The following is a combination of two posts I wrote on April 11 and April 12, responding to heated emotions I felt as a black man in response to developments in the Trayvon Martin case. Parts of this post were reprinted PolicyMic and StnfrdSTATIC.
The Weight of My Race: Part One
Though Trayvon Martin’s family expressed faith in the justice system now that George Zimmerman has been formally charged (with second degree murder), I can’t help but feel dispirited that it took this long to happen. There have been few other times in my life when I’ve felt the gravity of what could happen to me by nature of my race and gender. Others have brought this up before that Trayvon’s case has evoked this in themselves, but today I feel the weight of my race:
- I feel the fear my mother felt when she was called a monkey, while campaigning for a state senator in a white, conservative neighborhood;
- I feel the anger and paralysis I felt in the 8th grade when I was racially profiled on the subway;
- I feel the dejectedness I felt of spending six years of sitting, waiting pleasantly for a white person to take the empty seat next to me on the railroad–and of spending six years watching people squish themselves into already crowded rows or even standing for 40 minutes to avoid sitting next to me;
- I feel the shame of watching people (subconsciously?) clutch their bags or veer away from me as we pass by each other on the street;
- I feel the isolation of looking around my classroom–especially in computer science–and seeing very few people who look like me, a perspective I’ve been considering since I was 13;
- I feel the threat of the numbers against me and my race: that 1 in 3 black men born in 2000 (up from 1 in 4 for my birth cohort) are likely to be incarcerated; that black students are less likely to do well on standardized tests, in STEM fields, etc. and I felt the negative self-fulfilling prophecy of psyching myself out on the SAT, in calculus and physics, and now, in computer science;
- I feel the clash of cultures when I tell peers that my parents spanked (and sometimes beat) me as a child, that my parents are both active in their black Greek organizations (which are vibrant in their community activism well past their college years), that I grew up in the black church, etc.;
- I feel the disbelief of watching distant high school classmates parade around the world–from house parties on the Upper East Side to clubs on the Lower East, from vacationing in the Hamptons to skiing in Vail to sunning in the Bahamas–seemingly unaware of the privilege of their money and their complexion (if they are not unaware, their behavior is even worse). I look at their insular world, so far from my reality, and wonder what, if anything, they will do with their privilege, besides perpetuating the same process;
- I feel the slight acquiescence of self I sometimes experience around adults who are white or wealthy–trying my best to show that I’m a “good black boy”–that I know how to behave”;
- I feel more anger and paralysis in being unable to express these frustrations on this campus: I left biology early to watch the live coverage of the Zimmerman prosecutor’s announcement and to hear Trayvon’s family respond–no one else around me was agitated as I.
Beyond my personal experiences, I feel the frustration of watching educational, judicial, penal and housing systems that systematically fail our poor and/or brown families and children–a frustration that grows stronger in the silence that ensues around it, in the face of those who say “race is no longer a problem,” “the market will fix everything,” “they obviously don’t want to change–we’ve given them the opportunity.”
This is an easy mentality to have at a place like Stanford, where so many people–both of color and from lower income families–have overcome various odds to succeed. Yet our presence here does not mean the struggle is over. In fact, it likely means that we had access to resources that most of our brown and poor brothers and sisters did not have access to–the system as stands would not have likely allowed us to be here without extra assistance.
To be fair to all those who didn’t leave biology yesterday like I did, we are students, and in theory we can put the world around us on pause for now to focus on succeeding, so that we can change the world when we are successful. But how many of our alum are going to actively combat racism, classism and all the isms of the world? And how many are going to join the hedge funds, the banks, the think tanks that perpetuate the oppression of the masses? How many of us, when presented with the institutional power and resources to enact change, will make the hard decision to go against the grain?
So, attempting to place a kernel of an idea in the minds of people who will one day hold great power, I ask those who know me well in particular to take this post to heart, to think of me and consider what it’s like to live in a world where you are almost always in the minority of people who look like you, to live in a world where your skin color can automatically lead you to become a potential threat.
