I picked up a temp job this summer at a flight school, and a young white co-worker from Massachusetts asked me, “As a black man, how do you feel about the Baltimore riots?” It’s a seemingly innocuous question and I know for a fact that he meant no ill-will. He was genuinely curious and the subsequent conversation was really productive. But there are times when people ask such questions to figure out what kind of black person you are. Someone asked me something similar about Trayvon Martin back when I was a receptionist. After telling them my views, they said, “Oh, you’re one of those radical black people.”
Honestly, my knowledge of most music is pretty passive. Things are brought to me or I stumble on stuff. There are people that voraciously seek new music. I am not one of those people. So, when it comes on at parties, white people sort of eye you expectantly. It’s usually here that I mysteriously have to use the bathroom. Or,
It’s a cool song, don’t get me wrong, but white people really take it to another level. It’s almost cultish. They throw up the west side “W” with their hands and act all.. you know what I mean. When “Sweet Caroline” comes on, I don’t start putting mayonnaise on everything. Oh, that reminds me…
I can’t swim. Straight up. Like, I can barely tread water. So, if ever there’s a pool, I avoid it and tell people so. Half the time people are amazed that I can’t swim (a reasonable reaction). The other half of the time it’s, “Oh, my god, I thought that was just a stereotype!” To be clear: it is just a stereotype. I’m the only black person I’ve ever met who can’t swim.
It’s almost worse than fitting a stereotype because all of a sudden you’re not “really” black. For some white people, if you don’t tote a semi-automatic rifle and say “nigga” all the live long day, you’re not black. You don’t count. Somehow. “Real” black people to many suburban whites are the ones in rap songs/videos or athletes. Let me go ahead and let y’all in on a little secret: Those people are the minority of our minority. Not everybody in the hood slings dope, gangbangs, or raps.
It doesn’t even have to be about black people necessarily, but bringing up race as the only black person in the room can exasperate white folks. “Here we go again,” their body language seems to say. If it’s in the workplace, it can be a tense moment. Do you call your colleagues out or even your boss and put yourself at risk?
You’re either in competition or cahoots. It’s either The Highlander or Key & Peele.
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