Photo Credit: Jason Vail Photography
In my junior year of high school, I was depressed and didn’t know why. Looking back, it’s not that difficult to understand.
My family moved that year to a small, upper-middle class community in Georgia. My parents were excited about the opportunity. The public high school in our neighborhood had rigorous academics, high-test scores and a 90% white student body. That year, my family was struggling financially. I’m black. I felt very other. And I suppressed it.
Fast forward to college. I went to an HBCU, and the experience was the complete opposite. I surrounded myself with myself and could finally breathe. What’s interesting about that period of my life is that the school was a perfect environment for me to ask the difficult questions about race that I probably needed to ask. Why was my high school experience so painful? Why is white acceptance a standard of success in this country? But I didn’t ask those questions. I ignored those questions altogether. I just kept it pushing and used the comfort of my black cocoon to focus on other personal issues I was dealing with like caring for sick parents and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.
Fast forward to my acting career. My mentor taught me to choose what type of black actress I wanted to be. I could be the black girl next door or the black hood girl, and my appearance needed to reflect what I wanted. I chose the girl next door. I leaned into that and avoided braids, twists, curls and locks. You know, all the “ethnic” looks.
All of that changed a couple months ago when I stopped wearing wigs and started wearing my natural hair (see My Hair and I). Since then, I’ve become super aware of my blackness . . . by accident. From the conversations about the types of photos I need for my acting career, to the men in my life throwing their opinions around about natural hair, to the looks I get from the average white citizen in public places . . . I am reminded once again that I am other.
My whole life I’ve been navigating what it means to be other by dancing around it. Oh, being too loud means I’m ghetto? Got it. I’ll keep my voice down. Black hair is nappy. Kinks are unattractive. Got it. Relaxers and weaves. People won’t take me seriously unless I’m dressed up? That’s okay. If I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt in the grocery store, I’ll get good customer service once I open my mouth and the clerk figures out that I’m articulate.
You know what I learned about myself over the past couple months? I have avoided my blackness by figuring out how to be “respectably” black by white standards.
And that makes me ANGRY. For the first time in my black life, I’m angry about how I was taught to navigate the world as a black woman. Why am I not allowed to get excited in a conversation? If I was loud and white, would people make those assumptions? Natural hair is in now, but why in the world was my natural hair texture EVER considered ugly? I see how other people see me now. I walk into a store and see the assumptions on people’s faces. Then I open my mouth and I see the sudden wash of relief when I speak. I see it. “Whew, I’m safe. She’s educated. She’s respectable. She won’t hurt me.” Why do I have to be articulate to be respectable? Why can’t I be respectable simply because I’m human? One day I’m throwing in some Ebonics to throw off my white friends and piss off my elitist black folks.
It would be nice to make choices about style without having to consider what brand of black others will think I am. I would love to just make art without worrying that I’m not making my people look bad. It would be great if I could make mistakes without it being considered a racial defect. Oh, and it would be awesome to be able to get angry without being perceived as threatening.
I was taught that nobody wants to deal with an angry black girl. Now I understand why I was depressed in my junior year of high school. I was angry but wasn’t allowed to be.
About me . . .
I'm Cyrah Hill. I'm a woman of faith, an actor and an everyday black girl.