Consider what it’s like to be born into a system where your classrooms are likely to be overcrowded, where your family is less likely to have access to adequate healthcare, where you are more likely to be unfairly suspended or expelled from school, and where you are more likely to wind up in jail than your counterparts of other races. Consider what it’s like to grow up in a world like this, where so many of the odds are stacked against you, and then tell me that we are in a post-racial society, that we can rely on the market and economic policies that disproportionally benefits and rewards the rich.
And the call does not stop there. You can consider what it’s like to sit and watch as a nation debates whether or not you have the right to marry, whether your love is constitutional–what it’s like to be told to “sit and wait” to be viewed as a regular citizen.
While Trayvon’s case weighs on me so much with all of my emotional baggage about race, the feelings that have bubbled up with respect to being black represent a fraction of the whole. They represent all the anger, frustration, shame, fear, paralysis I feel when thinking about the wrongs of the world. The feelings represent the embarrassment I feel that my people had to wait (1865 minus 1776) to be emancipated, or (1964 minus 1776) years to have federally protected rights or (20XX minus 1776) years to have the same opportunities for success as my lighter skinned peers, the embarrassment I feel that our society waited (1920 minus 1776) years to grant women the right to vote, and the embarrassment I feel for future Americans to know that their forefathers could have addressed the income, resource and opportunity gap, could have given everyone the right to marry. Wrapped up in the helplessness I felt about having had to wait 45 days for Trayvon Martin’s death to have been officially called even a possible crime is the helplessness I feel in having to wait indeterminably for a better society.
For all those in majority roles and/or positions of privilege, don’t think about or play so flippantly when debating economic or social policies or weighing job options. Do think about the lives of the minority groups over which you hold privilege exist–ask whether the system that benefits you also treats them well. If the answer is no, please do everything that you can to work to dispel oppressive laws and attitudes.
The Weight of My Race: Part Two
While talking with a friend today, he noted that my response to discussing issues of racism in my life was to smile or laugh to myself. He pressed me to talk more about my negative experiences being black in America and to vocalize the real emotions that were behind my reaction of amusement. What resonated within me the most was my distrust of the justice system and of the police. Here is what came up:
By my 20th year, I have lived through two highly publicized cop shootings of innocent black men in New York City. And in each case, the (white) cop(s) have been let off without punishment.
When I was eight years old, I remember sitting with my siblings at an aunt’s house, playing with blocks with her children as my mother and aunt listened tensely to the verdict on the Amadou Diallo case. (Amadou was a 23 year old Guinean immigrant who was shot 19 times by four plainclothes NYPD officers who mistook his wallet for a gun.) I remember both my mother and aunt sobbing intensely as they learned all four policemen were acquitted of all charges.
As I grew older and participated in a program called Young Men’s Rites of Passage with my church, I got my first version of “the talk” that has become part of the mainstream discourse since Trayvon’s shooting. We were told if ever pulled over or stopped by cops, to slowly raise our hands above our head and politely, but explicitly state, ‘I would like to reach for my wallet or license and registration, is that okay?’ We were told that sudden or aggressive movements could leave us dead.
Fast forward a few more years to 2006, when five undercover and plainclothes detectives fired 50 shots at three men, killing Sean Bell, after thinking they heard someone from his group of friends say ‘Yo, get my gun,’ while in a nightclub in my hometown of Jamaica, Queens.
My father, who has for decades been involved with the National Bar Association (the legal association African Americans formed after being initially excluded from the white American Bar Association), the NAACP and United Black Men of Queens (as was his father), took me to a rally the NAACP held in Queens shortly after the shooting. I witnessed firsthand the tears and outrage of a people who are systematically targeted, killed and betrayed by the police. And to see a similar judicial outcome occur–all three of the officers charged were acquitted of everything–I lost my faith in what should be a fair system.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I was racially profiled on the subway in the eighth grade. I was on my way to our grade’s Day of Service in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights. I was dressed in old sneakers, dirty jeans, and a gray sweatshirt. I swiped my Student MetroCard through the turnstile, walked up to the platform, and was shortly tapped on the shoulder by two police officers. They asked me why I was using my student card on a day when public school wasn’t in session. I explained that I went to a private school and was on my way to do community service. They asked to see my ID and I showed them my school ID and the New York State non-driver’s ID my mother had the foresight to know I’d need when I started commuting into Manhattan for school. They scrutinized them–and me–intensely. I tried to call my dad to help, but service was spotty and he couldn’t hear me. Eventually, they let me go on a warning, but when I got to school, none of my white classmates could understand why I was upset or what had just happened to me. I channeled this energy into writing a story that I read freshman year at our Creative Writing Assembly. (Read the story here) But, while not the most traumatic thing that happened to me, I am traumatized by the event. I tense up when walking past police, and, paradoxically, appear more out of sorts and suspicious by trying to appear normal and unsuspicious.
