The purse clutch. Being a fetish. LeRon Barton talks about what it really means to be black in America.
I talk and write about race, a lot. It permeates every facet of my life. I cannot escape being Black, even if I wanted to. I have always been race conscious, known who I am, and where I stand in the world. However, everything changed for me during the Trayvon Martin trial. I saw not only how much vocal support George Zimmerman received from people, but also how much money was donated to protect a child killer. From that moment on, my world was shaken and I became almost hyper-sensitive towards race. From reading literary greats such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin to present day brilliant sociologists like Cornell West and Dr. Tommy Curry, I have learned quite a bit about race in America. Along with my personal experiences as a 37-year-old Black man in America, I wanted to share with you 10 unfortunate, but true lessons I have learned being Black.
- Respectability Politics will not save us – There is an unfortunate belief in the Black community that if you dress a certain way, i.e. wear a suit instead of baggy jeans, a v-neck sweater instead of a hoodie, and a collared shirt with a tie instead of a t-shirt you will be immune from racism. This is rooted in a belief called, “Respectability Politics” or “Look at us, we are normal law abiding citizens just like you white people.” Attorney and bestselling author Lawrence Otis Graham famously dressed his kids preppy to protect them from racism, but they were still called “nigger.” A Black man in a suit is looked at the same as a Black man in a hoodie – a threat. Eric Garner is just as dead as Martin Luther King Jr. Speaking of MLK…
- MLK is dead – In many of her essays on race, Dr. Stacey Patton brilliantly remarks, “white America has a necrophilia type relationship with Martin Luther King Jr.” Today America loves to laud MLK and promote his message of togetherness and unity, especially in light of the nationwide responses and protests to police terrorism. However, when King was alive, he was looked at differently. In 1966, two years before MLK was killed, a Gallup poll showed that 66% of America viewed him unfavorably. This is a stark contrast to many whites telling Blacks who want justice behind the murders of Freddie Gray and Mike Brown to “Be like MLK,” and forgive and love everyone.
- The sound of the police – Being pulled over by a police officer while driving is an unfortunate fact of life for a Black person. If you are driving it is inevitable. You can be the absolute best driver: traveling at the correct speeds, using your turn signals properly, and stopping at the stop sign perfectly. However, if you are DWB (driving while Black), you are susceptible to the flashing lights in the rearview mirror. I’ve been stopped by police so many times I no longer question if it is my mediocre driving skills. I know why I’m being stopped. It is what it is.
- Being the spokesperson for all Black people – This is also a regular occurrence in my life. Whenever I am in a work meeting, attend a social event, or any gathering of large amounts of people, I am usually one of the few, if not the only, Black person in the room. It is something that I have gotten used to. With that usually being the case, many whites also feel that I am the “Go-to Black person” or “Black representative” when they are curious about African American culture and stereotypes. You would not believe the asinine questions I get asked; it would boggle your mind. I just politely, remind them that “All negroes are not the same. We don’t all act like the Lyon family from ‘Empire’.” We are not a homogenous bunch. Speaking of that…
- Black people are not homogeneous – When I was younger I used to think that all Black people were aligned together against issues like racism, gender discrimination, and police terrorism, but that has been disproven. For every Cornell West and Jesse Williams who address racism and justice for all, there is a Herman Cain and Dr. Ben Carson pushing respectability politics, side stepping racism as if it does not exist. They espouse “rugged individualism,” a term my father taught me that means only doing for self and not your people. Some Black people don’t have interests in talking and discussing racism, or talking about police brutality. Some don’t even believe it is a problem; case in point a discussion I had with a fellow African American. He and I talked about the murder of Eric Garner. I said, “The police had no right to kill an unarmed man that was not doing anything.” He says, “Well he shouldn’t have resisted.” I replied, “Garner was not resisting.” My then-friend followed up with, “Well, police never mess with me. I don’t give them a reason.” I was shocked and just shook my head.
- The purse clutch – Every Black man has experienced this. You are walking down the street, minding your own business, engrossed in your Beats by Dre headphones and you see a white woman walking near. You smile, not wanting to be looked at as the confrontational or scary Black person, but to her you are anyway and she does the “purse clutch “ (sounds like a dance right? Do the purse clutch!). This is when a white woman grabs her purse in fear that you are going to snatch it from her hands. I have had this happen to me since I was very young. I’ve seen women clutch their purse in the street as I walk by, the movie theater as I pass through the aisle, and the elevator when I get on. It’s as if some believe Black men are all robbers or thieves. I even experienced this with a suit on. As I said in truth #1, it does not matter what you wear, you are still Black. Nowadays I cross the street if I can or if I am in an elevator, I move to the far opposite side. I want to avoid that experience because every time it happens, a piece of my heart breaks.
- Am I a fetish? – I have this conversation every so often with friends who are in interracial relationships. We wonder, “Is the person with me because they like me or because I represent some kind of fantasy or fetish for them?” I have been on dates with white women and have been told, “I always wanted to know what it was like to be with a brother.” Comments like those and “once you go Black, you never go back” or does he have a BBC (use your imagination) have come up among my friends and I, so a person being sexually desired because of their race is not far-fetched.
- I always feel like somebody’s watching me – I cannot count how many times I am shopping in a department, electronic, and even convenient stores and I am slyly or blatantly followed by a store employee. I could be browsing suits to buy, looking for an iPhone 6, or even a case of the midnight munchies. If I turn around, there is an employee “hanging out” or fixing the merchandise…just in case I have a question. The most infamous time was when I had just moved to San Diego and went grocery shopping. As I was putting items in my grocery basket, a store clerk came right up to me and said, “Yeah that’s right, I am following you. I think you have been stealing.” That was my first and last time ever in that grocery store.
- Just because someone is LGBTQ, that doesn’t mean they are not racist – When I moved to San Francisco, I thought it was a liberal bastion. I heard The City was progressive, that everyone is accepting of everything, and home to a large LGBTQ population. And since the LGBTQ community has been historically discriminated against, I thought they couldn’t possibly be racist. Wrong, so wrong. Many of my gay friends who are not white tell me stories of discrimination and racism in their community. From barring entry into many gay night clubs and bars, being reduced to racial-sexual stereotypes (see #7), and an indifference to the Black and Latino plight. A friend of mine summed it up by saying: “Just because men sleep with other men and women sleep with other women, that doesn’t mean they don’t practice racism/white supremacy.”
- Anti-Blackness in Black communities – I define Anti-Blackness as disdain and distancing yourself from anything that can be considered Black. This belief is held throughout the world. In every ethnicity, the darker the person the more discrimination he or she faces. Unfortunately, this also pops up in Black communities such as Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, and Brazilian, as many will deny their African roots. What many don’t understand is that during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, many boats carrying Black slaves went to other places besides the United States: Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Brazil. Also, I have seen Anti-Blackness manifest in many African communities in the United States. Some African immigrants will try and distance themselves from American-born Blacks, saying that we are lazy, criminals, and have no morals. I worked with a guy from Kenya that when asked about this ethnicity, he would immediately say, “I am not African American, I am African. I am not like them in America.” Darn, even some Black folks in Africa don’t want to be considered Black .
These are just a handful of examples that Black people face every single day. My purpose for writing this piece is not to whine and cry about “How hard Black people have it” but to illustrate how racism impacts our lives. Every day we have to maneuver around racism; there is not one moment of time when we can forget we are Black.
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