They say to talk about what you know. So for my first venture into public writing, I’ll write about what I learned. I’m not saying if it’s right or not. Just something I learned.
Black people make up less than 20% of America’s population, just by the numbers it’s more likely I will interact with people who don’t look like me, far more than my white peers will interact with somebody who doesn’t look like them.
Sitting in eighth grade U.S. History class. There’s only three other black students in the Gifted/Pre-IB program. Your group, in which nobody else is black, gets assigned Virginia for your colonies project. Immediately your group mate suggests “Well we HAVE Dashaun, we can use him as a model slave.”
What do you do?
Most people say they would fight him. Some tell me they would tell a teacher or their parents. But if you’re one of less than a handful of black kids in the program, you know how it plays out. You tell. Student gives a nonsense apology. Other student merges back into the group of students. No harm done to his reputation. However you, you are now that kid. You’re the kid who can’t take a joke. Can’t handle a little poking and prodding. So you say nothing. You uncomfortably laugh as your blackness becomes the base of the joke again.
“Watermelon flavor for you right Dashaun?”
“I know what Dashaun wants, fried chicken I bet.”
“What do chicken and waffles taste like Dashaun?”
“So you’re Black and Puerto Rican? You must be like a spic-a-nigger then?”
“Ewww, no I don’t like you, you’re black.”
“Black guys just aren’t cute.”
“Why do you wear sneakers? Keeping them clean looks stupid. What a stupid waste of money.”
“Hip hop is just about drugs and sex. How shallow.”
These might sound harmless. Or maybe they sound appalling. Depends on your perspective. To me, they’re just middle school and high school. But they also set a premise. Became the foundation of most of my interactions up into college, just learn to take the joke. Laugh at it. At least if you laugh you fit in. Never mind the clear and distinct mocking of your culture, ethnic socioeconomic trends and your BLACKNESS in general. But at 13, you just take notes. You learn that blackness is bad. It’s to be mocked. Let them have their fun because it’s better to blend in then stand up and fight back. Yeah I’m black, but that doesn’t mean I can’t laugh too right?
So you learn to do things in a way that people don’t perceive as being “too black”. Blackness is scary. Blackness is ghetto. And once they’ve decided you’re ghetto, it’s over*.
Pick Vans over Jordan’s at the store, never mind that you enjoy sneaker culture, that’s too ghetto. Learn to be passive, back down at every opportunity, you don’t want to be the angry black guy. When asked, you’re Puerto Rican first, Black second. If it’s your turn to pick the music, play country or maybe a rapper from the radio. Don’t want to play ghetto music.
Blackness is living every day knowing that you are one of two things in the minds of your peers. You are a ghetto thug. Or you’re a “white black guy”. Never mind that you like the new Kobe’s AND the new TOMS. Regardless of if you enjoy comic books or Kanye West. You get to be one. So pick. The options are not as simple as a Disney Channel lesson about being yourself. Yourself is black. And black isn’t good. The worst thing a black man can be in the eyes of his white peers is ghetto. That is a label that will follow you no differently than if you were the smelly kid on the bus. It takes years to undo, or at best a change of scenery. So you learn to revel in being “white”, or maybe you learn to revel in not being labeled as “black”.
“Yeah you’re black, but you talk white.”
“You dress so white.”
“Dashaun is black isn’t he? Yeah, but he’s basically white.”
I would revel in these “compliments”. My greatest honor came in having white people count me among them. And I certainly swung as far right as possible. Republican. Conservative. I went as deep as I could, believing all of the oppression black people face to not apply to me because they saw me as respectable**. I centered myself around the things I was in spite of being black. Around the things I had in common with my peers, while trying to push down all the things that made us different.
But those things that made us similar, those would save me from the harassment by police, except that time a cop followed me home and then questioned me in my own neighborhood because there had been some break-ins.
Those things would save me from stereotyping, except when a girl’s dad called me a spic, and referred to me as that “black kid”, but never by name.
Those things would save me from being dehumanized, except when my hair became the thing to pet every day.
Those things made me different.
*understand any perspective expressed is that of a young 13 year old boy
**see “Respectability Politics”