First Published Here at Bananago Street:
An analysis on racial discourse in America.
By Steven Underwood
As a kindergartner, I came clamoring home to share with my mother a stark belief: I did not like white people. In my adolescent ignorance, I had forgotten my best friend Dylan, who was not only white, but shared my love of imagined worlds of magical wonder, which I still cling to, and true compassion, which has since brittled with age. My mom took the time to remind me of Dylan, to which I replied: “I don’t like white people, but I like him.” I’ve always felt that this was my first direct confrontation with race. Earlier, just shy of ten years old, I had been called a “Nigger” for the first time in my life. I, essentially, had been beaten with a weapon forged against me to prosper.
Of course, I had experienced racial micro-aggressions in my life. That one time, when I was six, when my mom had been arrested by the police because they said she “looked” like she had stolen her Purple Ford Taurus. This other time, when I was seven, when a boy’s father snatched one of my white classmates away from me on the playground in South Jersey and muttered about nappy hair under his breath. I was expected to be the most coordinated in basketball, the fastest in football, but the dumbest in my Reading and Math classes. Or, when my mother cradled me in her arms for the first time, and decided to change my name from the ethnically unique Alante to the more Eurocentric Steven.
In an unnecessary justification of my childhood assailant, I’d say the boy—that boy– was using words he hadn’t completely understood, as children do. He merely knew that this word was designed with malice, that he could hurt me using it. He’d been taught that he had the privilege to hurt others with this weapon, a belief that was reinforced by my teachers, all of whom were white, because when I neglected to properly defend myself, or my culture, with words or actions he was not chastised or reprimanded. Rather than taking up the duty to correct him, this boy would assume that he could always get away with certain hate speech because something in this world made it okay.
I reflect on this day, with the new adult ignorance I have acquired by a decade of wandering aimlessly through life pretending I know what I am doing, and realize that my mother had taken the opportunity to establish my bigotry as inherently wrong and something that should be punished. She took my words and used them against me to show how my hatred and bigotry could effect not just me in the long run, but those I love. She taught me to be ashamed of my prejudices.
My teacher, however, was trusted by parents and administrators to cater to help raise a child and did not ever do the same. Though this event may seem something so minor that an infraction is not necessary, we must understand that the systems of oppression within the country are in the subconscious, the things that we experience, and beliefs that are reinforced by context and action—or lack thereof. Early on, my teacher was offered a chance to discuss race but fled it and failed both of us.
Throughout those subsequent months, spanning a dozen more collied moon phases, my mother had realized I was developing into a black man. She took the time to set me aside and made it clear to me what that meant. Yes, she disclosed I would have to find my own meaning of blackness (which, I chose to define as passion for who I am and respect for those who sacrificed and built for me to be here today), but there was the customary topics of fears, concerns, and troubles that one of a similar background as mine might expect with this: Steven, in a situation with the police your life comes first, and what’s right comes second; Steven, not all of them have your best interest at heart and will pursue you with despite; and Steven, you will always have to try twice as hard to have half of what they have.
I did not believe her. I always remembered Dylan and the impact he had on my life and that I had equally been bullied by black kids as well as white. In my young life, I had experienced the troubles of blackness in this country and knew very well that there was something strange occurring. It was this same instinctual sense that told the children who was the parental favorite, though mom and dad often said they love you all equally. But, more importantly than the white friends I’ve gained in my classes, I had reasonable doubt to my mother’s feelings regarding race in this country.
My mother’s name is Tamara Fluellen. Even now, almost a whole foot smaller than me, she feels taller than me—roughly five feet of honey skin and beautiful weave taller than me. She was the only black person in Willingboro High School in Willingboro, New Jersey and therefore often faced ridicule by her white classmates– as the other. In one particular event, she told me of the day her male classmates attempted to attack her after school. There was a mob of them, but none of them faced punishment for attacking her. Tamara Fluellen had been a victim of a hate crime and had seen the hideousness of anti-blackness in this country. Someone who experienced this kind of hate, could not possibly speak without bias. Someone who was victim to this kind of pain, could not possible understand the good in others when lost in the cold and dark.
Unfortunately, at every possible turn, my mother was proven right. I recall my father once saying every time my mom was infallibly right about something she said as a moral, a heifer lost its spots. I am still worried about the amount of cows in this country who must be absolutely albino.
Blackness is not as celebrated in this country as it should be, at least not unless it is whitewashed and bastardized. Often, it is Cinderella trapped in the cellar. It is she who maintains the beauty and glory of a household built by her ancestry but doesn’t reap any of the benefits. It survives but does not live. It eats but is not nourished. I often find that I cannot talk about my blackness and how I enjoy or love it without someone chiming in that their whiteness is somehow in contrast or conflict with it. That my pride in who I am and my heritage is an attack on their culture.
