Color Outside the Lines: My Experience as an 'Alternative' Black Man

I've struggled with this internal conflict most of my life where on the inside I felt much more than just 'Black'. My inner world has always had a depth that I felt like my outer appearance wasn't allowed to express.

Color Outside the Lines: My Experience as an 'Alternative' Black Man
Home is where the hatred is.

Black Like Me?

In my first newsletter titled 'Who Made You Feel Unworthy?', I mentioned that being Black is one of the reasons why I felt unworthy growing up. My hometown of Laurens, South Carolina was once the home of the only Ku Klux Klan museum in the world. That museum, which was operating as recently as 2012, found its home on our town square - centrally located as a reminder that in my small rural southern town racism was not something that needed to be hidden. Not only that, when I was in school, the clothing brand of choice worn by many of my white classmates was 'Dixie Outfitters' - a brand whose imagery often paired scenes of southern wildlife with the confederate flag. And it was often very conflicting because I had a lot of white friends growing up. It's not like I had to deal with being called the n-word every day or even like the white kids blatantly excluded me because I was black. They were honestly kind of oblivious to the fact that what they wore could possibly be making me & other black kids feel uncomfortable because the confederate flag was so ingrained in daily southern life that having it everywhere seemed normal.

This place put legitimate fear in my heart as a child.

In fact, what might surprise you, and what's going to lay the basis for the rest of this post is that I often felt more accepted by my confederate flag wearing white classmates than I did from the other Black kids around me. Because back then, being 'black' was a very narrow category that brought with it certain ideas, behaviors, and beliefs that one needed to conform to or risk having your 'Blackness' challenged or revoked. I'm sure you've heard of someone saying 'don't take my Black card but...' followed by something that is not traditionally considered 'Black'. While I must acknowledge & admit that at a core level, being Black made me feel unworthy because I grew up in a white supremacist society, on a more micro level, that unworthiness was greatly exacerbated by also not feeling 'Black' enough to be accepted by those in my own community. Leading me to a state where I really only ever felt fully understood & accepted when I was alone - a sentiment that is largely still true today.

Watch out, we've got a badass over here.

Alternative Blacks

There's this running joke within my inner circle of Black friends where we refer to each other as 'alternative blacks' - that being, Black people who have had a similar core experience as most other black Americans but at the same time have beliefs, interests, and desires that deviate from what is commonly acceptable within Black culture. For example, one of my homies got really into scootering as a kid and has told me stories of being ridiculed by other Black kids because scootering 'is not Black.' A more common example would be if you're black & happen to articulate the King's english eloquently, you probably have been told that you 'talk white' by other Black people. What personally made me feel excluded from mainstream Blackness was my sensitivity as a boy, my interests in all kinds of music but especially rock (read: white people) music, the way that I dressed &, unfortunately, excelling in school. All these things, though seemingly innocuous contributed to us feeling alienated from our Black peers.

I asked ChatGPT for a list of things that aren't traditionally considered Black and here's the list it provided. Look through this list and see if you see yourself anywhere in it. For me, I see myself in every category.

1. Listening to Certain Music Genres: Genres like rock, country, classical, or heavy metal have often been stereotypically viewed as not traditionally Black, despite the significant contributions of Black artists to these genres.
2. Participating in Certain Sports: Sports like golf, hockey, swimming, and skateboarding have been stereotypically seen as predominantly white.
3. Outdoor and Nature Activities: Hiking, camping, and bird watching have often been perceived as predominantly white activities.
4. Interest in Specific Hobbies: Hobbies like collecting antiques, knitting, or being an enthusiast of certain movie genres (like sci-fi or fantasy) have been labeled at times as not traditionally Black.
5. Speaking Multiple Languages or Traveling Abroad: Fluency in languages other than English, especially less commonly learned languages, or a strong interest in international travel and culture, might be viewed as atypical.
6. Culinary Preferences: Enjoying cuisines that are not traditionally associated with Black culture, such as sushi, Mediterranean food, or veganism.
7. Performing Arts: Involvement in certain areas of the performing arts, like ballet or opera, which have historically had less representation of Black artists.
8. Academic Interests: Pursuing fields of study or careers in areas like astrophysics, classical studies, or linguistics.
9. Fashion and Style Choices: Preferences for certain fashion styles or hair choices not traditionally seen as part of Black culture.
10. Technology and Gaming: Deep interest in areas like coding, video gaming, or science fiction.

You know it's bad when even the future President of the United States perpetuated the belief that only certain behaviors are acceptable for Black people. When Joe Biden said if you don't vote for him, 'you ain't black' it was further evidence that Black people are expected to be monolithic. Now, I have no problem admitting that Joe Biden was the lesser of two evils in the 2020 election but still, an 80 year old white man implying I'm not worthy of my Blackness if I don't support him is insane & insulting! The idea that Black people aren't allowed to make political decisions for themselves really frustrates me. This is going to be a wildly unpopular opinion but just because my ancestors fought & died for me to have the right to vote, that doesn't mean that I have to use it or that I have to vote for the candidate who most convincingly pretends to care about Black issues. I feel that what my ancestors really fought & died for was for me to have the right to choose. And by you telling me that I, not only have to vote, but that I have to vote for a certain person, is taking away that right to choose & is as oppressive as not giving me a vote at all.

I am large, I contain multitudes

I've struggled with this internal conflict most of my life where on the inside I felt much more than just 'Black'. My inner world has always had a depth that I felt like my outer appearance wasn't allowed to express. I've written before about how this shifted once my mom got sick and I was forced to take a good, hard look at my life & acknowledge the gaps between how I felt inside vs how I showed up outside. So from 2016 on, I slowly but surely started to express myself externally in the ways I felt internally. This peaked in 2020 when the world was forced indoors due to a global pandemic & most social interaction was taking place online.

