Few things rankle my soul like the following sentiment, generally expressed by out-of-towners looking to establish a certain intimacy with me. You know, they say, you really don’t seem like you’re from here.
I stiffen, look them in the eye. I ask them what they mean. Startled, they grope for words before stammering: Well, you aren’t flighty or superficial like so many L.A. people, especially women (lame attempt at a laugh). You seem so different, higher minded, serious, conscious—you know. Don’t you?
I continue staring the offending folk down, though with a smile on my face. This is L.A., after all, and there are some stereotypes I don’t mind living up to. Like keeping a casual, no-sweat attitude at all times—including times when I have to suffer this kind of chauvinism from people who know nothing about my city except what they see in movies, in graphic novels, and on Yahoo! News. Accordingly my L.A. smile is not blasé but challenging. It says, What else don’t you know about me? Some people pause, but the clueless blunder on with what they consider a compliment beyond reproach: “You seem like you could be from New York!” Don’t even go there. Literally.
Yes, I’m an L.A. native who can turn nativist in a hurry, especially when the clichés about California girls start to flow. But I don’t mind. I actually relish taking offense because taking offense is so unlikely, even among my fellow natives (many Angelenos consider standing up for L.A. bad form except at sporting events). It’s even more unlikely for me because I don’t fit any L.A. woman archetype—blond, surfer, Hollywood ingenue, hipster, rock star, enlightened parent. I’m wary of water sports, I’m not an actress, I don’t have any music gigs coming up, I have no kids. And I’m not white. I’m black.
A black L.A. woman evokes a whole different set of stereotypes that track pretty closely with the images of black urban women anywhere but for this addition: the L.A. obsession with clothes and sexy rides. This is not me, either. I’m from South-Central and live in Inglewood, I drive a 12-year-old Chrysler, and my husband drives an even older Buick whose interior is permanently embedded with dog hair. I like to shop and look nice—I’m nearly 50 but still in touch with my inner fly girl—but I never get my nails done. I grew up on R&B and came of age during the first popular iteration of hip-hop, but I am not nor was I ever ghetto fabulous. I like my hood just fine but am constantly visiting other ones because if I didn’t, I’d completely succumb to the geographic and racial isolation L.A. was built around and still perpetuates. So I stay on the move, which makes me more sophisticated than the average Manhattanite, who really has no reason to leave Manhattan; I know the score not just in Inglewood but in Culver City, Redondo, Hollywood, El Segundo, Compton, Manhattan (Beach, that is), and Mid Wilshire. Such well-roundedness in a city so sprawling that it resists physical definition is the mark of a real L.A. woman. Try me.
Illustration by Joe Zeff