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“It”: How It Feels to Be Black

By | February 12, 2015

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When I was a kid, it was the small things. My classmates always wanted to play with my hair, and I let them. On Halloween I was told that I couldn’t be Princess Ariel or Belle, so I had to decide between Princess Jasmine and Mulan. Jasmine was a closer match to my skin tone, but Mulan’s costume had face paint. And she saved China.

I was Mulan three years in a row.

In high school, it was the awkward moments. The way people seemed to stare when we read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The tight-lipped congratulations I got when college acceptances came out. That time my boyfriend explained that while he wasn’t attracted to black girls, he still liked me. Back then it was the uncomfortable things, the things that made my skin crawl, but were small enough to be pushed into the back of my mind until I could pretend they never happened.

Today it is impossible to pretend. Now it isn’t the small things or the awkward moments, it’s the personal attacks. It’s the girl who proudly publishes a school article stating that I and every other minority student don’t deserve to go to Harvard. It’s the never-ending cycle of news stories detailing the brutal murders of children killed because they happened to be black in the wrong place. It’s the constant disappointment that comes when murderer after murderer walks free, bypassing the justice system that’s supposed to protect us.

Before now, I didn’t know what “it” was. The small things, the awkward moments, the injustices—it all amounted to something, but it was too difficult to figure out what that something was. Now, I understand. “It” is how it feels to be black.

* * *

A year ago, my assessment of race relations would have included a heartfelt attempt to explain that while our current president is black, we are not living in a post-racial America. It would have had statistics on income disparities, incarceration rates, and discrimination in the media: everything and anything necessary to prove how deep the inequalities still run. That argument is no longer necessary. The recent string of highly-publicized stories involving unarmed black people shot or choked to death by unconvicted police officers has pushed race into America’s spotlight. As a nation, we have seen the protests and outrage spread across the country, the days when your online news feed exploded with opinions and outrage regarding the latest unindicted injustice. We have mourned the loss of two innocent policemen, shot in retaliation for Michael Brown and Eric Garner. We have listened as New York police officers have enacted their own form of protest, condemning public officials for encouraging an anti-police sentiment. There is no more hiding; the truth is out, and those who were in denial are finally starting to see how broken this country truly is.

If you are going to take anything from current events, take the realization that the tragedies of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner are not isolated incidents. They are the status quo. Hundreds of people who suffer the same fate never make the headlines. I could tell you about Amadou Diallo, the West African shot 19 times because four plain-clothed officers thought his wallet was a gun.

Those officers were never convicted.

We could talk about 18-year-old Ramarley Graham, who was shot and killed in his grandmother’s bathroom in 2012. The police didn’t shoot him because they thought that his iPhone was a gun, or that his apple was a grenade, or that the sink he happened to be near was a WMD; they shot and killed him because he was trying to flush a bag of marijuana down the toilet.

I could teach you about Oscar Grant, whose case was initially the most promising of all to receive justice. Oscar was shot by a police officer when he was already lying facedown with his hands behind his back and being subdued by another officer. I could tell you that the man who shot him was convicted of “involuntary” manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison, but then I would have to explain that they thought the two-year sentence was too long and released him after 11 months.

I could try and list the number of people that have unjustly lost their lives at the hands of the police, but I would fail. In America, two black people die at the hands of white police officers on a weekly basis, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice between 2005 and 2012. Understand that the stories and atrocities you hear are not the exception. They are the norm.

I used to think that these injustices were reserved exclusively for black men, but then I found out about Rekia Boyd, the 22-year-old girl in Detroit who was shot because the cop thought her cell phone was a gun. I learned about Daniele Watts, a black actress that was arrested because she and her white boyfriend were kissing in public and they thought she was a prostitute. There is no safety, no belief that everything will be okay in the end.

If you want to understand what it’s like to be black, understand that it is an existence plagued by insecurities and fear. Fear that others will never think you’re good enough, that if you succeed people won’t think you deserve it. The fear is never-ending; even if you battle it, you only need to hear one comment for it to erupt again. But underneath the fear there is a terror. A terror that the next name to make the headlines won’t be a kid from St. Louis or a man in New York, but your brother in L.A. Your father in Chicago. A terror that even if you don’t lose anyone today, your future child will always be threatened, not by her character or virtue or choices, but by the color of skin you pass down.

* * *

Today, institutions like to measure success in diversity. At my freshmen convocation, Harvard congratulated the Class of 2015 (or themselves) for being the most diverse class in history. Harvard could have highlighted our geographical diversity or our income diversity, but they didn’t. They were focused on race. Whenever I go to a company presentation, the presenters follow up the stock photo of a black employee on their brochure by stating that diversity is a central focus at their company and that they are working tirelessly to improve it. At some companies, they genuinely mean it; at others, it is just a line in their sales pitch.

Measuring an institution’s racial diversity is one way to bring us closer to social success. In my four years at Harvard, the growing diversity in the school led to “I, Too, Am Harvard,” an international campaign that gave minorities across the world a platform to speak to colleges about their discriminatory experiences. I’ve seen leaders like President Drew Faust and Dean Rakesh Khurana make a genuine effort to hear our complaints and strive to make Harvard a more accepting place.

I spent one year of my life in a neighborhood that allowed me to be comfortable with my skin because I saw multiple skin tones around me everyday. Back then, I didn’t think twice about whether my friends were black or white because I didn’t need to; we were all just people, and we treated each other as such. There is power in numbers, but that power does not come from the number itself; when there is enough diversity in a room, there is no more need to count. Individuals stop being classified and separated as black or white or Hispanic or Asian, and start being people.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what statistic needs to be met before black people can just be people. I don’t know when I will be able to trust the justice system as a protector and not as a predator. I don’t think there will ever be a day when the people who hate me and others who look like me will cease to exist. When there is a seemingly never-ending stream of fear, murder, and injustice, I feel like things will not change.

But that is when I confide in a friend and can see that though he may not share my skin color, he shares my outrage and heartbreak. That is when I stand at a protest, wondering if it will amount to any future change, but feeling so inspired by how many of the people around me look nothing like me. Maybe there are more black people being killed and incarcerated than any other time in America’s history, but there are also more people that care, more people who are willing to stand up for what is right, not because they see injustice happening to a member of their own race, but because they see injustice happening, period. They see crimes against people, not race, and they are willing to fight against it. I don’t measure success in statistics. I measure it in allies.

In December, Australia suffered from a tragic shooting in Sydney. The shooter displayed an Islamic flag during the crisis, and when one Muslim woman waiting to catch the train found out, she began to remove her hijab in fear of being persecuted and tried to leave. A stranger stopped her, telling her that she could put her hijab back on, telling her she did not have to be afraid. “I’ll ride with you,” he said. This stranger started a movement, as others in Australia banded together to make those that didn’t look like them feel safe in time of tragedy. They were their allies, creating beauty in an otherwise horrifying event.

You do not have to be black to be an ally. It will take a long time before tragedies like those of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner stop occurring on a weekly basis, but anyone can be that stranger on the train or that face in the protest. Everyone can be a caring friend to those around them. When people of every color come together to cry out against injustice, progress is felt even when it is not clearly seen. How “it” feels to be black today is only bearable when you realize that those who aren’t going through what you are still care and are willing to help.

This article has been updated from an earlier version (2/24/15).

Image credit: Neil Cooler/Flickr

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