinned knees and broken heart of a girl who lost her brown skinned buddy.  I remember the stand-offish black hair dressers when they realize I’m incapable of mimicking their street-wise mannerisms.  I remember Osheta White-ney, the Oreo thrown onto the concrete, cracked and unwanted.

But instead of hating my past, I conquer it by taking and eating the symbol of my rejection.

And I gnash those offenses between my teeth.

And I savor the sweetness of the cookie remembering that God makes beautiful things out of dirt.

Then I swallow and take into myself the truth that we’re all tough exteriors hiding gooey vulnerabilities on the inside.

I take another and do it again.  And again.  And again.  With the same reverence as when I take the bread and drink the wine, I do this in the presence of my Jesus.

This becomes my Eucharist.  Jesus’  brokenness becoming my wholeness.

And finally…finally…. finally…. I am enough.

So if you’re like me—you feel stuck in between, not enough of this or that, and too much “other”—you’re not!  You’re not too much, not for a Jesus who was despised, rejected, familiar with pain, and misunderstood.

I know that now and I invite you to come share in my Eucharist. I’ll schooch over and make room for you on my blanket. I’ll listen to your story and then if you’ll pour the milk,  I’ll arrange the cookies.  Then we’ll decimate those lies by taking and eating and proclaiming one to another  “You are enough,  because he is enough”.

Thanks be to God.

52 thoughts on “For the Days I Don’t Feel Black Enough

  1. Thank you for sharing your heart here, O! Ugh. My heart hurts for you and all that you’ve experienced in this….and I know that confusion and hurt surrounding it. So wonderfully said here. keep pressing in….the journey -long and hard- is so worth it. xoxo

    • You’re right, this journey is long and hard, but I’m glad for you, Grace who has encouraged me through your journey to press in.

  2. That was a beautifully written and heartfelt article! Thank you very much for sharing these difficult experiences and the things you learned from them.

  3. What a well-written, heartfelt post. So sorry about the rejection of your past. The wounds of childhood certainly take time to heal, but thankfully we know the true Healer!

    • That means a lot, Stephanie! Thanks for listening to my story and encouraging me to trust in our true Healer. It’s true, he is our Healer and he is more than enough for us. Blessings!

  4. I am a very, very pale-skinned woman who is proud of her father. I joined the Hispanic National Bar Association. I sometimes get looks and derision from both sides, for “faking”. Any day you feel like you’re being forced to be a spokesperson when you’re not ready to do so, or when you’re feeling rejected by people who are supposed to be your community, squeeze a hand in each of yours. One is our Lord’s. The other is someone like us. Much love. (Friend of Jess Kelley’s)

    • Such wise words, Krista! Thank you! I’ll be praying for you, as you serve as a bridge between both sides. Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Blessings!

  5. I don’t even talk about race with people because it’s complex and most just don’t understand. So it’s refreshing to hear from someone who not only understands- like your husband, or some of my close friends- but has been there, between cultures, not fully of either. Thank you for writing this. In addition to Christian identity and professional success, however, I would encourage you to reach out to girls like Zina. You *are* black. And as long as people aren’t racist, they will accept you as black- I mean that you can and should embrace black culture, not just for yourself, but for the black community.

    • I will! Thank you for graciously reminding me of the importance and joys of staying connected to my black community. When my husband and I served at an inner city community center in New Orleans right after we got married, I had to push past the pain and discomfort of reaching out to girls who reminded me very much of Zina. It was an incredibly healing experience. It still takes a bit of bolstering and deep breathing to re-engage even now, but I know there’s unity and life there. Thank you for the reminder and many blessings to you!

  6. That was beautifully written, I love your honesty it takes the entire story to a higher level. So much more I could say…it was just excellent.

  7. Wow! This was just such a beautiful message that so many in our society need to read (even those claiming they are not racist at all). You have a lot of courage, and I am glad you have experienced the healing power of Jesus to help you overcome a hurtful situation of your youth that could have bred you to be a bitter person much like your friend, Zina. Instead, you a light showing Jesus’s love in a dark and hate filled world. Keep shining that light! (A friend also of Jess Kelley)

    • Oh, thank you Sherry! I’m so honored that my story encouraged you. I am prone to bitterness, especially when it comes to connecting with African-American women so you’re right I need the healing power of Jesus daily. Have a great weekend!