My predominantly white private school (which I attended from 7th – 12th grades) yielded a number of uncomfortable experiences.
Also in the 8th grade, one of my teachers mistakenly called another black student by my name. I felt a little discomfort, but my teacher had also called every student in the class by nearly everyone else’s name at some point. What shocked me the most was when one of my classmates piped up and said to our teacher, “It’s okay–they all look the same, don’t they?”
This anecdote prompted the initial smirk that prompted my counselor to ask me to delve behind the defense mechanism of smirking or laughing. What I experienced then and feel every time I smile, was complete shock. Each time something like this happens, I am jolted back into reality–we do live in a racial society and I am not on the same level of privilege and understanding as this person or this group of people. I feel a wall of alienation come between me and the rest of the room and I try to put up a defense against it. And each time something like this happens, I feel a little part of me chiseled away.
And remarks or occurrences don’t need to be as explicitly offensive. Cynical and ironic comments from friends or peers–joking that ‘You can’t do this, because you’re black!’ –or sudden questions that turn me into the spokesperson for my race very deeply alienate me. I am failing to come up with a good anecdote of the jokes, but the gist is that they make fun of the larger system and history by highlighting the fact that I am present despite the system that does not want me there.
As I mentioned yesterday, I think the joking comes from the position that “You’re here, so racism doesn’t exist!”
And with regard to the questions, oddly phrased thoughts or sudden stares when someone mentions something black–which sometimes come from close friends or even teachers–while they hurt, I tend to minimize their impact because they usually come from well-meaning and non-malicious places.
But, as my friend pointed out today, this is not the right response. I shouldn’t have to feel a little part of me being stripped away because I don’t want to offend those who I know love me and who I know care. My responsibility to those I love is to be honest–and even critical–about the ideological violence I feel lashed–or sometimes gently brushed–against me.
And so while I charged the community yesterday to act, today I charge myself, my fellow African Americans, and everyone who feels bits and pieces of their soul silently torn out to act. To speak out and speak up. To always stir the waters and to never shy away from asserting our identities for fear of “making others uncomfortable.”
To that end, two additional thoughts from me on my experience and one more charge to the world:
- My hair: I’ve been rocking something of a high-top fade-mohawk for the past few months. While I genuinely love the praise and attention friends and acquaintances give it, I’ve grown tired of people who aren’t close friends, especially people I just meet, asking to touch or feel it. And I even get tired of those close to me pressing it down to see how it springs back up. For some friends, whom I perceive to have come from a more homogenous background than mine, it makes me wonder how much I am just an “other” to be experienced, sometimes doubt whether I am actually a friend or just one of the first black people they’ve mildly befriended. I can’t recall any black person on campus ever asking to touch my hair–we all know what it feels like. The tension behind this is that I love having my head massaged–sometimes it just comes at the expense of a piece of my sanity. But that notwithstanding, please, refrain from touching.
- Race: Don’t joke about it with me. That’s not to say don’t talk about it and don’t address the injustice that exists, but, like I will work not to minimize my feelings by laughing about racism, please let’s talk seriously and critically about it.
And finally, touching upon the sentiments I raised yesterday–that nearly every legal and institutional policy in this country sets up African Americans to be less educated, less medicated, less well-employed, creating the environment of violence that is perceived among the community (and that does exist to varying degrees)–I see the huge injustice in punishing large segments of this population by incarcerating them and killing them. And while I still charge those who will one day hold power to act fiercely against these polices, this post is more a charge to myself and to those more immediately around me while we are on this campus and before we are in positions of power. Practice being candid and acknowledging the discomfort of race now will make for a better future.
None of these things even crossed my mind to mention yesterday, and I am sure there is a lot more buried emotional baggage that I hasn’t yet come up.
I will continue to write as things do.