‘Black Don’t Crack’ Isn’t Much of a Compliment
“Youth is wasted on the young,” some say. Thank God a little of it was left over for me.
I’ll never get tired of being reminded that I look younger than my middle age — if only that flattering observation didn’t come with a less-than-flattering racial qualifier: “Black don’t crack!”
Of all the hackneyed, ridiculous things to say, why do so many people still insist on saying it?
Aside from being annoyingly ungrammatical, it isn’t even true. Black does crack, as any Black person who has suffered from ashy skin with no soothing moisturizer on hand would tell you.
Oh, and we age, too. Some of us even show it. I’ll resist the urge to name names because this is not about hurling insults. And yes, for the most part, Black people do age exceptionally well.
I understand why “Black don’t crack” is a source of pride for many. Beyond its metaphorical value (we’d have to be an unbreakable race to survive what White supremacy has put us through), it’s also a small way of affirming our beauty in a society that worships White over everything else. So go ahead, look in the mirror, and say it loud: “I’m Black, and I don’t crack!”
I don’t need that particular brand of validation, especially from non-Black people. I’m all about the custom compliment, whether it’s about my physical appearance, intelligence, or my personality. When someone admires my being ageless and then assigns that quality to everyone who shares my skin color, it’s not really about me. It’s like raving about how sexy Black men are and expecting me to say thank you.
It’s also just another form of stereotyping. Why does race always have to be a factor for some when making observations about Black people? It reminds me of when a friend told me I was the only Black person he’d ever met who couldn’t sing. It reminded me of all the things White people expect Black people — particularly Black men — to be, aside from mad, bad, and dangerous. We should be good at basketball, dancing, singing, sex — and good at aging. That’s a lot to live up (and down) to. Why can’t I just be me?
I suppose White beauties have their crosses to bear. When people acknowledge that a female superstar of a certain age is eternally youthful, there’s often this qualifier: “I wonder how much work she’s had done.”
In 1995, I fell in love with Julie Christie after seeing her in a West End production of the Harold Pinter play Old Times. How could she be so stunning at 54 back then? (Fifty wasn’t yet the new 30 — or even the new 40.) After watching her in Afterglow (the 1997 film for which she received the third of her four Best Actress Oscar nominations), I started to question my sexuality. Jonny Lee Miller even questioned his marriage to Lara Flynn Boyle after meeting Christie in the movie. Wouldn’t anyone?
When someone admires my being ageless and then assigns that quality to everyone who shares my skin color, it’s not really about me. It’s like raving about how sexy Black men are and expecting me to say thank you.
Years later, when I watched Red Riding Hood on a plane, and Christie played Amanda Seyfried’s grandmother, my enthusiasm sharply waned. If I were to sleep with someone old enough to be my mother and Dame Helen Mirren (who’s 75) was busy, I’d go looking for Christie, who turned 80 this year (though some sources say 81).
Of course, when I first fell for her in the ’90s, nearly everyone tried to convince me she only looked so good because she’d had work done. Why can’t older White actresses look good just because they do? And if someone is lucky enough to find a plastic surgeon who does excellent work, shouldn’t she get some credit for it? I refuse to believe that every gorgeous Hollywood starlet over 40 stays that way by going under the knife. And so what if some of them do?
As for Black not cracking, it’s just another example of how some people, no matter how enlightened and colorblind they claim to be, rarely see past skin tone. My sister once told me about a classmate who looked at a photo of a woman in a magazine and declared, “She’s pretty — for a Black girl.” My sister was furious. Why couldn’t a Black girl be pretty, period? Why can’t a Black person look much younger than they are, period? Why must everything about us circle back to race?
I work hard to maintain a youthful glow — to feel young at heart and look the part in the mirror. Good genes can only go so far. If I’m ageless, I’d like to think it’s because I’ve taken excellent care of myself, and it’s not entirely a race thing. If Paul Rudd can take full credit for being in his fifties and looking like he’s in his thirties, so should Will Smith.
I’ve also frequently heard “Asians don’t age,” which I always found to be preposterous. I’d spent many months based in Bangkok, and when I’d walked down the street there, I never felt as if I’d fallen through the looking glass into The Picture of Dorian Gray. I saw young people; I saw older people. I saw people who looked young but were probably old. I saw people who looked old but were probably young. I saw people.
I had drinks with a guy from Indonesia, and although the subject of creaky clichés never came up, I found myself wondering about his experiences with them.
As for my Indonesian date, I figured he had to be 25 tops, though his pop culture references could have placed him at least a decade older. It wasn’t because of the braces he was wearing on his teeth — to me, he looked like a kid. When he revealed he was 34, I would have fallen off my barstool had I been sitting on one.
“Wow! You look so much younger than 34,” I told him. It was a compliment reserved specifically for him. The thought that Asians his age all look 25 never entered my mind because it simply wasn’t true.
“And you don’t look 42 at all,” he responded. I waited to hear him say, “Black don’t crack,” to explain my youthful glow, but it didn’t come.
I’ll drink to that, I thought — and I did. Now that’s what I call a compliment.