College was a turning point. By default at a predominantly white institution (PWI), I quickly was absorbed into the black group on campus. We only had a handful of black students, so we stuck together. For the first time I had peers who listened to my music. Watched my television shows and movies. Lived some of my shared experiences. I felt comfortable. I watched my friends be unapologetically black, and it was new for me. It was a comfort I had no intention of relinquishing. But I also knew in the real world, outside of my group, outside of my circles, how we were looked at. When we were loud at the lunch table, the stares would ensue. The not witty hip hop references continued. But maybe black culture was just different, although their looks clearly let us know they believed it to be worse, lesser. Then I witnessed the 2012 election at a PWI.
“God wouldn’t call a black man to be president.”
“Who voted this nigger into office?”
“You voted for Obama, you must be really ignorant.”
And I wasn’t even who voted for him. Two of my friends did.
Adulthood reminded me at every turn that the experience I had lived and would live, the one my father had lived, and the one my kids would live, isn’t the same as my white peers. Maybe being respectable wasn’t enough. President Obama was raised by a white mother, went to an Ivy League school and became president. But he was still a nigger? What did that mean for me?
I learned that blackness couldn’t be undone by even the grandest of achievements. But still, being black is harder but it’s bearable if you can blend in just right. No immediate threat was posed. Then Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a white man in a neighborhood not too far from where I grew up. Not too far from where my brother could be driving. Not too far from where my best friend could be hanging out. Not too far from where my sister could be walking down the street, because she likes Arizona Iced Tea and Skittles too…but, no, the case was obvious. So what if a law says you can protect yourself with a gun in Florida? Trayvon was a kid, what threat could he pose that would require a gun? Zimmerman was an evil person who did an evil thing. But the Facebook posts, the articles, the thinkpieces written ad nauseam, about how Trayvon Martin had weed at school one time. Trayvon Martin got suspended once. He was a thug. A thug? What did that even mean? But more importantly, why were all of the people I knew who often touted me as their black friend, their example of their lack of prejudice, arguing that this child deserved to die? I thought Zimmerman was on trial. It then begged the question, what if that was Nayquan? What would they say about my brother because he had been arrested before? Would his mugshot be spread around the internet for all white people to judge? Would his humanity be denied too? What about mine? Who is on trial when a white person kills a black person.
“Tamir Rice had a fake gun and pointed it at police.” Although the video clearly showed otherwise.
“Mike Brown was charging that police officer, plus he stole from that store.” The punishment for theft is now murder?
“Sandra Bland should not have been talking back.” Being the angry black woman is now worthy of death.
Our culture sets blackness as less than whiteness. It’s evident in all levels. Socially, legally, economically etc. It does not always come in the form of the racist with the white hood. Sometimes it’s the customer who explains to you why Black Lives Matter is just a bunch of thugs, or why the confederate flag isn’t racist. Blackness is under fire quite often, once you look around.
I learned blackness is deeper than slang, than music, than culture, than my hair or name. Blackness was a badge I will always wear, regardless of how much I chase the approval of my white counterparts. So, if I’m black regardless, what am I suppressing? If they’re going to deny me a job opportunity because my name is Dashaun, shoot me down because I talk back, judge my brother because his skin is brown, and assume my father is angry because that’s just how black people are, then what am I running from? Pride in being black is important, because even if you hate it passionately, you are still counted amongst us. So why not opt to love yourself? Love yourself not in spite of being black. When you love your own blackness, you can simultaneously learn to love the blackness in others. Find strength in the culture and amongst peers. The worst thing a black man can be is not ghetto in the eyes of his peers. He’ll be that regardless. The worst thing a black man can be is in denial. To be apologetic for what he is.
“Black excellence. I love us.”
-Jay-Z, Murder to Excellence
*”I love my blackness. And yours.” was a recurring phrase tweeted by black activist, and Baltimore mayoral candidate Deray McKesson.