Black Face, White Voice, and Unpacking the Palatable Black Girl Identity

I’m tired of catering to white people’s comforts and putting their emotional needs ahead of my own. 

Black Face, White Voice.jpg

I grew up in a predominantly white environment, and adulthood hasn’t been much different; in university, I was almost always the only black girl in the lecture theatre, meanwhile in the workplace, I’m almost always the only non-white person in the room. I have spent 16 years explaining why a) it’s unacceptable for you to use the “n” word, b) no, not everyone in Africa is constantly dying and in need of your white saviour help, and c) no, I can’t speak on behalf of the black community. I grew up in a space where I was often called out for my lack of ‘blackness’, and inability to adhere to what other people’s ideas of blackness were. I would always receive comments like:

“You speak so well for a black girl”. 

“You’re definitely an oreo, or a coconut… black on the outside, white on the inside” 

“You’re not like other black girls, you’re normal” 

“In another world, you definitely should have been white” 

I soon became the palatable black girl. While my skin may be black, my accent and upbringing immediately made me more palatable to white people. I grew up in a quasi-right-wing town, where my family was just about seen as ‘the good immigrants’, and different from the ‘bad’ blacks. We lived in the ‘good’ part of town, I went to a private all-girls high school, and soon became so comfortable in whiteness that I remember, aged 14, saying if I ever had to choose between a group of white people and a group of black people, I would feel more comfortable with the whites. I thought of microaggressions and watered-down racism as a non-issue and ‘just banter’ because my friends did the same. When a teacher talked about her experiences with a ‘threatening big black man’ who did absolutely nothing to her, I just got on with my work instead of calling her out for her damaging language. To be the palatable black girl, you must keep your head down, keep them on your side, and explain ‘black’ things when called upon. Yet even if you’re palatable, you continue to be surrounded by conversations with racist undertones and watch as your skin colour is constantly criminalised, marginalised and politicised. 

The idea of the “palatable black girl” is an image we see time and time again in the media. Meghan Markle is a prime example. Her racially ambiguous features and her demeanor make her a more acceptable figure for the British royal family. However, she continues to be the victim of a ‘quiet’ and insidious racism specific to the British shores: rumours and whispers of her creating rifts and perpetuating the angry black girl stereotype, comparisons between her child and a chimpanzee, headlines stating the she’s climbed up the social ladder “from slave to royalty”*.  It goes to show that even when you’re in the uppermost echelons of British society, you can still never be “in” if you have a black hue. 

As I grew older, this is the revelation I began to have. I realised that I was only ever really myself and truly relaxed when I was with specific friends, my family or surrounded by my Zambian community. I could react naturally and easily without fear of being stereotyped and ‘losing’ my palatable status in those spaces. It finally clicked that even though I was “in”, I never really was “in”. And I took that decision to stop pretending to be someone that I wasn’t. 

That’s how my journey of activism began. I started reading, and writing and calling out damaging behaviours. I decided that even if I couldn’t physically surround myself with people who looked like me, I would virtually do this through community groups, opting to follow other black women and almost exclusively reading books by non-white women and men. I was tired of catering to white people’s comforts and putting their emotional needs ahead of my own. I found comfort in books and reading articles and discovering that so many other women had gone through the same experiences of life that I had. An inexplicable identity experience that can only be referred to as a ‘feeling’ of unease and constant edge that you can’t truly be yourself. 

Since unpacking my “palatable black girl” identity, the comments I receive have steered away from my lack of blackness, to my apparent obsession with blackness. It’s the everyday interactions, or the conversations that try to steer something away from race when it is absolutely about race. 

“You might be overreacting, it’s probably not a race thing”

“Have you considered it might just be because you’re a woman? It probably has nothing to do with race”

“I don’t think anyone sees colour anymore. I don’t understand why you always have to bring it back to race”.

“Why do you care so much about the shootings in America, they don’t happen here”. 

I realise that my voice only mattered when I was nodding along and going with what they thought was acceptable. The minute I brought in my own voice, it was constantly shut down. It’s a shameful form of naivety. For them, every new video of an unarmed black person being gunned down, or the wrongful incarceration of a black body is just news. For me, it’s a constant fear that one day it could happen to my 16 year old brother living in the States. It could happen to my cousin. It could happen to my friend. It could happen to me. It’s the realisation that every time I have these debates or these conversations, for the person on the other end, it is just that. A debate. Yet for me, it’s a personal attack, a horror film revealing what people really think about those who look like me. They are words that will go home with me, be repeated in my nightmares, and follow me over the next few days, weeks, months even years. It’s the realisation, that as the now outspoken black girl, I will keep having these debates and I will be burdened with carrying them around me at all times. Yet I know it’s worth it. Because the more our voices are heard in white spaces, the more our realities will eventually be heard. 

*I have chosen not to link to this particular article in order to not drive additional traffic to the website. This article was published by the Daily Mail on 29 November 2017. 

Article by VERVE Operative & Blogger Chanju Mwanza

More articles by Chanju