Til Kjersti, California 23. juni 2020
I, Too, Sing America … Still.
America has an infection that has run rampant in all parts of its society since the first European stepped foot on Native American land. From that day to this, some races have been suppressed into silence, oppressed into implosion and explosion, repressed by lack of access and opportunity or all of the above. For African Americans, there is a 100% infection rate guaranteed from the moment of conception.
From inadequate prenatal healthcare, lack of healthy food options in historically black communities, to black mothers dying at a disproportionate rate than their white sisters, yes, the effects of racism are transmitted even before you breathe in its stench.
If racism is the infection or the disease, socio-economic factors can either act as pre-existing conditions that exasperate it or the antibody that helps to subdue the symptoms. However, regardless of whether you come from a dual income household or a single one, live in a low or high crime neighborhood, or attend a good vs. underperforming school, no person of color is immune.
In much of my childhood, my relationship with racism was mainly asymptomatic. Though I did not experience the real symptoms until middle adulthood, it did give me the sniffles every now and then. However, even at an early age, I knew very well it was going to “get me” sooner or later.
I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but it was not wooden either. The life my parents created for me dulled my awareness of racism and the problematic status of African Americans in America until I was much older. I was innocently ignorant and looking back, I am glad I was. I had access and opportunity even in a small, working class city that no one wanted to live in in the 1980s and 1990s because of drugs and crime. Despite its problems, it was still my city. Though the city experienced white flight decades earlier, people took pride in the ownership of their homes, my friends lived across the street, we played, had sleepovers and went to church and school together. By all purposes, it was an idyllic childhood. I went to a religious, private school that was located in the midst of million dollar homes in a neighboring city whose residents had a lighter hue to their skins. It was not the conventional private school with high tuition and parents with 6 or 7 figure incomes. Its mission was to give particularly black and brown children an opportunity for a high quality education regardless of socio-economic levels. Interestingly enough, though the school was open to all, I am not aware of any students from the surrounding, affluent neighborhood who attended the school in the 9 years I was a student.
Modern Day Segregation.
The first time racism tickled my throat was in highschool. I was one of less than 15 African Americans in a student body of over a 1000 in a wealthy highschool where the students drove BMWs and Suburbans. During my freshman year, there was a white supremacists flyer circulating around campus and I was instantly afraid. Who could I go to? Was I safe? Could I survive here for another 4 years?
My residency and ethnicity came more into play as my high school years progressed. I was able to make friends of all races and cultures in high school and I nicknamed us “The Rainbow Tribe” because of it. However, because my city was so notorious for crime, some of my friends’ parents would not allow them to come and visit. One parent, after denying his daughter’s request to come over, said that because I was black, I could live in my city and not be harmed. This friend was not African American.
That comment has always stuck with me.
Being African American does not automatically mean you are impoverished. As a teenager, I battled against assumptions not only about my residence but the fullness (or assumed lack thereof) of my parents’ wallets. There was a constant ask if I needed financial assistance and or if I attended the school on a work study program. Neither of which was true. My mother as an engineer and my father in the service industry worked hard to provide for my sister and I ensuring that our needs and some wants were provided for. The only poverty I faced was in these attitudes and incorrect assumptions.
I find myself as the African American representative either by choice or by sheer number. In most of my high school classes, I was the only one.
It was both a burden and an opportunity, and it comes with a price: You could either educate and inform or reinforce the stereotype. You had to be on your “best behavior” because you carried the entire race upon your shoulders and prepared to be subjected to inappropriate comments said either unawares or purposely while still being expected to smile, carry on, and excel in the mist of puberty and teenage angst.
I remember reading the powerful book To Kill A Mockingbird in one of my English literature classes. The teacher often read aloud. Riddled throughout the book is the “n” word and the saying of the word was included with each read aloud.
As the only African American person in the class, I felt uncomfortable each time the word was uttered in a room where some of my peers had never had a meaningful interaction with a black person. The word ricocheting off the walls in that classroom made me feel like a black dot in the middle of a white page: a target. Everytime the word was said, I was pierced leaving an empty hole in the middle.
Even in a literary and historical context, the vitriol that is the word said aloud was temporarily made acceptable. After class, I approached my teacher and explained my discomfort. I asked him to substitute the word for a more appropriate term. He did so, but the true question looking back was, why didn’t he know to do that before I asked?
