black nerds: being bullied by your peers as a kid is not an excuse for anti-blackness

March 30, 2017
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You probably won’t meet too many Black “Hari”s. You most certainly won’t ever meet another Black “Hari-Gaura Bilal Das Ziyad”. I was raised by a Black Hare Krsna (which is a branch of Hinduism) mother and a Black Muslim father in the majority Black city of Cleveland, OH. “Normal” has always been as foreign a concept to me as my Hindu and Arabic names have been to my peers.

It didn’t help that my parents decided to home-school me until freshman year of high school. This on top of having 18 siblings, the oddities that made up my life were like the brightest colors on an abstract painting, marking me both impossible to ignore and to understand at the same time. During my first week of class in a public school, a girl called me a “home-schooled jungle freak.” I laughed not only because Mean Girls is undeniably a hilarious thing to reference at pretty much all times and in all situations, but also because of the irony that the insult fit me much better than I would ever fit in with my peers.

My differences wouldn’t go away, so I was encouraged to make them special. My school told me that I was smarter than the other Black folks anyway, my home-schooling under my professional teacher mother having set me up for AP courses and school government positions. One teacher specifically would regularly talk down on other students to me in an effort to build up my future. If my school-smarts weren’t special enough, I became a craftsman of genealogies. The reason for my Indian name magically became because I was part “Indian”, and I was no longer just Black like everyone else. It wasn’t that Black kids didn’t like me because I was different, I told myself, they disliked me because I was better than them.

When my friend posted this status two days ago, the memories of this time in my life came flooding back. I’d like to keep them buried, because the violence I enacted then was inexcusable. Though a strong indictment, it’s true that the identity I easily bought into with pressure from the school system and media was built upon all kinds of anti-Black narratives about other Black people and their inherent backwards, monolithic nature. Even before I was disliked for being “different,” I was taught to consider “regular Blackness” beneath me and something to run away from. These are narratives that are so prevalent in everyday discourse and the way we learn to view the world that its almost impossible not to buy into them. Because of this, I have found that many other Black folks, especially those into things considered “nerdy” and “alternative,” buy into them just like I did, and have done little to unlearn these ideas.

The classmate who called me a “jungle freak” and I would later become best friends. She would go on to tell me about her mother and the immune disease she struggled with her whole life as a young parent. The girl was a better student than even I was, and became class president even as her younger sister became a teenage mother. I began to understand that I had already reduced the complexities of her story into my idea of “regular Blackness” on the basis of an objectively funny joke. I knew for a fact that my background and life made me special, but what I hadn’t considered was how Black folks of all kinds always are special in their own way. Even Black folks who fit stereotypes have depth behind their lives that the media world constantly promoting their “stories” never would (or could know how to) acknowledge. Always thinking of myself a special kind of different, I treated other Black people accordingly both consciously and unconsciously, and many responded to that violence with rejection.

Being othered is a real thing, and when turned into bullying it is undoubtedly traumatic. But when we are taught so much anti-Blackness from a young age, it’s important to distinguish between the reasons why you don’t fit in with Black people so as not to continue pathologizing the community. By assuming there is a “normal” Blackness to be so specially different from, we reinforce the monolithic view of Blackness that makes people who don’t fit stereotypes feel othered in the first place.

The reality is that Black folks have internalized quite a bit of queer and transantagonism, ableism, and misogyny, and these issues translate into unjustified violence against people on the margins of our community. But though an extent of tribalism is natural to all people, this prevailing idea that Black people have an especial problem with accepting “difference” outside of those systems of oppression is anti-Blackness at work. If anything, Black folks are actively the most diverse group of people on the planet, forcing space for one another the world denies to all of us across color, shape, class, profession, and interest in ways that might just seriously be magic. In fact, we are probably too accepting of things we consider different from ourselves, especially when it’s related to whiteness (I.e. Dolezal), even when those things and people have a history of bringing violence to our doorstep.

Folks who think they are special snowflakes within the Black community are some of these people with a history of violence, and I’m convinced other Black folks can recognize that. When I stopped trying to be better than or especially different from my people, sought out social spaces where community was being built, and began acknowledging the specialness within all of us, the ways Black people reacted to me changed. Though we train ourselves out of it in a world built against us in order to survive, we are inherently resistant to people who don’t see value in us, and for a long time that person was me. This world gives so many false pressures and reasons not to see value in Black people, and we should all consider whether the lens through which we view our past experiences is one of them.

*Hari Ziyad is a New York based storyteller and writer for AFROPUNK. They are also the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR, deputy editor of Black Youth Project, and assistant editor of Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can follow them on Twitter @hariziyad.