George Clarke defies so many stereotypes, he’s sometimes feels as if he doesn’t even exist.
Statistically speaking, I’m not supposed to be here.
This is neither the time nor place to get into a sweeping discussion about incarceration in the United States, but in case you missed it, one of every three black men is imprisoned, among other horrific stats—and even though a Howard University professor debunked the idea that there are more black men in prison than in college, that ratio is still disproportionately bad compared to young men of other ethnicities.
So when I powered my way through the second half of high school to earn a berth in one of America’s best public communications schools, that was a statistical anomaly. It’s also a cultural anomaly—and for that matter, so am I.
You could say I’m a product of both the city and the suburbs. My childhood home is a few miles outside of Syracuse’s city limits, but since my family has been in Syracuse for generations and lives in various places across the city, I spent many of my younger days within the city. But while my more psychonormal peers were busy being kids and chasing what’s cool, I was my socially awkward and brainy self, to the point where I never quite fit in with anyone else, black or white.
When I tried to make black friends as a child, I’d get laughed away for being a geek and “talking white”—never mind that I’ve always been comfortable with, even proud of, my ethnicity. My parents taught me to speak English cleanly, so I did, and for that I paid a price. White kids, being kids, reacted pretty much the same way, but from another angle: They expected me to be cool because I was black, and when they figured out I was more Urkel than Usher, they too turned the other way.
In places where black men are scarce, such as the overwhelmingly white suburban school from which I graduated, we’re assumed to fit that cool, suave, athletic niche the other students can’t touch. Expecting that of me, a geeky kid diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at quite a young age, just wasn’t fair.
According to all cultural expectations, black men like me, the ones who have a good amount of brainpower but who can’t shake a stick at Idris Elba, aren’t supposed to exist. For whatever mix of reasons, we black men bear the burden of proving we’re thinkers, not thugs. Just because we’re blessed with more melanin doesn’t mean we have to talk or dress a certain way. Many people before me will say that black people come in all personality types, and many will say it in the future, but until this country gets the message, repeating it once more can never hurt.
You can be black—proudly black, never parroting the behaviors of a privileged majority—and still be a quirky intellectual against all odds. Just ask me.
photo: stevenfernandez / flickr