The Weight of Being Black
Though Trayvon Martin’s family expressed faith in the justice system now that George Zimmerman has been formally charged (with second degree murder), I can’t help but feel dispirited that it took this long to happen.
There have been few other times in my life when I’ve felt the gravity of what could happen to me by nature of my race and gender. Others have brought up this up as well, but today I feel the weight of my race:
I feel the fear my mother felt when she was called a monkey, while campaigning for a state senator in a white, conservative neighborhood.
I feel the anger and paralysis I felt in the 8th grade when I was racially profiled on the subway.
I feel the dejectedness I felt of spending six years of sitting, waiting pleasantly for a white person to take the empty seat next to me on the railroad – and of spending six years watching people squish themselves into already crowded rows or even standing for 40 minutes to avoid sitting next to me.
I feel the shame of watching people (subconsciously?) clutch their bags or veer away from me as we pass by each other on the street.
I feel the isolation of looking around my classroom – especially in computer science – and seeing very few people who look like me, a perspective I’ve been considering since I was 13.
I feel the threat of the numbers against me and my race: that 1 in 3 black men born in 2000 (up from 1 in 4 for my birth cohort) are likely to be incarcerated; that black students are less likely to do well on standardized tests, in STEM fields, etc. and I feel the negative self-fulfilling prophecy of psyching myself out on the SAT, in calculus and physics, and now, in computer science.
I feel the clash of cultures when I tell peers that my parents spanked (and sometimes beat) me as a child, that my parents are both active in their black Greek organizations (which are vibrant in their community activism well past their college years), that I grew up in the black church, etc.
I feel the disbelief of watching distant high school classmates parade around the world – from house parties on the Upper East Side in New York City to clubs on the Lower East Side, from vacationing in the Hamptons to skiing in Vail to sunning in the Bahamas –seemingly unaware of the privilege of their money and their complexion (if they are not unaware, their behavior is even worse). I look at their insular world, so far from my reality, and wonder what, if anything, they will do with their privilege, besides perpetuating the same process.
I feel the slight acquiescence of self I sometimes experience around adults who are white or wealthy – trying my best to show that I’m a “good black boy” – that I know how to behave.”
I feel more anger and paralysis in being unable to express these frustrations on Stanford's campus. I left biology early to watch the live coverage of the Zimmerman prosecutor’s announcement and to hear Trayvon’s family respond. No one else around me was agitated as I.
Beyond my personal experiences, I feel the frustration of watching educational, judicial, penal, and housing systems that systematically fail our poor and/or brown families and children – a frustration that grows stronger in the silence that ensues around it, in the face of those who say “race is no longer a problem,” “the market will fix everything,” “they obviously don’t want to change – we’ve given them the opportunity.”
This is an easy mentality to have at a place like Stanford, where so many people – both of color and from lower income families – have overcome various odds to succeed. Yet our presence here does not mean the struggle is over. In fact, it likely means that we had access to resources that most of our brown and poor brothers and sisters did not have access to – the system as stands would not have likely allowed us to be here without extra assistance.
To be fair to all those who didn’t leave biology yesterday like I did, we are students, and in theory we can put the world around us on pause for now to focus on succeeding, so that we can change the world when we are successful. But how many of our alum are going to actively combat racism, classism, and all the isms of the world? And how many are going to join the hedge funds, the banks, the think tanks that perpetuate the oppression of the masses? How many of us, when presented with the institutional power and resources to enact change, will make the hard decision to go against the grain?
So, attempting to place a kernel of an idea in the minds of people who will one day hold great power, I ask those who know me well in particular to take this post to heart, to think of me and consider what it’s like to live in a world where you are almost always in the minority of people who look like you, to live in a world where your skin color can automatically lead you to become a potential threat.
Consider what it’s like to be born into a system where your classrooms are likely to be overcrowded, where your family is less likely to have access to adequate healthcare, where you are more likely to be unfairly suspended or expelled from school, and where you are more likely to wind up in jail than your counterparts of other races. Consider what it’s like to grow up in a world like this, where so many of the odds are stacked against you, and then tell me that we are in a post-racial society, that we can rely on the market and economic policies that disproportionally benefits and rewards the rich.
And the call does not stop there. You can consider what it’s like to sit and watch as a nation debates whether or not you have the right to marry, whether your love is constitutional – what it’s like to be told to “sit and wait” to be viewed as a regular citizen.
While Trayvon’s case weighs on me so much with all of my emotional baggage about race, the feelings that have bubbled up with respect to being black represent a fraction of the whole. They represent all the anger, frustration, shame, fear, and paralysis I feel when thinking about the wrongs of the world. The feelings represent the embarrassment I feel that my people had to wait (1865 minus 1776) years to be emancipated, or (1964 minus 1776) years to have federally protected rights or (20XX minus 1776) years to have the same opportunities for success as my lighter skinned peers, the embarrassment I feel that our society waited (1920 minus 1776) years to grant women the right to vote, and the embarrassment I feel for future Americans to know that their forefathers could have addressed the income, resource and opportunity gap, could have given everyone the right to marry. Wrapped up in the helplessness I felt about having had to wait 45 days for Trayvon Martin’s death to have been officially called even a possible crime is the helplessness I feel in having to wait indeterminably for a better society.
For all those in majority roles and/or positions of privilege, don’t think about or play so flippantly when debating economic or social policies or weighing job options. Do think about the lives of the minority groups over which you hold privilege exist – ask whether the system that benefits you also treats them well. If the answer is no, please do everything that you can to work to dispel oppressive laws and attitudes.
Follow Kristian at his blog "With a 'K'" and on Twitter.