  8. Wow Osheta, I choked up. Wow. You ARE willing to be stretched, how inspiring. Our bi-racial adopted twins get the “how-come-you’re-black-and-where-are-your-real-parents” from white kids and I get the “how-dare-you-took-our-kids” from some members of the black community. Annoying. But nothing compared to what you have experienced. You go lady! Eli.

    • Eli, thank you for sharing your story and I’m praying for your twins. I’m praying for Jesus to wrap his arms around them and whisper their value apart from the color of their skin. I’m praying for a confidence to speak boldly and lovingly to those that question without tact. I’m praying for wisdom for you as you nurture them into becoming the beauties God made them to be. I’m praying for authentic, natural, meaningful ways to connect with both parts of their heritage to come. and I’m praying for safe, loving mentors of both races to be the faces of acceptance of community for your kids. Thank you for reading my story. Many, many blessings!

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  10. You know what is funny about this? I, being a white woman, had dreadlocks a few years ago after having my first son. Also I gave dreadlocks to my God-sister, who is also white and she’s had them now for 4 years! Go figure how dreadlocks even is considered to be specifically considered something that people of African descent do. People in India even have dreadlocks!

    I don’t know what else to say about this friend who approached you and assumed you knew how to help the girl just because you shared the same skin tone. :: shrugs ::
    You are beautiful, indeed!!

      • I have known MANY white people with dreadlocks. In high school, one of my friends (a white female) had them for 5 years. One of my best friends (also white, though part Native American and she looks it) had dreadlocks for 3 years. One of our friends who is a white male has had dreadlocks on and off for the past 7 years too.

        I have read though of little African American girls who have hair puffs (like minnie mouse ears) and afros and they aren’t allowed them in school which to me is ridiculous. One of my youth boys has a smaller afro and I doubt he could do much else with his hair other than shave it off. Do they want them all to have to shave off their natural hair?

      • either that or for the girls get a relaxer or extensions. It’s incredibly frustrating trying to connect with your African-American when most messages contradict what’s most natural to us, our hair and it’s texture.

  11. This is so breathtaking and simultaneously a breath of fresh air that I had to comment! Rachel Held Evans blog led me here and I’m so grateful. Thank you for being honest, with yourself, with God, and with us–what an honor! I love hearing of God’s redemption, and His fingerprints are all over your life!

  12. So I’m reading this as a white girl on my free time in the computer lab of the local Boys & Girls Club, where I work, and where our membership is about 99% African American. I have a huge lump in my throat for holding back tears so these kids’ computer games won’t be disturbed as I try to form my thoughts. I have, through this work experience, seen complexities of the race issues in our area that I had never before been aware of. Sometimes the complexities are overwhelming, and it’s too easy to want to curl up into a ball and cover our ears and pretend there’s nothing wrong. I believe that stories like the one you have so beautifully told are lights that shine the pathways we search for in reconciliation and resolution. I thank you for your story, and I thank Jesus for your story, and I’m so blessed by your words.

    • Wow. I’m so humbled by your response, Rebekah! I used to work in a community much like yours in New Orleans and so many of these dynamics and issues were illuminated to me through that experience—even as a black woman. I’m praising God for women like you who embrace reconciliation with humility and respect. I’m praying for you this week and I hope you’ll stop by again. Thank you for your selfless work and I pray that those babies will see Jesus all over you. I pray for you to ever sense God’ presence and please with you. Shalom and enjoy the rest of your week!

