When I was in high school, we were required to meet with our guidance counselor to discuss what colleges we wanted to apply to. I remember my counselor, after looking at my list, asking me if I’d considered any historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). I’d chosen schools with widely accepted, excellent reputations, so his question threw me. In fact, his question offended me. I remember wondering if he thought I wasn’t good enough to get into the schools on my list and if he asked white students the same question. And that thought is an example of the pervasiveness of white supremacy.
Let’s take a moment to unpack that because there are a lot of assumptions in my reaction to the counselor.
Assumption 1: That HBCUs were not academically equal to the colleges on my list. In all fairness, many of the schools on my list were ivy league, or one tier below. But who ranked these schools? What standard was used? I was using a list developed by people who may not understand the value of an HBCU, specifically the self-esteem and social value one could gain there.
Assumption 2: That the system ranking the schools was trustworthy. These days, the mechanisms behind why some things are considered superior to others is a lot more transparent than in the past, so we understand that these rankings have more to do with who manipulates the criteria rather than the actual worth of the school for students.
Assumption 3: That asking me to consider an HBCU meant he thought I wasn’t good enough to attend a non-HBCU. Not only didn’t I meet his approval, but I wouldn’t meet the approval of these historically white colleges and universities.
My response to him was something along the lines of, “Do we live in a historically Black country? Am I going to work in a historically Black company? Or am I going to be surrounded by white people all the time so I may as well get used to functioning in that world?” Needless to say, the conversation became a lot less productive.
When I look back, a part of me is sad at the anger and defensiveness I felt at the question. I kind of wish I’d looked into HBCUs more, but at the time, I didn’t think they would prepare me to live in white culture. And I couldn’t fathom a world where I wouldn’t live, if not in then side by side, with white culture. But maybe attending an HBCU would have instilled me with the confidence I needed to understand and refute the bullshit of white supremacy earlier in my life. Or maybe I’d be in the same place I am now. Who knows?
What I do know is that that was an example of my belief that Black owned, Black controlled environments were inferior to white establishment. It’s a belief I struggle with now, and, unfortunately, I’m not alone in that belief.
We are living in an amazing and fucked up time. That’s not saying that the past 500 years have been great for Black people in America. It hasn’t. But compared to when I was growing up, we talk openly about racism in a lot more spaces than I’ve ever seen. I grew up knowing I could only talk about racism with other Black people, mainly because I was living, playing and learning alongside openly racist white people and talking about racism was dangerous. When white kids told racist jokes in school, or called me the N-word, I didn’t have the support of teachers when I reported them. When I was excluded from activities by the white kids, I felt ashamed. When I was picked on and called racist names, it wasn’t because they were racist – somehow I’d done something to provoke them. Sometimes my skin provoked them; imagine how provoked they’d be if I’d actually confronted their racism? Yet, I was forced to play with these ugly humans who were repeating what they learned from their parents, because integration and diversity and all that.
I silently and resentfully endured teachers picking on me, challenging me, questioning my ability. I learned through a myriad of ways that I was different and would receive different treatment and different punishments than the white kids. And as I learned more, I started to understand that the reason for that difference in treatment was because of something superficial and out of my control. And I learned that in order for me to succeed, I’d need white approval.
And white approval is ridiculous and terrible. It’s arbitrary and conditional. And overall, it’s degrading. Many of my authority figures outside my home were white people. People who controlled how I was perceived and therefore, controlled what I learned and was exposed to. Year after year I’d meet a teacher, learn what their assumptions were about me, and learn how to meet their expectations so that I could advance. I’d experience their biases and prejudices in the classroom without context and absorb them into a learned pattern of behavior. The majority of my classes were white, as well as the faculty, so I learned to navigate those spaces, with their invisible land mines, as best I could.
Now, to be fair, I was a smart and inquisitive kid who talked to adults as if they were my peers. I also got bored easily. Unfortunately, this was often seen as insolence, or a behavioral problem and punished. I spent many recesses inside being punished for some classroom infraction, and studies have shown that Black students are often punished more often and more severely for certain behaviors than white students. We are held to a standard of behavior that is higher than our non-Black peers and childish behavior is perceived as an inherent racial defect, not just me being a bored kid.
As I got older, the way to please white people changed. I learned to avoid talking about racism, slavery and anything pro-Black because I’d be socially punished for it. Pushing back on someone’s racist comment made me the problem. I was being too sensitive. I didn’t know how to take a joke. People would say fucked up shit about Black people then turn to me and say, “But you’re different,” and I was supposed to be proud of that. My defense was often silence. But it was also isolation. I didn’t consider these people to be my friends, because when I did, I got hurt.
It was clear that the less I associated with other Black students, the more I was approved by my white peers. I never really boarded that train, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t visit the station. I started to internalize the thoughts and actions sanctioned by the white people around me. By the time I hit college — my predominately white, ivy league school — I was surrounded by a lot of Black people who were “not like those other Black people.” Interestingly, we simultaneously gravitated toward one another while rejecting each other. So many conversations about how we felt more comfortable together but didn’t want to pretend to be friends with each other because we’re all Black. Or how we didn’t want to be associated with the local residents, who were predominately Black and worked for the school.
