The Realities Of Being Black In America

You learn anti-Blackness as a protective measure and hope it doesn’t become your norm. You try to figure out how not to hate yourself while navigating a society that hates you.

Yesterday morning I read a post about a 6-year-old Black child who said he needed to be quiet around the police so that they wouldn’t kill him.

Last night I read about Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old Black woman in Baltimore who was murdered in her home and whose 5-year-old son was shot during the altercation — a woman whose social media profile, which included documentation of her harassment by police in recent months as well as the evening in question, just happened to be erased that very night.

She’d written about being stalked by police, only to ultimately have them enter her home in riot gear, her conversation with her son marking her final words. This is in Baltimore, a city known for police brutality. A city where Freddie Gray was apparently murdered by no one, where the prosecuting attorney in the case is being sued by the police who murdered him. This is a city infamous for its militarized policing of Black people in a country where police custody could mean death.

Last night I went to bed anxious about today, knowing that the news cycle would start finding ways to blame this Black woman for her death — and even her child for his shooting. I knew I would wake up to hordes of people trivializing the lived experiences of Black people, finding ways to blame us for our oppression.

Today I will share what it’s like growing up Black in America and what that Blackness means.

I grew up in an all-Black neighborhood where a person’s socioeconomic status determined where they lived. People receiving government assistance lived on certain streets, renters lived two blocks over, and homeowners lived two blocks past that. We also lived on contaminated land, what the EPA calls a Superfund site. A few blocks away was some kind of plant — I assume it was an oil refinery because of the large drums on site, but to this day, I have no idea what it processes.

Our elementary school was also determined by the street we lived on. Each weekday we were bused to schools in white neighborhoods where our families weren’t allowed to live because our very presence lowered the property value. At least, that was the public story. The actual story was that the white residents couldn’t be trusted to let you live peacefully. So you went to school with the children of people so violent and hateful that you couldn’t be neighbors. Your teachers come from these neighborhoods, are friends with some of these parents, and the children are products of their environment. Your entire school experience is a product of that environment. And you are taught both at home and in school what this means.

It means that you are the first child accused of any wrongdoings. It means you are punished for doing the same things the other kids do. It means that you learn how to hide in plain sight because you are tired of having your recess time taken away. It means constantly having to watch your back, or align with the kids who look like you — even if you don’t like each other — because that’s safest. It means having teachers question you about your finances because they think you’re too well-dressed. It means being assumed that you are cheating because you got every answer right.

Being Black in America means learning every day that you are a problem for nothing more than being born with brown skin.

Being Black in America means learning every day that you are a problem for nothing more than being born with brown skin.

This awareness follows you. It follows you through elementary school where you watch your white classmates misbehave and get mild penalties, while you receive harsher penalties just for being in the room while they did it. You are called racist names and picked on with no protection from the adults. You fight back and are suspended for defending yourself. You pretend that none of this is because of your skin color — it’s just you got caught. You learn to expect to be punished for minor things. You learn quickly to pick your battles — do you ask questions in class or go learn it on your own because questions are seen as insubordination? Do you point out errors in the lesson or just learn that you cannot trust the people who are teaching you?

In college, you sit in class with students who assume you are there not by merit, but because you took a better qualified white person’s place, all while being surrounded by legacy students who were accepted because their parents are alumni. You face professors who question the source of your ideas because they doubt your abilities. When you speak, no one responds, but when a white student says the same thing, they are applauded.

You go through school surrounded by people you cannot trust, classmates, teachers, administrators, because you know they are waiting for you to fuck up and prove what they’ve always known — you’re just like the rest of “them.” When you point this out, you are told you are imagining these things, that you should stop making everything about race.

You learn to hear racist shit and not flinch. You learn how to silently rebuke shitty assumptions. You learn to let people talk to you like you are a dumb child. You learn how to mask your face, your emotions (I’m privileged in that I still haven’t learned that). You learn to take all the bullshit and navigate the system as best you can, using what tools you have to stay safe — and how to make white people feel safe around you. You learn anti-Blackness as a protective measure and hope it doesn’t become your norm. You try to figure out how not to hate yourself while navigating a society that hates you.