  13. Hi Osheta,
    I’m tripping out at people’s responses. You have such an audience of people who seem to be very “other” and enlightened by what you write about. And that’s great.
    However, a friend forwarded this site to me with “sounds like you wrote this” in the subject line. As I read this post, and your “about me”, I felt like I stumbled into a secret society for mixed girls talking about things we can’t talk about many places and be met with understanding. I’m also a member of the “what are you” club, the “what’s your ethnicity” club, the “who’s black, your mom or your dad” club, or as I like to call it, the “biracial diva” club.
    I also fell for a white guy- who sang in the choir of his black church- but was more comfortable in his Ohio whiteness than anyone I’d ever met. My son is blond with blue steel eyes. My half-siblings are 100% black, and I never felt black enough for them, or anyone, including myself. My dad never sat me down and gave me the “you’ve got to be whiter than white” talk, but I got to that conclusion on my own. And I thought I was doing pretty well for myself until the white missions organization that I was working with started to develop “contextualized” ministry teams to reach out to “minority” college students. I became a token expert for a culture I also felt ill equipped to represent. A white guy on my team who liked hip-hop was considered more “black” in my organization than me who grew up with jazz, clear diction, and clothes from The GAP. Black clearly meant thug. White meant The GAP.
    I began a journey of exploring my racial identity and how I relate with it. I found a lot of encouragement in “Check All that Apply” by Sundee Tucker Frazier…and the Boondocks comic strip by Aaron McGruder!! I concluded that being biracial is its own ethnicity. I can relate to the ethnic identity of my Indian/Chinese friend better than my friends and even my own parents who each belong to one racial group.
    Your account of “oreo” name calling reminded me of junior high years that I’d blocked out. I DAILY faced girls in my PE class who berated me as being ashamed of my race and threatened to beat me up. My mom was ready to put me in a different school. I had a friend Kelly, in 7th grade who was my Zina. I thought she was hilarious. She was black and smart and lived, literally, on the other side of the tracks. We were in advanced classes together, so I thought my parents would approve of her. She liked EZ-E and lied a lot; probably for good reasons, but I’ll never know. After a year of being friends, my parents made it clear that Kelly was not someone they were willing to take me over to hang out with. In 7th grade, I wasn’t allowed to ride the bus that far, so that was the end of that. Kelly also dismissed me with a “you were too white anyways” and rallied others to muster up all of their adolescent spite against me. To be fair, there was a white girl who hated me too. Her light skinned boyfriend apparently eyed me and gave her a target for junior high torment. Needless to say, many days of 7th grade were my personal hell.
    Separately, I found comfort in reading your career/prestige/income sacrifice as you’re in the midst of church planting. My husband and I are both apostolic type folks leading in highly passionate and abysmally funded urban organizations (also with a tagline focus on Shalom in the city) with graduate degrees that make home ownership a distant fantasy. It’s nice to know there’s someone else out there like me. Thanks for writing.

    • Hi There,
      Wow. I’m completely and totally humbled by your courage to tell me your story. Thank you. Really. I so loved your observation, “Black clearly meant thug”. Yes, that’s such an unfortunate stereotype. I’m praying for you and your husband as you fill out this apostolic calling together. I hope you’ll stick around and chime in more. It’s good to find others who “get it”.
      Blessings Beauty,
      Osheta

  14. Osheta, I’m visiting here for our assignment at Story101 and this post just blew me away!! I’m white as can be, and yet I could relate to so many parts of your story–especially the feeling of rejection by the people who are supposed to be just like you. The oreo eucharist moved me to tears. Love!!

    • Oh, Sheri! Thank for stopping by. I’ve been bopping around your site too. I know that rejection pain acutely, so I’m glad my story touched and maybe encouraged you. I look forward to getting to know each other better in our Story 101 class.

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  16. Osheta,
    This was a very wonderful and insightful read. I am not sure how I came across it, about a month ago, but I took the time to add it to my list of favorites and just now got around to reading it. I am the father of two biracial girls and have had the “you have to work twice as hard to get half as far” conversation with my eldest already. As I read the article, I found that I sound a lot like your dad. My eldest is only six and unbelievably, she is already receiving negative attention from her classmates because I am black and her mom is white. Since I am a minister, I strive to teach her how to love, forgive, and turn the other cheek. As believers, we are not to allow the evil of the world to corrupt us. We reside in a small Texas town where bigotry and racism have not diminished very much. Only better hidden and well designed from both blacks and whites. Anyway, I appreciate your writing and sharing this article. I will definitely share with my daughters as part of their “learning the ways of the world” curriculum now and in the years to come. Thanks again for sharing a solid, well-written article with relative substance. Victory was achieved through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, but it is up to us to learn how to fight life’s battles and equip our little ones to do the same. Blessings.

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  18. This is so beautiful and powerful. Thank you, Osheta, for sharing such a painful and yet inspiring story… one of which it sounds is only one of many. My heart aches that you have gone through such pain in feeling “in-between.” Your words brought me to tears: “I’m reminded of that year and how being a black woman in a white world, yet rejected by your black community was the worst form of isolation.” And yet, you are so right in seeing and recognizing just how much that “in-between-ess” brings you closer to Jesus – one whose entire identity and teachings caused his own “in-between-ess.” Your voice and your stories are so important for so many of us with white privilege to hear. Please keep on sharing and speaking up! Your beautiful words, painful stories and experiences, and powerful insights are so important and need to be heard and shared.
    Thank you.

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