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I don’t eat greens. I can’t double-dutch. I don’t speak nor understand AAVE. I’m a product of white neighborhoods, white extracurricular activities and white private schools. I knew of the Cranberries before I knew of the Fugees, and I was convinced that the only TV superheroes were He-Man and She-Ra. As far as I could tell, the only thing that made me black was the color of my skin; however the excess of melanin had never been enough to gain the community’s acceptance. I felt like my brown skin was some sort of disguise, something I sprayed on each morning in order to fool people. I could blend into a predominantly black environment upon entrance, but woe betide myself and whomever would come to speak to me! All it would take were a couple of words out of my mouth, and somehow they always knew that I was an impostor.

My name. My speech. My demeanor. My experiences. In the eyes of the community, I didn’t have the “cred” to be black. I can’t remember ever having any connections to “being black”, at least not outside of my family and my church, and that didn’t work out too well. Maybe I wasn’t black, I used to think. My father had [and still has] incredibly light skin and hazel eyes, and since I had never seen a black person as light as him who wasn’t a member of his family, in conjunction with the constant inquiries from my kindergarten classmates, for a time I became convinced that I was half-white. I brought this possibility to my mother’s attention, who balked and told me to ask my father. My father let loose an raucous laugh when I asked him. Once he had caught his breath, he assured me that he was indeed black, but some of his ancestors weren’t. My five-year-old heart sank a little at that. If I wasn’t half-white, then what was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I figure out what it was about me that wasn’t “black”? I must have been doing something wrong, or else I wouldn’t have been facing ostracism from the few black people with whom my mother allowed me to have contact. Seeing the confusion on his five-year-old’s face, my father asked,

“What does black look like to you?”

I reacted in the typical childlike manner: I shrugged my shoulders and became irritated because complexity was poking its annoying little head where I didn’t want it. I just wanted a simple answer so I could go back to watching Danger Mouse.

“Sigh. I’ll just ask mom.”

My mother’s family had concrete interpretations about everything. I loved that they made things so simple for me. I may have been intuitive, but mostly I was too lazy to hash out any sort nuance on my own, even if something just did not seem quite right about their answers to my questions. Their interpretation of being “black”, specifically being a “good black girl”, never extended past getting good grades, minding your mother, and loving Jesus. These character aspects didn’t seem to minimally cover the range of emotions I experienced as the [often] token brown-skinned child in a Montessori class full of sun-burnt, yet semi-translucent children, but I took those answers at face value. They were my elders, so they were supposed to know better, right?

As I grew older, I remained too afraid to talk to most of the black girls and women outside of my family on account of how ridiculous I thought I came off to them. I was an awkward, isolated, Standard English-speaking black girl with no awareness of the racialized socioeconomic distress they were experiencing, nor any awareness of the budding sexuality and romanticism that were often displayed in the forms of crushes and gossip over boys. On the rare occasions I would be included in gossip over the various boys of similar age at my church, I would do my best to change the subject. I thought that the last thing that a 12-year-old black girl would want to hear from my milk-dunkin’ cookie mouth was that I found her crush to be stupid and ugly, and that none of the other boys interested me that way.

So where did that leave me? What did black look like to me?

Well, I still had my good grades and my [fading] love for Jesus. And Ororo Munroe. But even the Weather Witch was not enough to satiate my internal dilemma.

Unfortunately, by the age of 18, I lost the ability to academically fly by the seat of my pants, as well as what little faith I had in an intangible, hypermasculinized deity.  I once again found my tethers to my racial identity severed, and I was at a complete lost of how I could ever stand up again and say that I am a black woman.

So what then?

I started reading. I picked up books by Angela Davis, bell hooks, June Jordan and Audre Lorde. I read my Crenshaw, my Hurston, my Harris-Perry. I watched through YouTube talks by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and followed Sikivu Hutchinson on Twitter. I scoured the libraries, the blogs and Amazon, seeking whatever connection I could find that might help me figure out how I could be black again. It’s a strange feeling, struggling towards [re]joining to a community that never gave you the impression that you belonged there in the first place. It’s also a strange feeling, wanting so desperately to belong to a community that has been systemically despised, abused and annihilated; however, there lies at my core that instinctive sense of recognition — I see a community that fights for the day it is free from the atrocity and oppression meted out by the Privileged Few. This is who I am. This is where I’m supposed to belong. And in my struggles for self-identification, I discovered a wonderfully complex, complicated, messy, magnificent world of what it means to be black and how hard these women have fought to make sure that we are seen as we are meant to be seen. In the middle of my journey, I found a place just right for me.

That is why I fought so hard for my Black Nerd Girl panel to be presented at C2E2. When I received the confirmation email at work, I actually ran to the bathroom so I could cry and squeal in peace. I won the chance to get up in front of a large audience in a media-run space and say, “What you see now is how I am meant to be seen. I am not the caricature that the kyriarchy tried to paint over me.” This panel idea is why I dared to open my awkward, isolated, suburban-bred, milk-dunkin’ cookie mouth and ask four other nerdy black women if they would be willing to share with me their own experiences fighting to be seen as they would want to be seen…and they said YES! So there we will be, sitting in Room S405b at the McCormick Center, in all of our eclectic black beauty, ruminating on our various experiences of what it means to us to have found our respective places that are just right.

So, what does black look like to me now?

Come next Friday, I’m hoping to find out.

Postscript: You can also check out the rest of my C2E2 panel schedule here. Friday won’t be the only day I’ll be black, bold, beautiful and nerdy.

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