If you missed the first part of Rachel Olzer’s essay series on why representation matters, read it HERE.
I walk into the room where we have our regularly scheduled meetings. I’m elated. It’s my first year in the outdoors club at my university and for the first time since arriving at Arizona for college, I feel like I fit in somewhere.
That feeling wouldn’t last forever, though. Even among my closest friends, I will start to feel like an outsider.
The meeting concludes and I circle the room looking for friends with whom I can laugh, hug and most importantly to my college self, get a cheap bite to eat.
I spot my close friend, a young white man who’s a year younger than me in school. Before I know it, we are full belly-laughing at something he’s said. He always made me laugh in a way that others just could not.
Seemingly out of nowhere, he mentioned something about Black people. Startled, I responded, “I’m Black.” To which he replied, “But you’re not really Black.”
It wasn’t a shock to hear. I was used to hearing these words. This common sentiment about me, and about my Blackness, has defined so much of my life as a Black woman.
What does it mean to be “really Black” anyway?
The idea that I’m not “really Black” has been present throughout my life. It’s something that I’ve struggled to understand.
I didn’t grow up with a strong sense of being Black or what that really meant for me. Many of my white family members have said this phrase to me, and each time their words cut deeper.
The way that most people have said this to me is meant to be some sort of compliment. The logical equivalent of being “pretty for a Black girl.” Another phrase I’ve heard often throughout my life.
The idea is that being Black is a particular thing and that particular thing is bad.
The idea is that being “really Black” is something for which any person would be ashamed.
I’ve since come to understand that what they are saying is, ‘I don’t have an understanding of Blackness that lies outside of the common ways Black people are represented in the media.’
It wasn’t until I left for college that I started to explore the concept of Blackness. It was only then that I began to explore what it meant for me to be Black—for me to have a Black identity, not just Black skin.
The idea of being “really Black” has wormed its way into my psyche in a way that I’ve yet to fully unpack. It’s caused profound emotional wounds that have led me to have some deep internalized racism that has made me question everything I do in the light of whether I will be confirming or refuting Black stereotypes. It’s a heavy burden that so many of us who are ‘the only’ Black people in white spaces, carry.
Being a Black outdoor enthusiast, adventurer and cyclist has exacerbated this burden. I’ve heard from others like me that, “Black people don’t mountain bike/rock climb/camp/hike.” Non-Black people will often concur—it is because you mountain bike/ rock climb/camp/ hike that “you’re not really Black.” This constant rejection is hurtful at best, and damaging at worst.
Not being “really Black” means that you are always too much or too little for everybody. Not being “really Black” means that people you’ve only spoken with over the phone, are shocked when they meet you face-to-face because you don’t “sound Black” (whatever that means). Not being “really Black” means that you constantly question your own identity, place and right to exist in any given space, whether those spaces are primarily white or Black. Being told that you’re not “really Black” is not a compliment; it’s dehumanizing.
Because Black people are often not represented in outdoor and cycling media, the sentiment persists. It wasn’t until I started finding other Black, Indigenous and POC outdoor enthusiasts that I began to accept that Black people do, in fact, participate in outdoor recreation, and that doing so doesn’t mean that they too are not “really Black.” Seeing other Black people riding bikes, and thinking no less of their Blackness for doing so, helped me to realize that my participation in cycling didn’t diminish my Black identity either.
Representation matters because seeing people who look like you doing the things you love can help you accept yourself. Seeing other Black people mountain biking, camping and spending time in nature helped me accept and love myself for the first time in my life.
Representation matters not just for those of us who want to stop being “the only” Black person in white-dominated spaces. Representation matters for non-Black people who think there is one way to be “really Black.” Representation matters because when Black, Indigenous and POC are included in imagery and stories, non-BIPOC people are able to see that we are more than just stereotypes that can be used to justify our non-existence in some spaces and our overwhelming existence in other spaces.
Representation matters because what we see and read of other people can shape our perceptions of reality. Media are a means of entertainment, education and cultural preservation. Storytelling and imagery are typically how people learn about their own origins and culture and together they serve as the primary modes through which we learn about people outside of ourselves, our families and the people who most look and act like us. Stories and images help us develop empathy and acceptance and they matter for those of us who are underrepresented in the vast majority of media.
If not given careful consideration, these images and stories can exacerbate the negative perceptions of ‘the other.’ In many stories, representations of ‘the other’ can be based on stereotypes that further marginalize Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Over time this leads to the idea that there are ways to be “really Black,” and this is simply not true.
This attitude is pervasive and insidious in cycling culture and media. The idea that cyclists look and act a certain way means that anyone outside of that image or story is not “really a cyclist.” Compounding the idea that we’re not “really Black” when we ride bikes, Black cyclists often feel that they are not “really cyclists” either, because we are so often excluded from the imagery and stories that dominate cycling media. Thus, we are often left feeling unwelcome in all the spaces where we attempt to show up.
Being Black is so much more than having dark skin. It’s also so much more than the struggles of one generation, one town or one country. It’s more than confirming or refuting a stereotype. It’s time for non-Black people to realize that being Black is not an insult, a negative identity or something that we are trying to escape.
It’s taken me years to accept that I am Black. But I would be lying if I said that I never question the authenticity of my identity. I would be lying if I said that I’m not tired of constantly evaluating how others are taking me in. It’s exhausting living a life in which you are always wondering where you fit and how you either are or are not fighting against an overly negative stereotype of the people you look like.
That’s a heavy burden for anyone to carry.
Rachel Olzer is a cross-country racer, Specialized ambassador and co-founder of @pedal2thepeople, and Instagram community devoted to sharing stories of BIPOC riders. Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series when Olzer will address why representation matters in interpersonal connections, like work spaces, friend circles and group rides.
All were always welcome, now maybe all will come in