Bearing witness to the insults and injuries of race.
I've got plenty of the usual shit-gets-tiresome Black-male stories to tell. The police cars that shadowed me as I walked across campus at night on Chicago’s South Side. The White male MA student who demanded that a departmental administrator explain how I got into the Political Science PhD program when he didn’t. The elderly White people who assumed I was the elevator operator. The tightly-clutched purses, waaay too many to count, accompanied by a lips-pressed determination to avoid eye contact with me.
To varying degrees, each of those incidents shook me at the time. There have been many. Just last week my mother reminded me about the time two White women chose to walk down the middle of the street, literally, rather than pass me on the sidewalk at night. It was my first year of college, I was 18. You were so hurt, she says.
Still, these aren’t what first come to mind when people ask why I’ve spent my professional life as a racial justice researcher and advocate, most recently as the founder of EmbraceRace with my partner, Melissa.
Here are three reasons why.
To be young, transplanted, and Black
1973. It’s winter and it’s cold. I’m seven. I’ve just flown from Jamaica to join my parents in the United States for the year it’ll take for my father to complete his MBA at the University of New Haven. (We never return.)
This time, a big, burly man opens the door. His tone is hostile: What do you want? My father says they’re there to look at the 2-bedroom. We just rented it to an engineer from the phone company. I am the engineer from the phone company, my father says. The man slams the door shut.
A few summers later, my mother takes a 6-week summer course in psychology at Southern Connecticut State College. The professor, a White woman, returns student papers near the end of class. In large red letters between two red lines drawn diagonally across her paper my mother reads: PLAGIARIZED. She approaches the professor at the end of class, befuddled. You didn’t write this, the woman says. I’ve never had a Black student who could write like this. Mom’s voice shakes in the retelling.
My mother takes her case to the Dean, who tells her the professor was “actually paying her a compliment.” The professor gives my mother a C+ for the course. With two graduate degrees in her future, this is by far the worst grade she will ever receive for a class at any level.
My father is an angry man. Relatives tell stories from his childhood that suggest he arrived in the US this way. Above all, my father has wanted to be wealthy, well-educated, and in a social class all his own. When I last saw him almost 30 years ago he had achieved only one of the three. I suspect he would say that racism had everything to do with that.
Family friends advise my parents to go to the Connecticut Equal Rights Commission after the Whitney Avenue incident. My father demurs: That’s a waste of time. The mechanisms set up to address racial discrimination exist mainly to placate Black people, he says. He later becomes part of a federal class action suit brought against his employer for underpayment of workers. The several thousand dollars he receives do not begin to compensate for the bigotry-fueled indignities he feels have sabotaged his career and elevated his blood pressure to dangerous levels.
Always a prominent strain in my father’s personality, anger soon becomes his defining characteristic, along with emotional distance and physical absence. As a boy I sometimes let him win at chess. Better to be in his presence on inauspicious terms than not to have his company at all. My father’s rage, fueled by a corrosive mix of discrimination, ambition, hubris, and hurt, will contribute mightily to the dissolution of my parents’ marriage five years after my arrival.
“Helped wanted,” but whose?
1990. I participate in an employment discrimination audit organized by the Urban Institute. I am the Black Guy, paired with a same-age White Guy, and sent out to apply for entry-level, foot-in-the-door jobs in the Chicago area — restaurant, sales, and hotel positions, mostly.
By design, I’m given modest but clear advantages in experience and accomplishment over my White Guy, John. We’re trained to present ourselves similarly, so that any favorable treatment he receives that I don’t is likely attributable to race. We keep meticulous notes: Who meets with whom at each employer stop? What’s said? Do we get an interview? With whom? Is there a job offer? What are the terms?
We’ve applied for a telemarketing position. I enter a room full of cubicles and chatter. Some 20 women — Black, White, Latina — are working the phones. All the manager-types, the people walking around or sitting behind the desks in adjoining offices, are sharp-dressed White men. I think of ZZ Top.
The hiring manager is White, early-40s, and friendly. He says my resume is impressive, asks about my telemarketing experience. I have none, but assure him that I’m good with people, eager to learn, a quick study. Too bad, he says. The business is growing quickly and he needs experienced people who can hit the ground running. But not to worry. Every few months the company offers a training for a handful of otherwise promising candidates. He likes me and will make sure I’m invited to the next one. Smiles all around. I leave feeling good.
John enters an hour after I’ve left. He has a similar conversation with the same man. Except. At the part about John’s lack of telemarketing experience, the manager says: Actually, your lack of experience is a plus. We have our own way of doing things and prefer not to have to retrain people with previous experience. He offers John a managerial-track position, a better job than the one we applied for. Can you start next Monday, the hiring manager wants to know.
I never hear back from the company.
The following week I’m filling out an application in a hotel ballroom. There might be 100 other people doing the same — sitting, standing, paper pressed against laps, tables, walls, going through the motions. A ubiquitous question reads: Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
Heads swivel toward a sharply raised voice and the man who owns it. He could be a former NFL lineman: 6'4", 6'5"; 300+ lbs; wearing a tie. A hotel manager. White. Each of his three interlocutors stands nearly a foot shorter. They’re workers — Latinx, Mexican I think. Picture the scene. Their disagree-ment is about vacation time. The manager’s face is red, his voice loud, his posture aggressive. In a room full of prospective employees, he has no problem treating these men like shit.
Turns out that being treated badly, casually and routinely, is demoralizing even when you’re play-acting. People answer their phones in the middle of our interviews without explanation or apology. After waiting an hour for a scheduled interview it took three busses and almost two hours to get to, I’m told that the boss is too busy to see me. The breezy discourtesies become more and more gnawing with repetition.
Moreover, it’s humbling to learn that once my resume is stripped of nice degrees from elite institutions, my rugged good looks, matchless wit, and earnestness impress almost no one. After applying for some 100 entry-level jobs, I get three offers.
But I am play-acting. The thousands of mostly Latinx and Black job seekers I run across over the course of the summer, some of them repeatedly, are not.
My brown-skinned girl is a scientist too
2012. I sign up for a weekly evening class called “Watching the Nighttime Sky” at a local college with my first-born, Lola. Lola is 5, a crazy-voracious reader, way into learning about the solar system and the universe. Little girl can name Jupiter’s four visible moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto), models the solar system in our living room, and can tell you why Pluto is no longer a planet. Daddy, I feel bad for Pluto!
Lola’s fascination with the planets, stars, galaxies, about her budding expertise. I say something, gently, about the need to engage 5-year-olds actively in the course of 90-minute talks to the degree possible.
I don’t explicitly compare his very different treatment of the two children. Maybe I should have. But my priority is to facilitate a good experience for my daughter, not to educate the man. I make a bet that an approach that doesn’t center on comparing his very different treatment of the two kids will get the desired result — his engagement with Lola. I decide not to risk ticking him off. It’s the kind of shitty little calculation people of color and women, especially, are often compelled to make.
The instructor never pushes back or appears defensive, but his behavior doesn’t change. One evening, my bored, squirmy girl responds to the man again calling on the boy “scientist” by whispering, But, Daddy, I’m a scientist too!
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