Stereotypes are a double-edged sword. They are good insofar as they quickly identify a group of people without having to worry about discerning their individualism. They are also dangerous because they dismiss the complex web of life that the individual experiences. More often than not, stereotypes destroy our ability to appreciate the uniqueness and individual essence of a person. We categorize and shuffle people into certain molds. Whether it’s their race or where they come from, this categorization is always happening. Paradoxically, when I am exercising my autonomy and license to do whatever I please, I feel myself fall into a very certain dichotomy. If what ever I choose to do reaps success and benefit, not only for myself but also others, then I am applauded for my individual efforts. In this regard, people see and understand me as Leighton. What I have done is a reflection of my strong willed determination. But if I do something that people disagree with or don’t like, my individuality is immediately stripped. I become, “just another black kid” in nicer terms. Why is this? Those same people were showing me critical acclaim for doing extraordinary things. Maybe I was going above and beyond their expectations of what a “black kid” could do? Now that I’ve come up short, they’ve banished me back to the herd. A herd where a person’s shortcomings and downfalls are inextricably linked to their race. I can’t say me being black has ever been a motivating factor in anything I’ve done. But people have told me, in full certainty, that I have either succeeded or failed simply due to my race.
It just isn’t enough for me to believe that race is some sort of descriptor. “Black” doesn’t quite mean (the color) black in this regard. In explicit terms, it is a skin color. Implicitly it also entails a certain set of behaviors and expectations. This is very dehumanizing in its implications. There is no area for my individuality to be celebrated. Every thing I do or say can be accredited to the color of my skin. And more times than not, this is the case. Now my question becomes, “how do I create a healthy self-image outside of this paradigm?” I do not know what it’s like to not be a black man, but I don’t think it would be unreasonable to think that my life wouldn’t be so harshly looked at.
The notion of my behavior being causally linked to my race is something I struggle to accept on a daily basis. This is something I completely think happened by chance. I had no say in my current appearance. I can’t say I am proud to be black — it was simply by chance that I happened to end up this way. But in that same stroke, people will give me a million reasons on why I should be ashamed to be black. The parents of my friends frown upon my existence. If they got to know me, they would see I’m really not that bad (I hope!). They don’t want me around their kids, and definitely not around their daughters. Something I cannot control is perpetually weighing me down. It’s like wherever I go, I’m dragging a heavy anchor behind me. Before I open my mouth, there are preconceived notions of what I am about to say. Before I act, there are cautious eyes watching me. And in an act of ultimate censorship, before I speak I have to consider my race before I say certain things.
The black person is subjected to an unwarranted, unscrupulous critique of their existence. If we fail, it is because we are black. If we succeed, it is because we are black. We possess positions of power not due to our diligence and determination, but because we are black. It is a constant duality we must face. Either we are ourselves, or we are black people. It seems like there is no in-between. If you were to say that out loud, people would think you’re wild! But when I hear things like, “you speak well for a black man”, that’s what I really hear. Before I am human, I am black. In actuality, I am human before I am black. And who says I can’t be both? The former part of that distinction legitimizes some of the most awful behavior perpetrated against my peoples. This type of rhetoric is what normalizes poor treatment of subjugated groups. Remove the humanity from a group, and how you treat vermin all of a sudden becomes commonplace behavior.
Our depictions of self come from a place where our existence is reactionary. We are nothing without injustice and oppression. It is woven into the very fabric that is fundamental to being black. These are important parts of our contemporary and historical ideas of self. We become only as good as how far we have come as a race. Our self-actualization is perpetually lengthened; we will never reach a sense of enlightenment. The black people and culture are forever “under construction”. We cannot exist on our own — we need the duality that is the dominant white culture. So as long as we continue to exist in this paradigm, our self-hood will be tainted. Nothing we do, say or produce will be organic and authentic. Everything will end up as a reaction to this dominant white culture.
I don’t want you take away from this writing a sense of hate or disgust towards white people. I am simply chronicling my experiences and understanding of racism. My goal here wasn’t to make you more apologetic to black people; it was more of an attempt to show what happens when you decide to peel the labels away. When you decide to actually embrace the individual and hear what they have to say despite of how society labels them. Thank you for listening to my story. I am human above all distinctions of my appearance. And so are you.