Overcoming the Special Snowflake Syndrome

If the Internet has been good for anything for me, it has given me a way to build community with others like me. However, as an adolescent from a working poor background in early 90s, I did not have access to chat rooms and other ways to connect with others outside my hometown before Facebook took over the world. So my existence was pretty isolated.

I stayed hidden from others. I might confide to liking something that “black people don’t like” every once in a while, but I mostly would not dare to let anyone know I liked anything other than rap and R&B. I mean you can only take so much teasing and being called whitegirl before it gets to you. Then there were times when I found it acceptable to show I knew Green Jelly and Crash Test Dummies. These times usually came when I found myself in the company of white peers-when I was the only black person within a 50-foot radius. During those moments, there was something unique about me. Then it was okay that I liked Queen and The Who. The white kids were impressed.

I was special.

Being that special snowflake during adolescence sometimes felt good. After all, I was where I belonged, right? It was okay that I seemed to have more common interests with the white kids than the black ones, right? In fact, it was better that I related more to the white kids with whom I shared classes (sometimes as the only black student). If I was going to be alone with them, I may as well make them comfortable with my blackness.

Except this wasn’t always the case. After years of unpacking, it occurred to me that my being the special snowflake was not just a matter of trying to fit in. No matter what I shared with my white peers, being “the only one” was usually uncomfortable and traumatic. With them, I was not always comfortable expressing my interests in my own culture. The mental acrobatics needed to balance the disassociation between the fear of being the only one and the pride in it requires talents almost the equivalent of your average alien superhero, especially when going through the peak of a Hotep phase. But it was “normal.” After all, if I ended up being the only one all the time, that must have meant that there was something wrong with blackness. And whether or not I intended to, my embracing my status as the special snowflake was a rejection of blackness.

We’re taught all our lives what blackness is and what it isn’t. The rules are unspoken. We’re taught the “black people don’t” chronicles directly and indirectly: “Black people don’t listen to rock/heavy metal/punk. Black people don’t speak ‘proper’ English. Black people don’t feel anxiety/depressed/lonely/alienated. Black people just don’t.” A rewatch of the 2008 film Medicine for Melancholy helped me do some more unpacking to this. Wyatt Cenac’s character Micah states it rather succinctly: “Everything tied to indie is tied to not being black.” This declaration comes from an understanding that black folx are not exactly welcome in alternative/indie spaces even when they derive from our creations and cultures. These spaces are not “black,” so black people don’t inhabit them… unless you’re a special snowflake who “accepts” these spaces as not black.

My existence is one that lauds indie culture as “real” or at least just preferable. I’ve been into films, books, music and other media that remain at the margins of the mainstream because the “edginess” appealed to me more than the mainstream. It never occurred to me that this indie culture to which I was exposed remained as overwhelmingly white (and male) as the products that made it to the mainstream. I just knew it spoke to me on a different level that fit more with my tastes.

Incidentally, a lot of the themes I witnessed in indie culture mirrored something of my own existence. Isolation and alienation are two commonly recurring themes indie hipsters like to explore, especially through the white males who remain at the forefront of recognized indie culture before the mainstream fully co-opts it. Ironically, these two things play a huge part in why some of us become proud to be special snowflakes. We get it, so to speak.

Admitting that you like something that does not focus on all black people all the time brings your blackness into question. You are ridiculed and shamed for not being black or black enough. So you hide the things you love. You become isolated and maybe retreat into your own world. But the white kids understand. At least that’s what you think. Hell, they think you’re cool because you’re not like them. For a while, you take this as a compliment because you do not have to hide yourself for them. You think it’s acceptance, but you may or may not realize at some point that this acceptance isn’t for your benefit. They like having you around because your type of blackness does not make them uncomfortable, but they still use the visual signifiers of your blackness to gain coolness by proxy. Your discomfort comes when you begin to ask yourself do you really want to be seen as the friend who’s “not like those other Black people”?

Like I said, mental acrobatics. And we have used some amazing mental acrobatics throughout the centuries in order to survive.

