“Why do you put that in our faces? So there's some moral high ground you can claim, without anyone else claiming it?”
My great-grandfather could, and did, pass for white. His only son, my grandfather, was darker and couldn’t. My grandfather told me a story of his youth that must have taken place in 1938 or 1939 in Jim Crow Louisiana. He accompanied his daddy on one of his jobs hauling things. My great-grandfather went in the front of the business as a white man. They sent his “boy” (my grandfather) around back. My grandfather waited in the back, alone. His father, whom he was named after, let these people think that his only beloved son was no relation to him to preserve the lie of his whiteness. Because his whiteness helped him provide for his dark housekeeper wife, and his only son, my great-grandfather gave up part of who he was in order to survive in a world that was turned against him.
I used to straighten my hair. It was not out of an attempt to become white. It was an attempt to be invisible. My nappy hair is the most prominently identifying of my ethnic features. When my hair is straight I am confused for Latino, Vietnamese, Pacific Islander, sometimes even Italian. I have never said that I am anything other than what I am. But I have seen differences in how I am treated that cannot be entirely imaginary.
When I was 12 I was in pretty intensive therapy for some serious depression. One of the things that most worried my psychiatrist was my seeming inability to express anger. My father had been a huge proponent of experiencing “positive emotions” and eschewing “negative emotions,” the implication being that anger was the worst of the negative ones. I was socialized on the Cosby Show, and on WEB Dubois. I was brought up to be well-mannered, and not rock the boat. I was a quiet, serious kid who learned that being angry is dangerous, not to others, but to myself and I had best avoid it.
When I was 17, I attended an expensive liberal arts college with a very leftist reputation. It boasted the most ethnically diverse campus among small liberal arts colleges. The campus was open, meaning there were no gates and members of the public were welcome to walk through at any time. I had pretty severe insomnia for much of my freshman year, and one night went for a walk through the twisted grove of oak trees at the campus’ far end. This grove was not near any dormitories or any academic buildings. Campus security were on patrol. They stopped me and questioned me. I told them I was a student. They demanded to see my student ID. I said I didn't take it because I had gone out for a walk, and didn't think I needed it because the campus was open, I then showed them my dorm key. They asked if I had stolen it. I was indignant, but pointed out that it would only work on the Residence Hall I lived in, named the hall and further pointed out that I was on the Residence Council and represented that hall. The interrogation ended with them waking my RA at two-thirty AM to confirm that I was actually a resident. There was no apology. One of the security officers told me that I had been lucky that time, and cautioned me to be more careful in the future.
At that same college one of my fellow residence councilors made a blithe assumption that it was really good that the college’s drive for diversity got people like me in to the school, the unspoken implication that I was accepted due to some sort of quota system that the school didn’t actually have. I asked her what her SAT scores were; mine were 300 points higher. I asked her what she had done for extra-curricular activities. She had written an article for the school newspaper. I was the editor-of-chief of mine, and also the yearbook editor, and also the secretary for the local NAACP youth council, and also volunteered to work with children, and also competed on the national level for Academic Cultural Technological Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO). No one had ever implied that she had not earned her place at my college. That would happen to me four more time over the next three years.
I have “fit the description” more times than I can count. Once, while walking home from West Hollywood to Koreatown wearing all white I was stopped, searched, and made to lie on the ground by police officers who said that I fit the description of a crime that had occurred four miles away only ten minutes before. In one of the poor decisions of youth, I had bleached my hair. When I politely asked what the description was, an officer answers “African-American male about 5’7” wearing all black.” (I am 5’11”). I pointed out that I was wearing all white. “You could have changed.” The other snarled. When I asked if anyone mentioned bleached hair, I was told to be quiet and informed that I might have worn a hat. After several minutes of humiliating questions (“What are you doing in this neighborhood?”) I was let go with a warning. I lay on the ground until long after the police had left, fearful that they may use my movement for an excuse.
Be good. Work hard. Be polite. These are things my parents, and my grandparents have drilled into me since before memory. The unspoken implication is that if I do all of these things it will make a difference. I am good. I do work hard. I am polite. And I’m still called über-prickly for saying that I find it offensive to suggest that I am not really black. I am told to “grow up,” when I politely articulate reasons that it is offensive to me. And I am polite even though at that moment I am grieving, because Florida seems to have decided again that the very existence of black males is dangerous. I am grieving that the context of Trayvon Martin, of Jordan Davis, of Renisha McBride, is not far enough removed from the context of Latasha Harlins, from the context of Emmett Till.
Grow up. The twelve year old version of myself whose psychiatrist compared him to a wizened old sage in a forest might find that darkly amusing.