Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How the Urban Chameleon Came to Be...

by creator and editor-in-chief HaJ
One day, a group of friends and I were sitting around trying to think of a term that best describes people like us who approach the world from parallel perspectives, having mastered the skill of seamlessly transitioning into corporate America—from its private grade school classrooms, ivy league universities, corporate board rooms and social climbing ladders—back out into our bilingual/patois/urban slang speaking, hip winding, kinky hair handling and curry spice eating America.
We are the approaching 30ty sumptin', urban professionals of color born into the hip hop generation and raised by parents who were in search of a better life having migrated from the Caribbean, South America and Africa or those born here who lived to see Jim Crow Laws become the Civil Rights Movement— They shared an ambition of carving out their road towards the Great American Dream. Our families made homes for us in the largely immigrant communities nestled in the metro-city 'hoods of Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem and the Bronx where a walk down our street could still served up bangin’ plates of rice and peas, curry goat, plantanos, and collard greens and the rhythm of the streets were a flavorful mix of Afro-Caribbean-Latino-Hip Hop that would easily seduce us into gyrating our hips. We reveled in the pulse and comfort of our urban/Latino/Caribbean ‘hood, but when it came to our education our world stopped. It was as if the batteries in the boom box died and the sensuous aromas of all that good food was locked in the freezer. Having to wake up an extra two hours earlier every day to get ready for our commute, we witnessed, through sleepy eyes, regentrification at its finest as we were sent across town where we were only one of two kids of color in the best private schools. Our parents would drop us off, tell us just how much they loved us and off we were to learn another kind of world. A world that we would have to know if we were going to one day run a company or maybe even...a country.
We did what kids do and tried to fit in, realizing that rules in school were different, simply defined by someone else’s culture. Even the way they played “red light green light” was different from how we played it around the way. But after a while, having learned the new rules, we no longer fit in around-the-way. Soon, names like "Oreo" were whispered in our direction condemning us for the verbs we were now conjugating. Our families set aside our tears and feelings of isolation that came along with struggling to define ourselves in opposing worlds and instead took comfort in knowing that we were being prepared for a fiercely competitive world.

We continued to thug our way between the two worlds keeping up with
Yo MTV Raps and -refining our best versions of the whop, Kid ‘n Play and the boggle for those around-the-way dance offs and our families continued to endure laborious work and financial strain as they often handed over their last dollar for our classical music lessons and summer travels around the world.

So, who did we end up becoming?
Today we are the cross-sector, world traveling, social switching consumers that can be found pumping down Fifth Ave in our Louboutin’s with a Bergdorf shopping bag trying to catch transportation back to the ‘hood for those two dollar codfish fritters before going to see the Dominicans to get our hair done.

We are the over achiever who works through the night prepping PowerPoint presentations to an iPod shuffle playlist of Lil’ Weezy, Jay Z and Buju Banton – and then maybe flip it to Jamiroquai and then brings it down with some Yo-Yo Ma

We’re the ones who identify the Caribbean/Latino/African customer representative, switch into the dialect of their homeland and score ourselves a free bump to first class then sit back with a glass of Kir Royal and chuckle at the person next to us who tries to figure us out peeping our selected reading material of The New Yorker, Financial Times and Vibe Magazine (with T-Pain in platinum and diamond fronts on the cover)

But that’s okay, we’re accustomed to the confused looks, inquisitive stares and the ignorant questions from those who can’t seem to figure us out— Not quite Cosby kids and not quite Bebe’s kids. We inherited our family’s hustle mentality with a cosmopolitan twist where we go from skiing in the Alps of Switzerland to being upside down gyrating on a float at a West Indian Day Parade.

We are Urban Chameleons.

One thing is for sure: no matter what your cultural background, the ticket to the American Dream is still embedded in White America. So, we know there must be all kinds of chameleons here hustlin' towards their American dream as they juggle more than one kind of world. These are just our tales as we know them and we find humor and comfort in sharing them…this is the journey of the Urban Chameleon
Please enjoy and contribute to the journey.


  1. It's been really nice to see the variety of people that we know emailing in responses (although it would be nice if they posted comments please!!!)about how much they relate to this experience. We did go ahead and change "pumping down the street in Vitton's" to "Louboutin's" as yes I would agree that it is a more common shoe to wear. Although a girl friend of mind recently went ape shit over some Louis Vitton's at the past Barney's sample sale- hot pink Metalic. Despite her foot surgery and Barney's not having her actual shoe size she was determined to (as Tim Gunn says) MAKE IT WORK!

  2. Here's what another friend e-mailed:

    Wow! Just read your piece. Breath-taking and the ultimate truth!
    I like all of the points referenced - culture, race, economics...I am curious if you thought of integrating that spiritual side, the side that comes from the ancestors, the side that keeps us as we face battles in the workplace, that side that propels us. We are a blessed people and for us to go from slave ships to equal citizens is quite amazing when you think about it...One force was working harder to free us than the force that was working to oppress us. Those realities are with us even as we enjoy our "equal citizenship" and continue to dream. The challenge is "What's next?" and how can we use our urban chameleon to relate to people around the world and be a light in the darkness...
    I'm rambling. You got me thinking....

  3. I made this same comment on JJP where I first saw this...

    You know, it's the "seamless" part that can differentiate...

    I've got friends who can make it work, but I also have friends who DO make it work. That is, some people know how to sit in a boardroom and not make a fool of themselves while others are capable of engaging freely and without boundaries. Both groups understand the importance of turning it on and turning it off but one group can do it seamlessly and the other group has to focus...

    Not that one group is better than the other (there have been times where I am consumed with concern at how easily and quickly I turn it on and off) but there can be differences.

  4. Great post. I can kind of relate;I'm younger so I am still working to get to the level of traveling the world and shopping at Saks. I'm a 23 year old African American graduate student struggling to balance school and trying to get my foot in the door of nonprofit sector. I was raised in the hood and bused to the other side of town to go to school. I wasn't the best student but I knew that the only way I could better my life was going to college and that's what I did. Now i'm in graduate school, trying to be a better student, looking for a job in this tough economy. I have really big dreams for myself and helping my community and I hope I get to achieve them.

  5. Great piece. I'm also younger, wasnt "bused" to school for elementary school, but I can identify with many aspects of this piece.

  6. I found your site via "A Breath of Fresh Air with Jon & Nkechi", which I found via Derrick Ashong's blog. I sort of had an idea about what the term "Urban Chameleon" means, but it was great to read the fleshed-out version. I'm also one of the younger folks. I can relate to a lot of the elements in this piece. Seeing our older 'sisters' and 'brothers' make it happen gives us the courage to keep going.

    Thank you for doing what you're doing.