You learn to interview doctors to look for some bias that could affect your treatment. I profile them. I meet older, white, male doctors with extreme suspicion and if they talk down to me, I’m out. Actually, if ANY doctor speaks down to me, I’m out. I don’t trust condescending people with my life.

You learn to be constantly aware of your environment. When I go for walks, I pay attention to the cars passing by. I am always afraid that some motorist will decide that today is the day to run down a Black person. When my white spouse and I go out, I watch the people around me, looking for signs of disapproval or staring. I note how people respond to us and if something about the interaction makes me uncomfortable, we leave.

You try to figure out how not to hate yourself while navigating a society that hates you.

You learn not to leave yourself vulnerable. I worry about marking my lunch in the fridge at work — that someone will mess with it because they don’t like me. Instead, I bring in coolers so that my lunch is always under my control. I worry about putting my legal name on my resume, that I won’t be considered for jobs once they know I’m Black. I can’t trust prices for household repairs — I worry that they will charge me more than white customers. I can’t trust car salesmen or loan officers; Black people are routinely discriminated against and charged higher interest rates for loans.

I worry that if I am stopped or detained by police that I might be killed, as many others have been.

People think I’m paranoid. For years people told me that I was overreacting. It’s funny; I’ve experienced a ton of casual racism, some aggressive racism, but not a lot of physical racism. I would say I’m thankful, but I’m angry and sad that anyone has to endure ANY of this. I envy the assumed safety my spouse has when he navigates the world.

I rarely feel safe.

I’ve developed a fatalistic view of the world. I fully expect violence to escalate this year. A lot of Black people and non-Black people of color are recognizing the unchallenged racism of the white people in their lives and they are calling them on it. A lot of white people are feeling threatened by this pushback and emboldened by one of the candidates in this election.

Regardless of who wins, America is in for some shit and I am embracing the idea that my spouse and I may not survive it. If we aren’t killed, I question whether our relationship will survive.

My faith in humanity is being disintegrated bit by bit, and I am struggling with the resulting depression. A part of me wants to run away, ignore the news, ignore social media, and tell myself that everything is fine but I’ve never been one for fairy tales and I definitely hate lying. I stay plugged in and as a result get to hear in hundreds of different ways how Black people aren’t deserving of life and equal rights — how I am not deserving of my life or equal treatment under the law.

Being Black in America is knowing that every white person you meet harbors some anti-Blackness and hoping it’s the kind that won’t affect your life or livelihood in any meaningful way. It means hoping the staff at a restaurant won’t endanger your life with your food; your cashier won’t try to humiliate you in public; your mechanic won’t intentionally fuck up your car; your teacher won’t emotionally humiliate, violate, exploit, or have you arrested in front of the class; your neighbor won’t arrest you for being in your yard or call the police for being in your neighborhood; and your local, state, or federal police won’t kill you for existing.

America is in for some shit and I am embracing the idea that my spouse and I may not survive it. If we aren’t killed, I question whether our relationship will survive.

Being Black in America is about hope in the face of overwhelming violence and abuse. It is living, breathing Stockholm Syndrome. It is learning to love yourself and people like you, despite reading, watching, and hearing the opposite all of your life.

It’s no surprise that I’ve dealt with depression since childhood. I write about it to help process it and hopefully purge it. But the purge won’t last. All I need to do is turn on the television or watch a movie where Blackness has been erased, criminalized, or destroyed. Or I can go to work where it has been pathologized. Either way, something will remind me that I’m not supposed to think shit about myself and I’ll find myself sitting at my computer, once again, purging my pain because apparently that’s what people want to read.

So excuse me while I cry and make an appointment with my therapist because this is what it means to be Black in America.

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