Blackness exists on a Spectrum

Gladys Gitau

I fit in well on this campus. Like most Whitties, I consider myself intelligent, hardworking, socially conscious and fun to be around. More so, among my friends back home, I was that nerdy, outdoorsy, thrifty, liberal girl who was most likely to survive in an environment like Whitman.

But there are days when I have to reconcile my Whittie identity with my black identity. These are times when someone says something in class and I yell out “amen” in agreement, or I start swag cooking in the dining hall out of excitement. It’s when I get blank stares that I realize that I have to categorize these actions as “black things.”

Such predicaments are the symptoms of being a black nerd, or a “Blerd.” Blerds are those kids who are labeled “white” by their black friends for speaking eloquently, accepted by their white peers because they don’t act “too black,” and consequently spend their time with either group navigating what is enough of what.

I grew up as a Blerd, but back then I was called an Oreo (black on the outside, white on the inside). None of my friends in the hood watched “30 Rock” or “Parks and Rec,” they didn’t read “The Awesome Column” in TIME as religiously as I did, and none of them followed the Republican presidential primaries enough to understand my Newt Gingrich jokes. Part of the reason my nerdiness was characterized as “white” is because there weren’t any cool nerdy black people for me to compare myself to. Instead, I had to adopt Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope as my heroes.

Later I found out these Blerds existed. There was Issa Rae, creator and star of the web series The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl, a show about an equally awkward and ratchet black girl who doesn’t fit the stereotype that black women have to be confident and sassy all the time. I fell in love with Donald Glover, America’s token nerdy black guy whose alter ego Childish Gambino writes angry raps about being rejected by both the black kids for not being hood enough and the white kids for not being wealthy. They, among others, inspired me to resist the binary of what it meant to be black. I could be both nerdy and ratchet, I could watch “Doctor Who” and rap about it as well.

I’ve made a career here complaining about things that are “too white” for me to engage in and acting ratchet to make up for the tragic disparity in black things. Truth is, black is a spectrum. It’s okay to be black, make Newt Gingrich jokes, be a debater and watch “Girls” on HBO. (Okay, maybe it’s not okay to be black and watch “Girls” on HBO.) Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explains it well in “Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness”: “There are 40 million black people in this country, and there are 40 million ways to be black.” However, there is a collective identity we share as members of this community––this identity is not monolithic.

The problem arises when we don’t have examples of people like us doing things we like. Then we believe we must adopt a different identity to partake in these things. Oftentimes we engage in these activities as individuals, and fail to see them as part of the black community, or part of our community as People of Color. Instead we characterize these things as abnormal and foreign, and attribute them to “acting white,” when we have the right to enjoy them and still retain these identities as People of Color.

So despite my many rants, going sea kayaking shouldn’t make me a white black girl. In fact, we need more black people to go sea kayaking, so that black people who are curious about it won’t be called “Oreos.” And if they live through the experience, and maybe even enjoy it, they can engage in some celebratory swag cooking afterwards, and make it acceptable for the rest of us black kids to go, thus slowly breaking down this black and white binary.