And it was in this environment that my belief in my superiority to those “other” Black people was reinforced. This was where I learned how to “other” those who looked like me. The line between me and them was so pronounced that I could clearly articulate a difference. I was educated and trying to make something of myself. I was exemplary.
At the same time, I rejected the elitism of my college peers. I often left campus and hung out in town. I went to local bars, moved off campus, got a job in the mall. I was still “different,” but I wasn’t like those elitist assholes who thought they were better than other Black people. I was better then them, too.
But that othering never stuck for me. On some level, I was always aware that I was one confrontation away from having my “good Black person” status revoked. I’ve sat through meetings sorting through resumes and watching the team mock people’s names for being too “different.” I’ve participated. I’ve sat in silence when illness was inexplicably tied to race and didn’t challenge it out of worry for repercussions. I’ve made disparaging comments about predominantly Black parts of town without considering the things contributing to that perspective. And I knew it was wrong.
I’m not sure what finally raised my awareness and consciousness enough to make me speak more openly about these things. I think it’s the shift in the public conversation. I feel slightly safer expressing these thoughts and exercising the empathy I feel for people experiencing a reality that’s different from my own. Also, I was raised by parents who believed in helping others and taught me about meeting people where they are in life rather than imposing my values onto them. They reminded me of my privilege (we called it luck and fortune) and that many people didn’t have access to the opportunities I had. So, even though I spouted ignorance about Black people needing to do better and get their shit right, another part of me learned why they needed to in the first place. That part of me started paying attention to inequality. I started learning about the systems in place that created this environment — and I started trying to figure out how I could help.
So what did I do?
The first thing I needed to realize is that I live in a toxic environment that tells me that, as a Black person, I am not important. It is crucial that to refute this lie. I cannot believe what popular culture tells me about Black people, that we do not contribute to society in any meaningful or positive way. It’s not true. Regardless of what role we play, popular culture finds a way to malign and belittle it. Black athletes are “thugs.” Affirmative action is perceived as a way of advancing unqualified Black candidates and pushing out qualified white candidates from universities and jobs. HBCUs are perceived as less, despite needing to meet the same standards as other accredited universities and colleges. They are ranked on a separate scale than the national college ranking list, implying that somehow they are incomparable to the majority of U.S. colleges and universities. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is at your discretion, but when applying for jobs in a mostly white workforce, I have no illusions about how it will be perceived.
Other lies they tell: Black neighborhoods are “sketchy” — dirty, dangerous, bastions of crime. Black hair is ugly. Black hair care is dirty. Black features are ugly. Black actors aren’t as capable as white actors, so they can’t be cast. Movies with all Black casts aren’t just movies, they are “Black movies” so that white people know it’s not for them. And if Black people accomplish interesting or fun things, they are quickly appropriated by popular culture and credit is given to the white people who copied it.
Which brings me to the second thing I needed to do: stop seeking white approval. I am constantly exposed to a media campaign telling me that I am less. That isn’t going to change. I am told that I am not enough. This will not change. I am told that I am less than nothing, through police violence, mass media and daily interactions. If you have managed to carve out a self-sufficient life in the midst of this, you are amazing because the psychological battlefield that is being Black in America is brutal. And deadly. Just ask the many Black women and Black men killed by police. Look at the cities experiencing a constant terror campaign against their daily lives. We do not need the approval of these people through their awards or support of our work. The support these people offer is contingent upon upholding white supremacist ideology. Just ask Beyoncé.
Being told I’m not like those “other Black people” or “regular Black people” is racist. It is a way to justify why they aren’t discriminating against me like they would other Black people. It is a form of denial used to separate Black people they like from the ones they can act against. It upholds the idea that overall, Black people deserved to be treated as less, but I am the exception to that rule. If you find yourself generalizing about Black people, really think about that shit. Think about what you are saying and think about why you would choose to promote that message. Why is that negative talk about people who look like you the message you want to share?
Modern day racism is subtle. It sounds like progress when really it’s just the same old racism in a less obvious package. Learn the language. Recognize when you use it. I’m working to find the strings that manipulate me so I can cut them and set myself free.
I don’t deserve to think like a slave. No one does.
Schools in the South Suspend and Expel Black Students Way More Than White Ones (Retrieved February 20, 2016)
Young Black Men Killed by U.S. Police at Highest Rate in Year of 1,134 Deaths (Retrieved on February 21, 2016)
These 15 Black Women Were Killed During Police Encounters. Their Lives Matter, Too (Retrieved February 21, 2016)
The 12 key highlights from the DOJ’s scathing Ferguson report (Retrieved February 21, 2016)
New York City police union threatens to join Miami cops in Beyoncé boycott: ‘Stop portraying us as bad guys’ (Retrieved February 21, 2016)
Exploring the concept of “otherness” –
What is Otherness? (Retrieved February 21, 2016)
Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance by bell hooks (Retrieved February 21, 2016)