I remember sitting in a research meeting for my psychology lab in college. I was surrounded by older, seemingly more sophisticated grad students of the Caucasian persuasion (does it even matter???) who were waxing poetic without inhibition yet rhythmically timing their prose like the alternating cascading fountains at the Bellagio in Vegas. I sat there paralyzed, a mirror image of De-Nero’s Catatonic character in Awakenings. My head flooded with a million thoughts but unable to speak. Although riddled with self-doubt, I attempted to mentally assemble a string of intelligible sentences to spout out what would hopefully garner the approving head-nods needed to break me from the chains of playing my role as the mute, brown observer (poor me). 👷🏾

I sat through that meeting mostly silent interjecting with the occasional “uh-huhs” and uncomfortable bouts of laughter as a sad substitute for sharing my actual thoughts, which were essentially jumbled at best since I was more focused on the prospect of scrutinizing eyes and the intense pressure they would inject in my cranial veins should I attempt to speak. Suffice it say, I remained quieter than a Japanese subway. As my fate would have it, I successfully accomplished placing an unofficial gag order on myself for every research meeting thereafter as well. 🤐

At the close of the research project, we all gathered one last time at my professor’s home to watch the Killing Fields, a movie based on the tyrannical dictator Polpot and his widespread extermination that targeted specific segments of the Cambodian population, all the while dining on what I presume were vegan-based dishes coupled with an assortment of red wine. Truly a film that goes well with garlic asparagus. Following our meal, we gathered in that dreaded circle of sharing one last time. While opinions flowed freely as the vino we were imbibing, I locked up again for good old times sake but managed to sputter out a few coherent superficial phrases that were sufficient enough to receive the same token nods of agreement that a mother would grant her child for correctly sounding out letters of the alphabet. 👶🏾👌🏿

What followed was a gesture that was extremely thoughtful and what I suspect was a result of the lab’s recognition that I was a bashful undergraduate who lacked the courage to speak his voice yet had the fortitude to silently suffer through every meeting. I was presented with a “Certificate of Excellence” highlighting my contributions to the lab. Granted I fetched a few journal articles for my professor and transcribed some interviews, I still felt my contributions were negligible at best. A cardboard cutout of myself would have performed equally as spectacularly at these meetings. Perhaps it would have even done a better job blocking the cool San Francisco breeze traveling through the semi ajar windows which would have otherwise raised a few goosebumps. Upon receiving the certificate, I felt like a kid on one of those new age little League teams who’s team lost but each member of the team received a trophy anyway. “Hey Billy-bob at the very least you you kept this here bench warm the whole time.” I was simultaneously touched and crushed by the gesture. I began to question myself even more. 😱

Was I merely intimidated by the level of intellectual firepower? Was I buying into some ridiculous inferiority complex that my fairer skinned compatriots’ views reigned supreme to anything this brown boy could cook up? Maybe it was the hawkish nature of my Dad peering over my shoulder in grade school as I attempted to do my homework interjecting with harsh tones if wrong answers were uttered which has consequently permanently placed me into a state of mental gridlock whenever I’m in a position to share my thoughts. Or, perhaps I was just being a large puss and had to just man up and get it together. Come to think if it I was probably just being a large P. 😳

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