I thought I knew what it meant to be black and proud. I didn’t; I was wrong. To fit into white American culture, I knew how to dress the part. I only knew how to compare myself to what I didn’t have, didn’t look like, and aspired to be like. Likewise, I knew how to present myself in a non-threaten way; in other words, less black. Even my vocabulary, speech and mannerisms changes and adapted to blend in.
After being married for 25 years and being open to my wife’s influence, I’ve developed an awareness of being black through her eyes. Admittedly, I was hesitant to introduce her to my family. I was ashamed of them and felt like I had to explain and defend their blackness, my culture. I found myself trying to educate her while defending against my internal criticism of my family and self. I had abandoned my history and culture. And in some cases, I just lack the information and knowledge of my rich and diverse background.
My wife was inquisitive and naive. But most of all, she was authentic. When I lacked information, she took the reins and did her research. She was boldly talking with family members, asking questions. Since we were married, she reasoned my culture became her culture; especially once we had children. God blessed us with two sons and two daughters.
We celebrate Kwanzaa because of my wife. Before her research, I didn’t understand its importance. Once we had children, I realize I had failed to pass on my heritage to my children. I shocked my oldest daughter when a childhood friend came for a visit. She kept staring at me with a puzzled look. I inquired after my friend left. Her response wounded me. She said, “Dad I didn’t know you could talk black… you always sound so white.” She saw me differently in the presence of other African Americans. Moreover, she was right since I hadn’t exposed her to that part of me. I had not been authentic. Self-reflection forced me to visit my “Black Shadow” (thank you, Dr. Marlene Watson).
I no longer view my wife’s questions as judgmental attacks. Rather, I now know there are some things she just does not know about my African American culture and heritage. She merely seeks to understand and know me better. Since the European culture is the dominant culture in American society, I know how to navigate in and out of her world with ease. But she could not move in and out of my realm until I was willing to enter it myself.
I realize now my heritage is something to promote and celebrate. I’ve stopped criticizing my family, culture, and ethnicity. I’ve come to a place of appreciation and self-acceptance. I’m comfortable living in my own skin. This position has made me a better therapist as I help my clients develop their personal level of self-acceptance. I know I can only take my clients as far as I’ve gone. Therefore, I must keep striving to overcome my own inferiority to promote growth in others.
Celebrating one’s heritage does not exclude others from theirs. How do you celebrate your rich background and culture and encourage others to celebrate theirs?