The Complicated Nature of Being a Quiet Black Person

It’s human nature for us to assume so much about other people’s temperaments (and literally everything else) based on their ethnic and racial background. It’s a quick way of getting to know people, without of course, actually getting to know them. But on the receiving end of stereotyping, one’s sense of individuality can be diminished. My case in point:

“Where are you from?” they ask.

“Jamaica. But I’m probably the least Jamaican girl you’ll meet,” I jokingly respond introducing myself. It’s problematic, I know, but in saying this I hope to bar my new acquaintance from holding me to their expectations of the stereotypical Jamaican. You know, that we’re loud-mouthed, machete toting, weed smokers who either bob to Bob Marley music or dagger to Vybez Kartel songs. Not that those things are bad, but before I get their hopes up about meeting this cool, new Jamaican chick that will gleefully put them on to some island vibes, let it be known that I’m probably not the one. I’m just me.

Such is my experience being Jamaican, and to a much greater extent, being a black woman. The biggest deviation from the stereotypes of both these groups (in my personal experience) is that I’m a confrontation-despising introvert. My default mode of being is quiet. Growing up, there was no shortage of “Why are you so quiet?” Beyond the fact that quiet/introverted folks are generally misunderstood by society, to be black and quiet is another layer of “Why?” and “How?” and “Speak up!”

Here are some of the conundrums of being a quiet black person:

You are labeled one of the good ones.

Being quiet puts you in direct contrast to the stereotype of the aggressive (and loud) black woman and threatening black man. In much of our society, black people (especially black women) are seen as angry. They are assertive and aren’t afraid to tell you how they feel and call the world out on its B.S. Their organic modes of expression are often times misinterpreted as uncouth or disrespectful by our culture. People tend to want to silence these black folks (when they rightly have something to say). Or they want to laugh them away in “ghetto” Shanaynay skits.

But us quiet people?

People can “handle” the energy we bring to a room without feeling threatened. Rightly or wrongly, our quiet is conflated to goodness. Since we’re not generally talkers, there’s little worry about us “popping off” at any moment’s notice. Lovers of being in the background, you generally won’t find us interrupting politician’s speeches on stage with cries of ‘Black Lives Matter.’

But at the same time, as a quiet person, it can often feel that people are disappointed that you aren’t sassy enough. You aren’t performing blackness in a way that entertains them. “Why aren’t you tap-dancing for me?!” they must feel. “Why aren’t you enrapturing me in your high volume, long-winded, Ebonics-filled tales of blackness? Speak up!”

This is a peculiar point of being. On the one hand you hate that this negative stereotype of the angry/loud black person exists. It’s unfair. Why are other ethnicities/races allowed to be expressive, a bit loud, and perhaps even angry, but black folks are not? But on the other hand, if you don’t check yourself,  you can find yourself leaning into this “quiet person privilege,” disdaining loud folks and seeking to separate yourself from them. You begin to feel you are one of the good ones, too, buying into the belief that there are bad versions of being black. (I’m reminded here of the light skin vs. dark skin clashes in the black community).

You might feel being outgoing is the only way to be successful.

Most of our black cultural icons, past and present are larger-than-life characters. They are our favorite, no-nonsense commentators on news channels like Angela Rye, or our former black president and first-lady. Or they are the Real Housewives of Atlanta. Sometimes they are the fearless entrepreneurs we follow on Instagram who teach us a million and one ways to brand ourselves. The fact is, there is substantially less representation of awkward and introverted (successful) black people in our culture. But there is an overabundance of the opposite archetype: the type that gains success by their willingness to fight on reality TV for money. It can lead a quiet person to question “What does success look like for a person like me?” It can feel like our lack of a charismatic, outgoing or irreverent personality leaves us in the gray. Are we not interesting enough? We may feel societal pressure to be aggressive, social butterflies we aren’t naturally.

(Side note: When I found out TV producer, screenwriter and author Shonda Rhimes is a self-proclaimed introvert, I jumped for joy)!

You aren’t perceived to be down for the (black) cause.

The thought is that if you’re quiet, you’re complicit. As a quiet person, our natural ways of being – preferring alone time to being in a crowd of protesters, needing time to think before we speak, much less yell – doesn’t intuitively lend itself well to traditional notions of change-making. Just because our modes of activating or participating in social justice doesn’t look like someone else’s, doesn’t mean it’s not there or that we don’t care deeply about the issues affecting our people.

I’m personally inspired by the quiet revolutionaries who write, paint, sit and march the world into greater consciousness. But I’m ever so grateful for our “loud” peers who take the brunt of criticisms (violent, radical, etc). and change our world, too.

People think you are untrustworthy/stuck up.

Ever heard of the saying “you need to be careful of the quiet ones?” Not talkative types, our motivations and emotions aren’t readily available and people take issue with this. Folks think we’re hiding something. More often than not, it’s just that we’d rather take on a perceiver role in social interactions until we have something meaningful to say. Which brings me to my final point…

You are uniquely powerful.

Sometimes being a black introvert feels like having drawn the short end of the stick. We’re often misunderstood. But oh my, how much we have to offer through our gifts! Our thoughtfulness, creativity, and conscientiousness. When we collect our precious thoughts and define just how we want to say (or write) something, for a moment the world stops to listen to this new, quiet voice. We become forces to be reckoned with.

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1 Comment

  1. I can definitely relate to your post! I’ve been quiet (and shy) for as long as I can remember; in elementary and high school, it didn’t seem to be a problem for others (i.e. crazy comments, etc) but many times I wished I was outgoing and popular like my friends. But when I got to college and in the workplace as an adult, that was a different story–more crazy comments/ridicule, more insecurities, more bad relationships, more confusion about who I really was. For many years, I didn’t like myself because I allowed the things that people said or did to affect me.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’m learning to accept my personality and my relationship with God has helped me to see that there’s nothing wrong with having a quiet personality.

    I thought this sentence was interesting:”…there’s little worry about us ‘popping off.” I have to admit that when I hear about someone commiting a horrible crime and the news refers to the person as “quiet” or a loner,” it makes me cringe:”like, oh great…see this is why quiet people get a bad rep.”

    I have no choice but to continue being myself, no matter what someone else does or thinks. Thanks for your post! I’m glad to see more people sharing their experiences.

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