The “N” Word.
Despite it all, I still graduated magna cum laude with the Rainbow Tribe at my side and my faith before me. College was the halfway mark between fantasy and unscripted reality. I was no longer in ignorant bliss believing I was looked upon as an equal in America, but was not at a point where I had given up hope that racial harmony was achievable. It was a peaceful period of growth. My first African American teacher was in college whereas in my elementary and high schools there was none even on campus. Because of this, I eventually became one.
I was there when Jesse Jackson rallied with students to stop the ban on affirmative action.
My first protest.
In college, I met more friends to add to the Rainbow tribe both white and black whom I am close to to this day. College was where I really started to embrace my identity as a black woman surrounded by other educated black people while acknowledging that it was the diversity of my friends since high school (2 of which were my college roommates as well) that also made me who I am. To me, my black identity is loving your culture enough to also love someone else’s.
Like in high school, for most of my over 20 years as an educator I have been in a position where I am one of few or the only one on campus. It is a delicate tango where remaining silent after hearing a hard comment can defy your own self or there is a risk that speaking up makes you appear as an angry black woman. Then, your job or your future career aspirations could be in jeopardy.
As an African American, you are required to wear full body armor especially over your head, heart and feet.
Racism can play mind games leaving you feeling that you are not good enough as it ushers in feelings of defeat and celebrates stagnation.
Racism can cause an abnormal heartbeat. It is sometimes difficult to move in the steady rhythm of life if your heart regularly races in fear or you’re constantly on guard.
Keep moving, in spite of, is required. Do not be still.
The day racism turned into a full blown virus was a few years ago. It had finally “got me.” A student was having challenges and a team of fellow educators and I were supporting him. He went one by one shouting insults at some members of the team and when he came to me he said, «And you’re a “nigger.”» Unlike reading about it in the book in high school, I was now the “n.”
It was my first time.
However, my immediate response to him was, “But I still love you.” The educator in me quieted the African American broken within. Where did he learn it? And how could I eliminate this word from his vocabulary and replace it with respect? I decided to eracism with love. I know it may sound cliche, but I saw this as an opportunity for me to stop the formation of a potentially biased adult that could spread the infectious disease of bias knowingly or unknowingly. I made an effort to get to know him and vice versa to see me not just as his African American vice principal, but as a person.
Needless to say, he never called me that word again.
To many, this story is a non-fictional tale of triumph, but what many forget is that every encounter with bias whether experienced personally or heard about, you develop a form of PTSD. There is no 12 step RA = Racism Anonymous help group, no medicine to consume to dull the hurt, and no course you can take to graduate from the effects … you must learn to function in the dysfunction knowing that the high level of melanin in your skin adds a layer of difficulty to the already challenging task of being human. We use coping mechanisms of laughter as a disguise, send prayers to a higher power for a second coming, not signaling the end of time, but just a salvation from the suffering of being afraid to walk, talk, sleep, and breathe while black. Furthermore, being considered a threat because there is bass in your voice, being labeled as lazy, deviant, and ignorant even before you take your first steps, praying your sons and daughters don’t flinch and catch a steel bullet are realities while being paid less and receiving an inadequate education with over designation in special education perpetuates the cycle of poverty and powerlessness. After all this and more, you are still expected to agree that the American Dream is equally available to everyone.
Imagine being a runner in a race to this dream.
However, you are weighted down with a 80 pound weight by a society that deems your skin tone to be a liability, chained to stereotypes, and constantly tripped by episodes of injustice. You can either give up or choose to endure as you build stamina with each step.
Yes, you will cross the finish line, but it may take a bit more time and will not be easy.
You have now, though, built the endurance to flex for future generations demonstrating to them that despite obstacles, they too can be successful.
However, even after the race is done and the dream is achieved, the weight, trips, and chains do not fall off. You just learn to consider the weights as muscle builders, transform the rusty chains of stereotypes into sparkly emeralds of success, and turn the trips into rhythmic two steps not missing a beat to live, live well, and fight for the right of all to do so .
Yes, the life of an African American is not easy, but I will never give up on my country in hopes that it and the rest of the world will see me as Samantha first and my, and all cultural identities, as an added and welcomed bonus.
“The operating room to cure racism begins at your address.”