During this time, I began sharing my yoga practice online. Not only did I start sharing my Yoga practice, something not traditionally known to be a 'Black' activity, I did so scantily clad - often wearing very short shorts & nothing else. I did this, in part, because it's genuinely easier to move into shapes without baggy clothes getting caught between my limbs but I also did it as an act of protest because traditionally Black men, especially masculine identifying Black men, are not supposed to wear anything that can be interpreted as feminine.

Being a whole person, I have both masculine & feminine aspects of myself that seek expression. My spiritual awakening revealed to me that a large part why I was suffering so much & why I was causing so much harm to others, specifically women, is because I'd been repressing my own feminine side ever since the little boy inside of me was reprimanded for 'acting like a girl' when I expressed emotions. So expressing my softer side via my short shorts, my anklet, my earring, my affinity for purple & pink, & flowers, & gentleness were all a sort of middle finger to the 'powers that be' who convinced me for so many years that these parts of myself were unworthy of being accepted as a man within the Black community.

He must be gay

This may come as a surprise to hear but as far as I know, I am 100% straight. I do believe that sexuality is a spectrum but personally, I have only ever been physically attracted to women. It's human nature to categorize, especially things we don't understand, and a large part of why I felt so apprehensive about openly showing my feminine side is that I knew that it would lead both Black men & women to believe that I must be gay. And this made me apprehensive, not because I felt like there's anything wrong with being gay, but because I knew that, specifically within the Black community, being gay still isn't widely acceptable. And so even presenting as something that could be interpreted as gay would lead me to be more excluded and isolated. I was afraid it would ruin potential opportunities to not only make male Black friends but also it would turn off potential black female suitors.

But what ultimately made me not care about this anymore was realizing that I can't be the only Black person in the world who feels the way I do. And that yes, showing up the way I do very well may turn off a lot of people that I would have otherwise had the opportunity to connect with but it also very well may turn on a lot of people who resonate with who I authentically am. And that it would be much more beneficial for me to connect with people who are not so small minded to judge me off of my appearance but rather who took the time to get to know me holistically. In fact, it was much better to repulse the people who would have immediately judged me based off my appearance because I would have never been able to deeply connect with those shallow people anyway.

Fortunately, my decision to embrace my true self has led me to attract a circle of people who genuinely accept me for who I am. While I've certainly received proof that some Black women don't find my current expression attractive, I've also received proof that many of them do. While I can't say that I feel understood & accepted by Black men by and large, I do have a core group of Black men who, not only see me, but also encourage and support me to show up in whatever way feels truest to me. This journey towards authenticity & the community I've found would not have been possible without my commitment to honoring and expressing all aspects of my identity. And now, being 'alternative' is one of the things I valuable about myself the most.

I refuse to be limited by my race, my gender, my sexual preference or anything else. I refuse to be told that I cannot do, want, or be interested in something because of the color of my skin. I am Spirit first, human second, man third, Black and everything else else after that. I resonate with Walt Whitman just as much as I resonate with James Baldwin. And in the words of Walt Whitman, 'I am large, I contain multitudes', and I could never reduce myself to be small enough to fit the masses idea of what a Black man should be. My differences used to be what laid at the foundation of my insecurity but these days, they lay at the foundation of my confidence.

Fuck it, mask off

To anyone reading this who sees a piece of themselves in my story, know that your uniqueness is not just a facet of your identity; it's a gift from God and it is a waste of that gift to deny yourself and instead try to be like everyone else. We do not have to be defined by the narrow categories society places us in. Instead, we can define ourselves by the richness of our experiences, the depth of our passions, & the authenticity of our expressions.

My journey of being an 'alternative' Black man is one of radical self-acceptance. It has taught me the power of authenticity. It's not just about defying stereotypes or breaking norms; it's about listening to the deepest truths within myself & having the courage to live them out loud. It is saying that I'd rather stand alone as who I fully am than be a part of a group as a shell of myself. I've spent time in each of the major Black American male archetypes - the thug, the entertainer, the athlete, the player, the buck and while you could say I've enjoyed some form of 'success' in each of them, none of them ever really fit me. Rather, they were all masks that I felt like I needed to wear in order to gain status, security, & advancement socially within the Black community. And now that the masks are off I do definitely feel more vulnerable but I also feel more free... and honestly that sounds like a fair trade to me.

Growth Challenge

This week's growth challenge is going to be two-fold:

First, I invite you to reflect on a time when you felt like you had to hide a part of yourself to fit in and write about it in your journal. If you feel comfortable doing so I, and I'm sure many others, would love it if you shared your refections in the comments!

Secondly, for every day this coming week, I challenge you to give yourself a rare compliment focusing on different aspects of yourself that you find are unique. Don't hold back and if you need inspiration, check out the rare compliments subreddit.

Building Community

This past week I sent an email to members of the newsletter inviting them to hop on a one-on-one video call with me so I can introduce myself and learn a little about them and why they're interested in growth. I did this because one of the areas I know I need to grow in is not isolating myself and because I truly want this newsletter to build a community. If you've made it this far, you're definitely a part of the community whether you want to be or not lol so if you'd like to hope on a call with me to chat about growth or whatever, you can do so at the link below.

I'll announce next week's newsletter title on IG later this week so connect with me there @michealsinclair if you haven't already.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. It will never cease to amaze me that there are people out there who are interested in reading my long winded thoughts & just know that I do not take you for granted 💜