While I credit social media for currently helping me find community with other black outcasts like myself, I fortunately began shedding the notion that I was a special snowflake long before I was able to actively connect to the Internet. Learning history helped me make sense of my life and made me realize why sometimes I felt irritated and exhausted when my white peers insisted I explain something “black” to them. Seriously, if you dig deep enough to anything you love from hard rock to sculpting, you will find black folx at the origins. You’ll also find that so much of what we created has been stripped of its historical context and revamped into something more palatable for those who want to claim it as their own without acknowledging the source or the blood, sweat and tears that went into it. You will find that we (and most other POC) are the originators of everything considered hip, cool or alternative in the past and present.

Shaking off the special snowflake syndrome isn’t easy. After all, when you’ve been ridiculed most of your life for being different from acceptable or recognized blackness, you develop your own armor. You tell yourself that the others secretly wish they could be like you, but of course they can’t because you’re special. However, what you don’t know is that the person who shares your interests and hobbies is right next to you, but those unspoken rules prevent her from telling you, “Hey, I actually like David Bowie and Queen, too.” She doesn’t want to catch that merciless ridicule and the isolation that comes with it. You can’t blame her. As much as you like being a special snowflake, having your black card revoked can be just as painful.

Finding out you are not a special snowflake can be traumatic at first. I will always remember how Saul Williams (yes that one) at his book tour with a room full of mostly white college students looked so surprised and shocked to find out that he wasn’t the only black person in the room who knew who Betty Davis was! You see the white folx haven’t tried to claim her yet, so he must have been the only one to know that there was a black woman in the 70s who formed a hybrid of rock and funk that makes her a favorite among aficionados like the ones who “discovered” Death and will probably credit themselves with the black punk band’s revival. I mean we get told so often in so many ways that we are nothing special, so why would we let go of special snowflake status? It can be traumatic when losing that part of your identity that elevated you above the ones who could not reach that coveted height of social status. That status meant you would make it:  you would receive white acceptance. Living a life that does not include white acceptance is scary as hell, but you must realize that this “acceptance” comes with the price of throwing your own under the bus (and eventually you if you step out of line) when the ones you thought loved you no longer find you valuable. You may miss out on a new friendship or other alliance because you refuse to cross the room when you see someone who resembles you. After all, they are in your space, making you feel a little less special.

How can you overcome the special snowflake syndrome? By stepping out of your comfort zone and engaging with people outside your social circle. Only then will you find others that share your interests. Only then will you realize that you’re not alone. That while you’re still a unique human being with qualities and contributions that no one else can give the world, you are – in a good way – not as “special” as you thought. Believe it or not, this is a truly awesome and liberating realization.

Getting past the special snowflake syndrome is a process, but in the end it has to lead to self-acceptance. Finding other “snowflakes” often helps. It has been tremendously helpful even in my 30s, especially since I now find other black women and girls needing reassurance that their interests and pop culture preferences do not make them any less black. We understand what it was like to be “the only one” at some point and that finding others does not invalidate anything we thought made us unique.

As I said, overcoming the special snowflake syndrome is also liberating. I let go of respectability and monolithic notions of blackness that excluded even me a long time ago. I accept that we come in many different varieties because we all have different experiences. I try not to judge special snowflakes. After all, the ones given that status have usually reached a higher rung on the pecking order and must carefully navigate the climb even if it means stepping on the backs of their own. Who knows if I would still be there at this point in my life had things turned out differently. Perhaps they are still trying to survive the same as I did during my phase.

There are folks out there who love punk rock and indie movies and who are just as proud of their Blackness as well. You are not alone. In the end, you are not “special.” Quite a freeing thought isn’t it?

Overcoming the special snowflake syndrome is not easy. But it is worth it. Just like all forms of self-acceptance, it is a process that takes work every day. It does not happen overnight and there may be setbacks. It may be even more difficult if it takes some time to find your community. But we are here. We understand the struggle. And we will give you the safe space you need.

Note: I must extend my deepest gratitude to @dustdaughter/iamdust for her input. She likes to read stuff I wrote for some reason 😉

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