By: Tiffanie Drayton
I’m his first black girl. Wth? I had long-before grown accustomed to being a guy’s first black girlfriend. And, I have survived multiple interracial relationships. Men proclaimed I was their “first black experience.” I lived on the Lower East Side in New York City. My apartment was in a building where I was the only black person in sight.
But the first time I asked my now-boyfriend if he’d ever dated a black girl, we had not even met yet. The conversation came up during one of our online Skype sessions. That’s when he confessed, “I’ve never really lived around too many black people.”
“So have you ever dated a black girl?” I asked half-jokingly.
“No,” he said. Then crickets. After moments of silence, I shrugged off his confession. My 28 year-old black boyfriend had never been with a black woman. So, I was, once again, The First Black Girl.
First Black Girl
I accepted my role as First Black Girl. By then, it was part of my identity. I even derived some satisfaction from the title. It was kind of like being a crowned princess of blackness — a black diamond of sorts. I was the royal gatekeeper to many a pale hand’s first discovery of black hair.
This Was Different
This time, as my now-boyfriend smiled half-heartedly, I couldn’t conceal my overwhelming sense of resentment and anger. After spending a lifetime as the exception to first black girl title, I began to question the rule I’d spent a lifetime breaking.
I was already too familiar with the the colorless line drawn between being a POC versus “acceptably black.” My experiences led me to toe that line quite well by blending. In predominantly white or Hispanic environments for the majority of my existence, I was accustomed to assimilating.
My Past Shaping My Present
At home, I was a hip-hop lover and connoisseur who could rap the lyrics to every Bone Thugs and Harmony or Tupac song. However, in public I was the fashionista who’d never be caught dead wearing a pair of Jordans or Apple Bottom Jeans that represented the culture I’d spent my adolescence completely engulfed in.
Twerking and Ass Clapping
On weekdays, I took classes at a local pole-dancing studio to learn how to make my ass clap while upside-down in a split, twerking to 2 Chainz (something I admittedly never mastered). But I preferred the rarefied air of predominantly-white, upscale New York City venues on the weekends.
I’m fully aware that every human being wears different masks to play on different stages, but I never imagined that my most important costume choice would be between a white public face and a black private one. I cannot honestly pinpoint when I learned to do that role switching.
Race: Black and White
Culture: Shades of Gray
Even now, I cannot fully explain how I came to understand what it means to be white or black. That would take an entire book to deconstruct. That is a concept that deals less with actual racial or cultural differences. Instead, it is about appropriating societal clues and cues.
There are certainly many seemingly innocent instances that come to mind when I contemplate this matter. There was a general consensus among my white friends that my hair was “better” straight or coiffed in a bun than in micro-braids.
After seeing Beyonce rock braids in the Destiny’s Child music video for “Bug a Boo,” I adored that look. Another example is my family encouraging me to get a perm when I wore my hair au naturel. And, my best friend’s mother—a Peruvian who made the best empanadas—looked at me differently when I showed up to their house wearing my first, and last, two-piece Sean Jean velour suit. That was back in seventh grade when I wore it with Baby Phat sneakers to match.
Black Girl Identity
Another factor is that my schools were segregated between white smart kids on the college-bound track, and black children with “learning disorders” in remedial classes. Before I decided whether or not I was going to college, I already understood that concealing my “blackness” was the key to my success. Yet these examples don’t really convey a lifetime of white versus black socialization.
Black Boyfriend With First Black Girl
We Share “Blackness”
So, when my black boyfriend confessed that I was his first black girl, I wasn’t angry with him. He and I were both products of the same pressure. The message was to run away from our blackness. His family moved to a mostly-white neighborhood to escape living in “the hood.” And I played down my black identity by appropriation and concealment.
We were two black peas in a white pod. My “offenses” were no less egregious than his. We both aimed for success at all costs. Even if our “black” identity was the price to pay, it was an investment in our future standing.
As one climbs the ladders of success, as a person of color, and stokes the flames of American racial inequality, it is easy to walk away burned. If your ascension as a black person in a white world is dependent upon the relegation and dehumanization, the denial of a race, your race, where can you find self-worth?
This is the question all people of color must confront when traveling the road to success. It’s the same question that Civil Rights luminary W.E.B Dubois asked in 1903, and James Baldwin works about Civil Rights in the ’60s and ’70s. It is now the year 2014 and young black Americans still seek this answer.
When my Black boyfriend told me he loved me, it wasn’t because I was exceptionally different due to my being a Black woman. It was because in me, he saw himself. From me he received permission to be as Black or white as he cared to be. This without the weighted constraint of a world shackled to the dated history of Black slavery and Blacks owned by whites. Together, we have the freedom to be people, not a color. And it’s a freedom that is absolutely priceless.
Tiffanie Drayton is a freelance writer focusing on race and gender issues. Her bylines include New York Times, Marie Claire, Vox, and Salon. Drayton is a proud New School University Alumna. Follow her on instagram @draytontiffanie or twitter @draytontiffanie. Note: This is an updated, edited version of a 2014 article published in The Frisky.