The weight of my race, part II

Please read my original post–about the emotional baggage that came up for me during Trayvon Martin’s case thus far–here.

 

Sketch of me that a subway artist did in 2008.

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

Amadou Diallo- courtesy of Amadou Diallo Foundation, Inc.

 

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.

 

Sean Bell - courtesy of JusticeforSean.net

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

If you haven’t already, please see my original post ‘The weight of my race’ here.