Being labelled a 'palatable' Black girl hasn't saved me from discrimination

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Kedean Smith shares her thoughts on growing up as a 'palatable' Black girl in Canada. Portrait of Kedean Smith by illustrator Victoria Morris.
Kedean Smith shares her thoughts on growing up as a 'palatable' Black girl in Canada. Portrait of Kedean Smith by illustrator Victoria Morris.

Growing up in Brampton, Ont. in an overwhelmingly Jamaican household, I didn’t think much of my Blackness. My parents raised me and my two younger siblings to embrace our Jamaican heritage, but there was always one perplexing statement my father would repeatedly make over the years: Don’t forget you’re Black, that will never change.

How could I forget that I was Black?

There were reminders of its existence everywhere and in everything. For years we were the only Black family in our quiet neighbourhood. I remember my parents making sure our yard was always clean and well-manicured, they were friendly with our neighbours and taught us to always “act right.” They were coaching us to become palatable Black kids. I would later learn how much of a double-edged sword this would be and how “acting right” didn’t exempt me from discrimination.

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At the time, most of my friends were white. Our burgeoning middle school friendships were born out of silly, superficial commonalities like who shared the most classes or who took the same path home.

Looking back, I often wondered if I was the “token Black friend,” a phrase I despised as much as its ugly stepsister, “whitewashed.” It’s been brandished like a weapon countless times throughout my life, by family who thought I was acting too white by over enunciating when I spoke and by friends who thought I was trying to be something that I wasn’t whenever I showed interest in things that were apparently for white people- whatever that was supposed to mean.

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I didn’t realize until later in life that I wasn’t whitewashed or the token Black friend. I was simply a palatable Black girl. This isn’t a title I gave myself, rather a realization of how I appear to other people. I've been able to successfully navigate different circles and make different types of friends because I’m a palatable Black girl. I possess the right education, I “talk” the right way and I’m never too aggressive or too loud. I don't “act ghetto” and my braids walk the fine line of being cool, but not too much. My skin is dark, but not too dark and I’m pretty — “for a Black girl.”

As quickly as I learned about my palatability, I learned with the same swiftness, that it wouldn’t save me from experiencing racism, discrimination and micro-aggressions. Being palatable shields me from nothing. If anything, it reminds me that no matter how far I go in life, no matter how much education or wealth I may accumulate, my skin tone, my hair texture, my features and my Blackness can become a weaponized insult in the blink of an eye.

Image provided by Kedean Smith.
Portrait of Kedean Smith. Illustration by Victoria Morris.

Being accepted has its limits but it doesn’t give me the privilege to turn a blind eye to the systemic injustices Black people endure. Over the years I’ve experienced, rather than learned, how being Black can be used against me in the office, while travelling, at restaurants and a slew of other places where I would not have expected to find discrimination.

While working for a prominent airline in Toronto, my boss couldn’t remember that I was in fact a completely different person than the other tall, brown-skinned girl she repeatedly confused me with. At another job, a co-worker would conveniently misspell my name in emails, even though he was corrected each and every time.

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There was one specific incident in a nail salon where I went from a palatable Black girl to an “angry Black woman” in a horrible, unwarranted hair touching episode. This wasn’t the first time someone had touched my hair without asking, but this was the first time it resulted in an argument where the offender hurled insults at me like a petulant child who had been told “no” for the first time.

It was after a particularly stressful day at work when I went to a local nail salon in an attempt to blow off some steam in the form of well-deserved self care at what I thought was a safe haven. As I scrolled through my phone for something to watch, I felt a hand run through my braids. I turned and came face-to-face with a middle-aged white woman.

“Your hair is so pretty,” she said, as she reached out to touch me again.

“Thanks,” I replied while stopping her, “But can you please not touch my hair?”

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Had I known this was going to start an argument and that the entire salon would be staring at me as if I had just committed a heinous crime by defending my human right to not be touched, then perhaps, I would have just swallowed my objections and let a complete stranger play with my hair.

Instead, I was told by the woman that I had a huge ego, that I thought too highly of myself and that I had no right to speak to her in such tone.

We went back and forth in a verbal sparring match, until she left none the wiser and shrouded in her ignorance, with a story she would no doubt rehash to her friends with the intent of gaining their sympathy.

It may sound crazy, but this is everyday life. My apparent palatability forgotten in a flash and replaced with discriminatory insults meant to belittle me.

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Palatability is an unwanted gift that never stops giving; it’s a reminder that no matter how far I go in life that my Blackness can be used against me.

This is why we’re tired. These aren’t one-off experiences, they happen every. Damn. Day.

This may be the first time you’re hearing about them, because due to privilege, ignorance or bias, they always fall on deaf ears.

We have been talking about our experiences for centuries, our friends and families have already heard these stories. We are in such an important time and it seems like the world is finally listening and ready to apply the necessary changes.

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I leave you with this: do not accept someone just because they fit into an image of what you deem acceptable. Our parents have been unconsciously coaching us into palatability before society could even label us as a such for fear that we would all automatically be lumped into negative Black stereotypes. Palatability is a double-edged sword and shield, at times a prerequisite, that we don for ease of passage throughout a society that has historically put us in last place.

Instead, help correct the narrative of what society deems “palatable” by disengaging in behaviours that consciously force us to assimilate in order to fit the status quo. Don’t perpetuate it with dehumanizing requests such as asking to touch our hair and refrain from showering us with backhanded compliments about how well-spoken we are, it implies negative connotations with under-education in the Black community. And finally, perhaps the worst offense is feigning colour blindness; it’s a clandestine act that screams privilege and erasure. To understand us and be a true ally (a buzzword that is often thrown around) you must see us and hear our stories.

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