Race + Emotions
Published in

Race + Emotions

My Life is Not a Joke

2021 $5,000 Scholarship Essay Competition

By Darius M. Buckley, 2021 Scholarship Essay Competition Honorable Mention

Racism has always been one of those things that came up in conversations with family, but I didn’t experience it for myself until I went to college. Of course, the 11 o’clock news featured stories of black men losing their lives at the hands of police brutality but as a child, I never really paid attention to it. I knew that my mom was going to be there to protect me, as she always has. When she went toe to toe with a white woman in the grocery store because of a microaggression, or just a clear-cut racist comment, the car rides afterwards we’re always full of warnings against white prejudice. She and my grandmother grew up in Alabama during the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. My grandmother was born in 1935, so biographical movies about the South were lived experiences for her. She told me stories of family members that were beaten and hung by the Ku Klux Klan. My mother remembered having the N-word hurled at her while walking miles to school as a bus of white kids drove by. Even though my grandmother and my mother were from different generations, they both experienced a time when blacks and whites were not even allowed to use the same bathrooms, let alone breathe the same air. Things have changed quite a bit since then but the warning they’ve given me my entire life has been, “Be careful around some white people, some can’t be trusted.”

I took what they said with a grain of salt until I finally experienced racism for myself as a young adult. During my time as a resident assistant, I cherished our fall training sessions. It was a time to meet all of the new residence life staff and also get acclimated for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, one year tarnished my experience and almost ruined my entire time at Central Michigan University. During a training session we had with a campus police officer, a fellow RA asked a question about police brutality. Trayvon Martin had just been murdered and political tension was high in America. I remember the police officer saying something that floored me. He made a joke and said that it didn’t exist. Half of the room was dead silent, and the other half erupted into laughter. It took a moment for me to process what happened and the girl that asked the question ran out of the room crying. I followed her, and we sat in the hallway and tried our best to make sense of it.

During the days that followed, a couple of resident assistants voiced their concerns about the comment. The worst of those meetings was the one with my own staff. During an open forum, I was met with indifference and even questioning looks for being angry. The people I had grown fond of, the people I trusted looked me dead in my eyes and told me it was just a joke. I told them about police brutality that my close family members had experienced. I even mentioned a member of my own household who was physically assaulted by a police officer when I was just a baby. They didn’t care and my anger and frustration wasn’t enough for them to change their minds about the police officer’s comment. When faced with questions about the Trayvon Martin case and the issue of racism in this country, the direct quote was, “There’s two sides to the story.” Two sides to a teenager being shot and killed when all he had was an Arizona and Skittles in his pocket.

The emotions that arose out of me were anger and betrayal, especially after that staff meeting. I had to get up and walk out just to process without yelling at the top of my lungs. I felt trapped and isolated, not only was my skin different but my desire for my people to live peaceful lives did not match up with the opinions of my peers. It’s unfortunate because even though I processed my emotions, I still lack trust for many of the people that sat in that staff meeting. I was eternally grateful to the black senior staff members that listened to me and understood me and comforted me. I was thankful, but there was a small part of me that knew they only had so much power and they had to fight even harder for their voices to be heard in board rooms full of white faces.

We have to continue speaking out so that our lives will no longer be a joke to someone.

The joke made on that day had a huge impact on my life and the anger from that moment has morphed into drive. That moment ignited a desire in me to speak up and speak out and encourage others to do the same. I planned and facilitated programming in my hall to give students an open forum to discuss police brutality. I’ve used my ability as a playwright to write plays that discuss the issues of not only police brutality but gentrification and systematic racism in school districts of color. Social activism has become a focus of my work and that moment during residence life training proved to me that there’s still work to be done. We have to continue speaking out so that our lives will no longer be a joke to someone. We deserve to live, and not just live, but live happily.

I’m blessed to be able to meet with a black therapist every month. I was intentional about choosing a black male counselor because I believed that he was the only one that would truly understand my pain and frustration. He has provided me with so many great ways to process my emotions, and unpack issues of racism in academic spaces, workspaces and everyday life. My emotional intelligence has been made stronger because I now have the ability to disagree with my white brothers and sisters and engage in conversations in white spaces where my voice is amplified. I don’t have to yell and even though my grief for my people sometimes morphs into anger, that anger very quickly becomes passion. Motivation to create change through community advocacy and programming for young people.

I’ve encouraged my young mentees to turn their anger into passion and use it in their work. I’ve encouraged them to fight with their pen and realize that their voice is more powerful than any racist comment or discouraging look. If I had the tools around emotional intelligence that I have now during that training I believe that the outcome would’ve been very different. The angry stares and moments of isolation would have become an opportunity to create programming within the residence life department on issues of addressing racism, which happened later in my RA career. Instead of storming out of the room, I might’ve stood up and spoke to the police officer, directly to his face, stating truth, statistics and facts to silence any rebuttal he might’ve had planned. Sometimes, I fantasize about what it would’ve been like to have the mind and zeal that I have now in that moment, but the blessing in all of this is that now I get to share those tools with my students. Now, I get to shape the minds of the next generation of fearless writers and social justice advocates. Now, I get to see the fruits of my ancestor’s labors. My grandmother was refused access to white bathrooms with no way to fight back, my mother was verbally assaulted by white students with no way to fight back. My life was made a joke by a police officer, but now, with my voice and the protection of the rights fought for by my elders, I will fight back, with my pen.

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Justin Woods

Founder of EQuity Social Venture — www.equitysv.com | MSW/MBA candidate | emotional intelligence + racial justice