May 28, 2013

How you got over your blackness? What you talkin' bout, Johanna?  I have been hesitating on writing this particular piece, questioning the best time to bring it up.  I do not know that there is a perfect time to talk about it.  I have open in another window HuffPost Live with Marc Lamont Hill discussing internalizing racism.  I figured this was just as good a time as any.

We hear all kinds of stereotypes about us as black people. The messed up thing to me is that stereotypes are not unfounded; they just are not true across the board.  I do not know which stereotypes became self-fulfilling prophecies as a result of the lies that others have told us.  And I do not know which stereotypes we have typecast ourselves with.  What I do know is that we carry them with us all the time.  We have internalized them and we, especially educated blacks, do our very best to be the exact opposite of them.  Rightly or wrongly, we have defined what it is to be black and what it is not.  Sadly, we have embraced a number of negative traits as blackness or we have taken on the burden of overcompensating to convince others and ourselves that we are indeed worthy.  Our self-esteem has taken a hit and it plays out in many scenarios.  Just like any other lie that we have been fed that affects our collective and individual self-esteem, self-worth, and self-efficacy, we have to heal from it, get over it, and move on.

For me, I would say that the breakthrough moment occurred when I was in college.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, I was born and raised in Gary, Indiana.  Most outsiders do not view my hometown with positive regard.  Many from Gary, and still residing there, have a negative view of the city.  When I was in high school, there was rampant violence.  Our house and our church had been burglarized.  Our car was stolen right out of our driveway, while we were away.  My own brother at the age of 13 (I was 12) was robbed at gunpoint of his Starter jacket, Nike gymshoes, and wallet.  Our home was guarded by bars and there was a gun in the home.  The family of the guys that robbed my brother threatened him after the men were convicted.  When my brother foolishly did not come home on time one summer night, my mother went packing into the streets looking for him.  She was justifiably armed as many young men that I went to middle school with did not live past 10th grade.  When I was in 10th grade, fights broke out all over school and we were put on lockdown.  I remember having the wherewithal to ask my teacher if I could call my parents because there was no point in staying in that environment that day.  A few minutes later, my father picked up me, my brother, and one of my cousins.  In 11th grade, Gary was given the infamous title of Murder Capital of the United States.  A few days after I graduated from high school, I was attending the funeral of my elementary school "boyfriend."  Years later after graduating from college, I found myself writing a letter to the judge that was determining the sentence of the man who senselessly murdered one of my cousins.  I give all of this detail to provide the backdrop of why I had some negative thoughts about my hometown as I entered college.

Initially I wanted to attend North Carolina A&T to study mechanical engineering.  Life rerouted me and I ended up at a small engineering and management school in Flint, Michigan, now called Kettering University.  I went from my sights set on attending an HBCU to attending a predominantly white male institution.  Before the start of classes, freshmen had to take a placement test, to determine what level of calculus and chemistry we would take first.  I remember feeling anxious wondering if my Gary Public School education would have me a semester behind placing me in pre-calculus.  I wasn't worried about the chemistry class because we were going to have to take both organic chemistry and regular chemistry.  For capacity sake, they just wanted to know if some of us were advanced enough to start in o-chem.  I remember studying right up until the test.  When I took the test, I wondered why I was trippin.'  I vowed from that day forward that I would never knock the Gary Public School system ever again.  I was placed into organic chemistry and the 4-day (a 5-day course was offered for those that needed more class time), calculus class.

Let's rewind some to even before I started taking classes, I had begun my engineering co-op 150 miles away with General Motors.  I remember the stares by many whites that acted like that had never seen a young black girl before.  I remember being on serious guard wondering what these folks were thinking.  I remember a conversation with a black woman that happened to be from my hometown warning me about how "they" act and how I had to CYA (cover yo ass).  I relayed this advice to my unofficial mentor, a rising black male executive.  He told me to always "consider the source" and not to take on other people's "stuff."  I remember sitting there enlightened because I had never heard a black person say anything quite like that.  This was coming from a man that grew up in Cleveland and not the suburbs either.  Many times I heard the former advice and I just assumed that was just the way it was.  I didn't realize I could think differently.  I remember taking his advice to heart and I remember feeling lighter.

Fast forward back to school...many times I was the only black and/or the only female in the class.  I often wondered who would take "pity" on me when we had team assignments.  When I read in the syllabus that there were group projects, I would hope that the instructor would assign the groups.  I figured that way I would avoid the awkward moment of asking someone to work with me, because you know I had to be the one to ask.  I do not recall ever being asked.  Most times my wish was NOT granted and I had to muster up the courage to confidently ask someone to work with me.  I remember leaving lunch early for a group meeting on several occasions telling my friends, "You know I gotta be on time and I can't be the unprepared negro."  I do not remember how many times I had those types of conversations.  But I do remember when I stopped having them.  I remember being in the library waiting for my LATE team members (thosed that actually showed up) and I remember being disgusted because not only were they late, they were not prepared.  Then the light bulb went off.  I thought to myself, "Why am I doing this to myself?  Why am I putting all this pressure on myself?  Why am I carrying my race with me every where I go?  They are just as trifling showing up late and unprepared!  How about I just be on time and be prepared because that is the excellent thing to do?"  Immediately, it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.  A weight that I would never pick back up again. 

Don't think for one second that I can no longer recognize injustice, bias, discrimination and racism.  I can see those things clearly.  It's just that my actions were no longer dictated by a code of blackness. I am very proud of my skin color, my heritage and even my hometown.  I have been disappointed by the reaction of some black people that I have met that have drawn conclusions about me based on how I supposedly carry myself.  Some act stunned to learn that I am from Gary.  My former pastor, clearly not knowing any better, said to me after attending a large event for the black community in the small town I lived in at the time, "that's probably the most black people you have ever been around."  I was stunned thinking,"What was that about?"  Other people baffle me "taking up the cause" when they grew up more privileged yet they think I'm from suburbia because I'm not stuck in the "black box."  A few days ago a friend commented to me that, "It was good that you don't wear 'Gary' on you."  I told him that bothered me because the assumption is that all that is Gary is a bunch of ghetto hoodrats that don't know how to act.  That couldn't be further from the truth.  If I didn't know him better and the type of person he was, I would have been offended.  Thankfully in the end he understood my point of view.

I understand the pervasive effects of all that was done to our people historically and I understand the injustice that continues to this day.  At the same time, I am saddened by the fact that there seems to be little improvement in our collective self-concept.  The lies and negative stereotypes prevail in our hearts and minds.  The dream is to be judged by the content of our character, right?  One solution to this plaguing problem, in my opinion, is to worry less about convincing others to judge us on our merit and character.  Rather, begin with judging ourselves by the content of our own character.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  Nothing "black."

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