My friend Donald is a productivity god. Seriously, he has a superhuman ability to get things done. He’s a full-time Ph.D. student who also has a full-time academic job for which he is frequently sitting in meetings and on business calls, or participating in panels and giving lectures.
Whatever time Donald doesn’t spend working or handling his academic obligations he uses for other noble yet labor-intensive endeavors. He actively mentors 10 or so young men at a time while also receiving weekly mentorship from 10 or so older men whom he looks up to. He is an amateur athlete who went from barely being able to complete a one-mile jog to finishing the New York City Marathon last year. (Plus, he’s the only person I know who actually did P90X for the full 90 days and then some.) Not to mention that Donald is an avid churchgoer. He’s one of those high-octane members of the congregation who serves on the trustee board and who is always on a committee planning a singles conference or financial seminar. (Oh, and he goes to a megachurch, so, you know, that’s vigorous church participation to the hundredth power.)
Although I’ve known Donald for several years, I only recently discovered the secret to his uncompromising efficiency. Last month, as we sat with our laptops at a new coffee shop in Harlem, Donald said, “I’m obsessed with not being a sorry a** black man.”
That was his precise comment. I’m not giving you the gist here. He said, verbatim:
“I’m obsessed with not being a sorry a** black man.”
I tell you that sentence moved me. That sentence, that sentence, that sentence…that damn sentence. I don’t even remember what we were talking about that made him say it and I’m pretty sure my only response to it at the time was, “Mmmm…” (which is my go-to utterance when someone’s words resonate with me).
But, again, I tell you, that sentence deserved so much more than “Mmmm.” It deserved “Word!” and “Amen!” and “I hear that!” Or, better yet, an “I know that’s right,” since that phrase is my standard response when someone says something that is nakedly sincere though not necessarily advisable. It wasn’t that I embraced the wisdom of Donald’s thinking, only that I saw the accuracy and necessity of it. (And, as we know, that which is true and/or necessary isn’t always wise.)
Not only could I see how that sentence–“I’m obsessed with not being a sorry a** black man”–was true for Donald, but I could also see how it was true for a lot of other driven and highly accomplished men like him. The “sorry a** black man” is a stereotype that many black men I know spend their time ardently sidestepping.
But, surely, Donald and other black men aren’t the only ones playing a game of “stereotypes about black people” keep-away. I can think of many black folks (myself included) who seem obsessed with not portraying certain stereotypes.
Take out the “sorry a**” in Donald’s sentence and replace “man” with “woman” and you may hear one of your own previously unexpressed obsessions: “I’m obsessed with not being a(n) _____ black woman.”
Maybe you’d fill in the blank with “angry” or “attitudinal” or “inarticulate” or “broke” or “needy” or “overweight” or “nappy-headed” or “obedient.” But whatever word or phrase you’d use, it’s likely based on some stereotype or another (or it’s an amalgamation of several stereotypes) that you’re trying to avoid.
In her 2009 TED talk, the ever extraordinary Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Consider that the intellectual conversation of the day is and has been “post-racial” this and “new black” that, both of which call for a more nuanced and comprehensive view about race in this country. So often, however, those conversations sound like a lot of talk about how black people needn’t be or appear stereotypically black. And “stereotypically black” can refer to the ways that black people think other black people are/live/act or the ways that non-black people think black people are/live/act. (Those “ways” may be imagined, yes, but they may also be real if not wholly representational.)
What it boils down to, if you ask me, is that nowadays, lots of folks are on some “I’m un-stereotypically black” sh*t. But, like Ngozi Adichie said, the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.
Although I’m quite committed to having wide-ranging sensibilities and being somewhat culturally unpredictable and complex, I was left questioning my own “on some ‘un-stereotypically black’ sh*t” the other day. A guy at a bar called me a “white girl trapped in a black girl’s body” and I wasn’t offended. But later that night, I wondered, What did he mean by that? Did he mean I “acted white” (which no one has said to me since I was 13)? Was he trying to say, “You’re not like other black women I know”? And if that is what he was trying to say, then did he see other black women he knew as little mini-mes of one overarching Black Woman presence? I have worked hard to cultivate and promote my individuality in my life. But who’s to say that a black woman who may seem to that man like every other black woman hasn’t also done the same? And what’s up with the word “trapped”? I wish I’d had a snappy comeback at the time, like, “There is no one trapped inside of me, sir. All that is within me is very happy to be here, thank you very much.”
At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to round out and fill in our stories. But what happens when our need to avoid someone else’s stereotypical narrative becomes an obsession? Are we doing a disservice to that narrative by shunning it or treating it as altogether cautionary, ugly and impertinent?
Just think of all the mothers who’ve said, “When I have a child, I’m not going to be like my mom.” Those women were simply announcing that they didn’t want to become the maternal stereotype they grew up with. And, as we know, every would-be mother who says she won’t be like her own mother ends up eating her words.
But is it so bad to end up becoming the very stereotype that you don’t want to be?
My need to be diplomatic and cooperative can feel crippling at times. And it’s a need born of an obsession to not be an angry black woman. I’m so obsessed with not being an angry black woman that expressing anger frightens me to the point of paranoia and panic. But am I depriving my identity of a certain richness by not embracing the angry black woman I know I have the propensity to be (and occasionally am)?
Look, I’m not saying that Donald should go the opposite route and champion being a “sorry a** black man.” But the more we despise certain stereotypes, the less generous we are with ourselves and with each other when those stereotypes show up in our lives.
Stereotypes can be beautiful, comical, practical, and tragic. But we needn’t see the tragic ones as the devils among us.
Turns out, Donald has begun to reframe his thinking about his particular stereotype-avoidance obsession. I sent him a text message to ask if it was okay to write about him and our conversation the other day. He agreed, and in his reply, he told me that he’d given it some more thought since we’d spoken.
“The obsession itself is the pitfall,” he wrote in his text. “It prevents me from having compassion for the challenges that I’ve seen in Black men around me. I now realize the need for me to embrace every ingredient, every example of a man, who has made me who I am. That means comfortably accepting the good, bad and ugly, not just embracing the stuff that I think is good.”
Like I said, I know Donald isn’t alone in his obsession to circumvent certain cultural conceptions. So tell me: Are there stereotypes about black people that you obsess about avoiding? Are they personal stereotypes (notions you developed based on black people in your life) or are they societal stereotypes (ideas about black people at large)?
I’ll say, there are many singular nouns that depict my dear friend Donald: Progressive. Scholar. Thinker. Believer. Doer. (“Doer” is probably the hallmark. I’m convinced he holds the key to unlocking the elusiveness of a completely checked off to-do list.)
But there is one compound noun–or noun quartet if you will–that does not depict my dear friend Donald: “sorry a** black man.”
I can see how Donald’s ardent avoidance of the “sorry a** black man” stereotype has served him well, as he is not at all the person he has dreaded becoming. Still, I was glad to read his text about trying to give up that particular ghost.
Here’s hoping that being less obsessed with the kind of black person we don’t want to be gives us more freedom to just, you know, be.