In my late teens, I’d already learned that black culture was one of the most vital things in America. It is literally American culture, as American as baseball and the apple pie the slaves cooked. To be American, you are required to enjoy something that has either been influenced by or was directly associated with black culture. Music, art, fashion, all of it had its root in African-American influence but are not ever required to value it or its impact or even favor its people. You can always be white and wear cornrows and box braids, listen to rap music, wear African tribal prints or wear black face, but the same cannot be said for actual black people—who originated this culture. We witness an imbalance in privilege so severe that the privilege makes the other edgy and unique when worn in bastardization and appropriation. Yet, this is still often disregarded as myth. “We are all human, and human culture cannot be appropriated.” Or essentially “Cultural appropriation isn’t real.”
Often, when I say “Black Live Matter,” someone must always chime in with “All Lives Matter” and completely derail an entire conversation that could have been productive. When I enter settings that are designed to embrace black beauty in contrast to white beauty standards propagated for almost 500 years, someone must step in and say “White girls do it better.” They see these attempts for “pro-blackness” and see “anti-whiteness” because privilege dictates that anything that isn’t the normative is an attack—much like how pro-white was always supported by white supremacy.
At a distance, I can still sense the awkward shift of my peers in their skins when a discussion on the topic is started and to that I recall my teacher, in her seat, refusing to acknowledge the child who attacked me in class or those men who attacked my mother, all of who went justified in their bigotry. Worst, I recall my own attempts to undermine my mother’s experiences merely because I felt that her pain blinded her to some assumed truth of the world.
This stigma that pain devalues the argument of oppressed bodies needs to die. We must acknowledge that there is a system of privileges—simple things like knowing your life is valued, that justice is absolutely guaranteed, that you will appear non-threatening enough to avoid death, your opinion is always necessary and that anywhere you go you will be free of racial prosecution or othered– set up in this country and anyone who is a victim of it is not a credible advocate for change is harmful to growth. We judge that because they cannot be entirely logical in a situation that they are wrong. As if logical arguments have led to a safer, more pleasant world.
Some of the most valid changes in history have been established not on logic but on emotion. Slavery, in some lights, was in fact the most logical method of exploitation to develop America into a superpower in just under 200 years. However, the most sensible argument provided against it was based on emotion. “These people may look different, but they are human and they experience pain. Abusing them, and harming them, in these ways are wrong both religiously and philosophically”. So, why is it that we feel that we can disregard the pain of black bodies as a reasonable argument to openly acknowledge racial privilege and systems of oppression in this country especially in a discussion on social and societal reform based on race?
Members of the black community have a lot of things to say about this. In the safety of homes, churches, and barbershops—safe zones– we’ve accumulated a number of arguments regarding why we are disbelieved. One theory is that at the end of the day we still seem different on some base-level. So we’ve had those niches of African-Americans who changed themselves to appear more white appealing—non-black spouses for mixed raced children, shunning “black” music, art and culture to appeal to whiter worlds– but they still aren’t believed. Some suggest it has something to do with respectability politics. They think maybe, if they look credible that they will be believed. They peacock in their suits, ties, and clean shaven haircuts cleaned of black curls and naps. They aren’t believed either. Some look to logos for their arguments, and dig deep into calm, calculated answers with strong evidence. They definitely aren’t believed and are in fact often shunned as “preachy”.
An impasse has developed along with an answer: because white privilege in itself describes a system of privileges that is experienced on a micro and macro-level it becomes harder to empathize. When another person has to come up with convoluted analogies about how blackness is experienced in this country and how whiteness benefits, it only further justifies the existence of that said thing.
When someone says it hurt like a wound, you are able to sympathize to an experience of pain you’ve have earlier in your life. When someone says they were hurt by the death of a loved one, everyone understands this profound sense of loss. When someone experiences heartbreak, it is one of the easiest intangible emotions to recall mentally. On the other hand, when I say that I was hurt by being called a Nigger, a Coon, a Thug, or how cultural appropriation affects me emotionally and spiritually, I am forced to paint a picture to justify my emotions and forcefully invoke empathy. I am then also forced to access my credibility on this, and then I am challenged logically. I have to work twice as hard to access a basic human empathy that says believe that I am in pain, and know that you have the ability to end it with just your actions.
A discussion is necessary for many of these stigmas and problems to be adjusted. Systematic Oppression and White Privilege were all built and subsequently woven into the state of imperialized countries with the understanding that it is subconscious and silent yet still obvious. I can’t help but think about what would have happened if my teacher had told that childhood enemy of mine that using those words were wrong and how it would have affected him. In many ways, it justified my blossoming perspective of blackness in this country. There might actually be more cows with spots in this world, if people were willing to discuss race openly—and respectfully to those who are at risk—and consider the idea that maybe they are at an unfair advantage.