An editorial perspective about the reality of being black in America, the hope that comes from such experiences, and what is needed to change hope into reality:
If you live in the US chances are you know February is Black History Month. The one month of the year where corporations and businesses do what they feel is their obligatory celebration of the history of this country’s black citizens. Schools join in this celebration by doing a month long unit on racism, slavery, segregation or the civil rights movement. It’s talked about as if we have achieved the pinnacle of societal harmony with desegregation, the abolishment of slavery, and racism as a thing of the past. For most black Americans however, this is not the case. Last year showcased our reality and put a spotlight on the truth. Unfortunately it came at the cost of the lives of people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and others.
As an individual black American, I am the product of circumstance. I am not blind to the fact that those circumstances have provided me with a certain minuscule level of privilege. I grew up with parents who both had decent jobs that provided a middle class life in the suburbs of Wisconsin. My mom was a teacher and wouldn’t let me speak anything but proper English like she does. She always put emphasis on enunciation, and inflection. Something most parents do when teaching their children how to speak. However, I was always confused when people marveled at how “well spoken” I am. People would often tell me I am “one of the good ones” or that I’m “more white than black” because I spoke “properly.” As if sounding and being educated is a white attribute and being uneducated is an attribute reserved for black and brown people. It’s more insulting than it is a compliment.
I’m naturally a happy and friendly person. Because of this friendliness, in certain social situations people feel comfortable to deem me the expert on anything they think relates to black culture. I’m also expected to be the spokesperson for all black people as if we are a monolith. That leads to the expectation that I can and should answer for the behavior of other black people. That is an impossible responsibility that no one asks for.
When it comes to skin tone, I am what some people refer to as “caramel.” Both of my parents are medium brown-skinned with enough European heritage on both sides to make me racially ambiguous to some people and more aesthetically pleasing to others. Throughout my life I have been complimented and praised on my skin tone, like it’s an achievement I worked for. At one point I was warned against having children with an ex. He was much darker than me and for some reason there was concern he would “mess up the color” of our future children. A main component of racism is colorism.
The previously mentioned verbal, physical, and behavioral aspects make me more palatable and less intimidating to society as a whole. It shouldn’t be that way, but here we are. In spite of my palatability, I am not immune to the unique brand of American racism that is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society. It never protected me from learning at the age of five that I was somehow different and worthy of the hate of strangers because of my skin color. It never stopped a shop owner from wrongfully accusing me of theft at age ten, during a class trip to Madison, WI. It never stopped a former boyfriend’s family from questioning if we should be together simply because I’m black and he was white. It never stops strangers from publicly humiliating me in broad daylight by calling me a ni**er, berating me and dehumanizing me. These are only a small fraction of the things black and brown Americans encounter on a regular basis. Unfortunately, it’s far worse depending on individual circumstances.
This has been and still is a part of American history, not just “black history.” If you don’t like the narrative, help change the outcome. Be more gentle with each other. Humanize each other. Listen to each other’s stories and learn from them. Just because something is not your reality does not mean it isn’t someone else’s. That’s where you start. From there self-education, self-reflection and action is the hard work we all need to do. Work that needs to be done more than one month per year. Our team at Wasson Enterprise started our self-education and DEI journey last November. When will you start yours?