First I should mention that this post has nothing to do with Amsterdam. It does stem from something that recently happened at work. But I’m going to try my best to leave the specific circumstances out of it. I’ve just decided to use this space to get some things off my mind – not to say they won’t still be on my mind – but perhaps now they’ll also be on your mind. And that makes me feel a bit better.
Matters of race have been of critical importance to me ever since I realized my race mattered to everyone else. Perhaps I was more in tune to questions of race as a child because I always lived and grew up around black people, but attended predominately white schools. That combination led to much self reflection early on. I have a pretty vivid memory of the racial dynamics of my 3rd grade class – at least one particular day. It must have been black history month. All of the students sat on the floor for a special lecture about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream. I was the only black student in the class (in the interest of full disclosure, there couldn’t have been more than 18 students total). As Ms. Porter vaguely described the troubles of black people in the U.S., all eyes were on me. Because discretion is perhaps a lesson taught in 4th grade, my classmates did not try to hide their fascination with my difference and association with these people whose lives suck so badly. Their stares seemed to say, “wow, she’s black. I wonder if she’s poor and angry.” Present day self would have been proud, and happy to lead the class, and requesting the extension of history lessons related my people well beyond one designated month. But the 3rd grader was mortified. My objective was to blend in, which was not being accomplished. I would bet (a small amount of) money that none of my classmates would have memories of that day or that lesson. My perspective was certainly different from theirs. I guess that was the beginning of the “minority” experience.
I was a senior in high school during the hype of the O.J. Simpson trial. The opposite of where I was as a 3rd grader, in 1995 I was constantly fighting the black fight, schooling my white classmates on their privilege and making sure my blackness and black people didn’t go unnoticed. I even wore down my AP English teacher until she added one piece of black literature to the syllabus, Things Fall Apart. And on a random day during that year, my small Statistics class was starting late. So about 6 of us, including the teacher, began chatting about O.J. and the craziness of the trial. In the midst of the conversation I said something along the lines of “I hate the white system of power in this country.” Little did I know, I had started a battle.
Several days later (or perhaps it was the next day) I reported to an emergency senior class meeting that was scheduled for the beginning of our lunch period – everyone was required to attend. Although such a meeting had never been called before, it could have been about anything. And about 2 minutes into the Head of High School’s announcement/speech, I realized the meeting was about me. She was saying something to the effect of offensive comments being made in a classroom that were being looked into, as well as the need to resolve class conflicts, blah blah blah. I had no doubt it was about me – and it also tipped me off when all attention and eyes seemed to be focused on me. As my classmates shuffled out of the emergency meeting, one of my few white allies whispered to me that she knew at least 2 girls had reported me to the Headmistress, requesting that I be expelled from school for being racist.
Aside from the fact that I subscribe to the belief that black people can’t be racist (prejudiced, maybe), the absurdity of this claim enraged me. These rich, white, bitches were trying to ruin my life because I spoke against the structures of power in white-dominated America – as I was sitting in a classroom of all white girls an hour from my home because the public school in my black neighborhood may very well have allowed me to graduate functionally illiterate. They claimed I said, “I hate white people.” (And honestly, in that moment, I did.). And from my ally I learned they made the argument that if they had said something similar about nigge…uhhh, black people, they would be kicked out. So I should face the same consequence. Apparently they were advocates for equality.
I was a strong student and in good favor with my school’s faculty. So although I had a moment of worry about my fate, I never actually believed I would be expelled. But this was lucky. In a not so different scenario, I very easily could have been perceived by the school’s administration as a threat, intimidating my poor, defenseless classmates with my racist rants.
I may not have been expelled for my O.J.-related remarks, but I certainly did earn a lovely pair of glasses that force me to view the world through special lenses, magnifying the biases with which I (and all of us) are viewed. I still wear those glasses everyday, whether consciously or not. It’s through these lenses that I have watched 3 black people fired for matters not relating to their performance (though they might claim one was related to performance – it wasn’t). And as far as I can remember, no one else has been fired for matters not relating to performance (at least since I’ve been there). Now we all carry biases and sometimes perceive people negatively as a result. But when it affects my people more than most, I can’t help but wonder if I’m still fighting that same battle that started in 12th grade.