On Monday, November 9th, just a mere three days ago, I had the pleasure of attending a talk and book signing for one of my favorite web series creators, actresses, and writers—THE Issa Rae of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl fame and glory! Do a quick search of her name in Google, and you’ll find the New York Times and the Washington Post are just two reputable newspapers that’ve noticed her awesomeness and, of course, awkwardness.
After years of frustration at the lack of diverse depictions of Black people in mainstream media, Rae used this absence as inspiration and created her own web series on YouTube to fill that void. Despite low funding and few subscribers, she persisted and eventually garnered great success with The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl in 2011. Now at 30, Rae has published a New York Times bestseller, is currently developing a series for HBO, and has over 150,000 subscribers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram combined!
As successful as she is, what drives me to write this is Issa Rae’s very being: the awkward Black girl in her and, quite frankly, in all of us.
In most societies, there seems to be an expectation of what Blackness* is: loud, poor, aggressive, ghetto, unrefined, unintelligent, etc. And while there are people across all spectrums who reflect these characteristics, these are the versions of Blackness the media seems to constantly depict. But the fact of the matter is Black people, like all people, are not caricatures who embody a limited set of qualities and values. Diversity is a hot-button item right now, it’s “in vogue,” but so many people forget there can and is diversity within groups. We’re intelligent, beautiful, fearless, prayer-warriors, edgy, artsy, angsty, confident, charismatic, hipsters, rockers, rappers, gangsters, athletes, poets, lawyers, doctors, politicians. The list goes on and on. We’re not bound by stereotypes. We’re not bound by the limitations the media or society assigns. We are humans, just like you. We’re not confined by a box, we can’t fit in one and you can’t make us (no matter who you are).
While growing up on Chicago’s south side, I was regularly teased by kids and sometimes even family members for how different I dared to be. I wore Chuck Taylor’s, rocked out to Taking Back Sunday and Linkin’ Park, read widely, and spoke articulately. I was called an Oreo (black on the outside, white on the inside), asked why I talked the way I did, and was consistently made to feel as if I just wasn’t Black enough, oftentimes by the very people who looked like me. There were times when I tried to fit in. Tried to change the way I spoke, the way I dressed, the music I listened to, the films I watched. I tried to perform the version of Blackness my peers seemed to think I should, but when you try to be someone you’re not, when you lose sight of who you are in hopes of gaining popularity or a sense of status or being, you end up losing something more valuable and more important: yourself.
I know it’s hard to stay true to who you are, especially when you’re a teenager who so desperately wants to fit in, but you must silence that voice that tells you you’re not Black enough, smart enough, cool enough, whatever enough. Regardless of who you are and where you come from, don’t let your family, your classmates, or the media pressure you into changing the very thing that gives you power: your individuality. Celebrate your authentic self (awkwardness and all) because haters are gonna hate, anyway! So let them.
*Disclaimer: This post examines the Black experience, but can be ANYONE’S experience.