Some names have been changed.
“Sorry Rainier,” my 4th-grade classmate Ben said.
His words jolted me out of the book I’d been reading at my desk. Suddenly all eyes were on me. “Oh no, what’s happened?” I wondered. Then I realized he was going to say something related to black people. The only time classmates preemptively apologized to me was when they talked about race. Everyone in the room was silent, including the teacher.
“In black churches they sing gospel songs loudly,” Ben said. While I’d been lost in my book, the class had been talking about how different denominations practice Christianity. It was a formal class discussion, but I hadn’t been paying attention. I ignored the comment, but I felt confused. Why did my classmates think they had to say “sorry” when they were just stating a fact?
I suppose he didn’t want me to view him as racist. Now, I would turn his unnecessary apology into an opportunity to make my classmates laugh. I’d probably say something sarcastic like, “I’m black, so I can certify you’re not racist, Ben.” At the time, however, it made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like the unexpected attention his apology placed on me.
I have spent most of my life in majority-white spaces. Since kindergarten, my parents have sent me to predominantly white private Catholic schools on the Upper East Side. The only time I am in a mostly black environment is when I’m in my neighborhood in South Ozone Park, Queens. My family does not often interact with our neighbors since we are hardly at home. Consequently, all my friends are from school. My parents mostly socialize with my friends’ parents at school events.
At first I felt self-conscious about being different. Throughout elementary school, I avoided bringing up topics like Black Lives Matter, because I knew they drew attention to me as the sole Black kid in the room.
Since then I’ve grown accustomed to the awkward stares and squirms from my White classmates whenever anything about Black people comes up. But recently I’ve noticed something else: I am now more comfortable in all or mostly White spaces than I am in all or mostly Black ones.
One reason might be that my White classmates look to me whenever the issue of race comes up. Sometimes this is annoying, like when our history class discussed slavery. I felt people looking at me curiously, as if they were trying to figure out whether or not I am descended from slaves. But most times, I like the extra attention. I like being considered an expert on race relations.
My White classmates want to hear what I think about police brutality. In a lot of discussions, both at my school and in America as a whole, Black voices are suppressed or devalued. So having a place where I am viewed as an authority makes me feel respected. I believe members of a specific group can better attest to that group’s experiences than an outsider can, even though one person’s voice is not definitive of that entire group’s views.
Another thing I like about being one of only a few Black kids is I can say what I want about my race without worrying about being perceived as racist. It makes me feel good because I don’t have to be as cautious with my wording, like some of my White classmates. This allows me to articulate my feelings about race more honestly and freely.
Still, I have mixed feelings about being in the minority. Though I’m used to it now, whenever I am around White people, I feel different. While I enjoy the added attention I get when people ask for my opinion, sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. White people often ask me if something is racist or not, or if a certain joke is OK. I would rather not be the “racism police” for my friends.
Calling Out Hypocrites
While I might feel more comfortable in all-White spaces than I do around Black people, that doesn’t mean I feel totally comfortable there either. For example, recently a White student at my school was seen saying the “n” word in a video posted online. Afterwards, we discussed racism in my advisement class. Some of my White classmates spoke about how terribly my school treats racial minorities, without offering any solutions. I sat in the corner away from the main table, looking at them with disgust as I listened.
I thought of the day I saw one of these same White kids take a purple and green cloth he found on the ground and tie it around his head. He proudly announced that he was wearing a do-rag to get waves like some of his Black friends. When I asked him why, he said, “Because I can.” Another time, I heard him repeating the “n” word over and over for no reason. When I asked him about it, he said, “Black people don’t own the word. Anybody can say it.”
Free speech should and does allow him to say the “n” word. But his common sense should tell him not to. Saying the “n” word like this can be interpreted as a jab at any Black person within earshot. But instead of continuing what seemed like a hopeless discussion about the need to be aware of using potentially racist actions and words, I walked away.
As I reflected on these past incidents, I shot my hand up. I had not voiced my feelings about racism at my school openly before, and I figured if not now, then when?
“You know, it’s funny how my peers, the same ones who want to wear do-rags and say the ‘n’ word, can look my advisor right in the face and act like they’re upset about racism,” I said. Everyone in the room remained silent. “If we would like to start brainstorming ways to fix this problem, that’s wonderful, but let’s be honest about it.”
I didn’t name specific classmates because I didn’t want them facing repercussions. I also didn’t want their potential ignorance to have greater influence than it deserved.
My teacher didn’t respond. The next day he apologized to me for failing to reprimand my peers when they made racially insensitive comments. Though I appreciated his apology, I was calling out my classmates so they would hold themselves accountable on their own. But while it felt great to release my pent-up frustration, I don’t feel like my words meant anything to my classmates, and probably won’t have an effect on their actions in the future. Still, I was happy I spoke up and I will continue to call out hypocrisy when I see it.
Dismissed by My Black Friends
The way I feel in majority-White environments is also complicated by how I’m treated in majority-Black ones. When I am around other Black people besides my family, I often get shamed for not being “Black enough.”
For example, recently I was hanging out backstage with a couple of friends on opening night for our school play. I was in the crew, and one of my Black friends, Ken, was in the cast. We had about 10 minutes before the curtain, and our lighthearted conversation turned more serious after Ken looked down at his phone and read a news headline. In Florida, White police officers had pepper-sprayed a Black teenager and banged his head into the pavement.
“Wow, those cops should be fired immediately,” he said.
“I think they should be suspended until the police commission investigates what happened,” I said. I like to find out all the facts before rushing to conclusions. I think sensitive topics such as police brutality have to be approached in a nuanced way.
“Shut up, you are not Black enough to understand Black issues,” Ken shot back.
I felt offended when he said that. Even if I wasn’t Black, most people who watched the video would agree the officer went way over the top and should be penalized for his actions. You do not need to be a Black person to sympathize with Black people who are victims of racist violence. You just need to be a human being with a conscience and basic emotions.
I feel like it was unfair for Ken to be so dismissive because regardless of whether or not I’m Black, I think my view on the issue still matters. Unlike my White friends, who I feel value my opinions about race equally to theirs, or even give my perspective greater weight because they’re wary of sounding racist, Ken was demeaning. I felt he was being hypocritical. He often talks about lifting up Black people, but he wouldn’t even listen to me.
My Black friend Drake said I was not “Black enough” when he heard me listening to classical music. That’s why when I see people like him talking about Black pride and their struggles with discrimination, I scoff because they don’t even treat me, the Black person in front of them, with the same respect they’re demanding from others.
We Are All Black
Hearing I’m “not Black enough” stings worse than being the odd one out, because I’m being told by a group of people I think I belong to that I am not good enough for them. Do they want me to reach towards some culturally constructed goalpost of Blackness by playing more basketball, listening solely to Black rappers, and saying the “n” word for no apparent reason? I feel like some people want me to conform to the same societal stereotypes Blacks should fight against, such as settling for a lower-tier college because Black people are perceived to be less academically successful.
The phrase “not Black enough” upholds the same stereotypes Blacks fight by creating a box of qualities we need to have. In my opinion, you can’t preach Black power and pride while also telling another Black person he or she is “not Black enough.” We are all Black, regardless of the music we listen to, how we dress, or our opinions on the issues that affect us.
I have concluded that for me, being around mostly White people is the lesser of two evils. I would rather be reminded I’m different and still be able to say certain things and jokes my White peers cannot instead of feeling like the “least Black” Black person in the room.