I am a black man, who has lived in the South and experienced its blatant racial harm, as well as the conservative North, whose racism is usually much more insidious, but just as constant, just as harmful (don’t misunderstand me: I’ve been spit on and called a nigger in both regions).
I have had ample opportunity to experience and learn this country’s views and ideals as they relate to the treatment of black and brown people. This country’s sentiments are clear: black and brown lives are considered “other” and do not carry the same value as white lives. Our society confirms and illustrates this belief clearly time and again, through policy, the election of politicians who are openly hostile to black and brown people, court outcomes, media treatment, and much more.
During my thirty-three years living in a society designed by and built to favor and protect white people, I have realized that I’ve not simply been living in this society.
I’ve been escaping. I’ve been working, struggling to get free.
The more I move through this society—which was established with the intention of promoting whiteness as dominant and valuable and black as negative and dangerous—the more I understand that I am expected to serve a specific purpose, to play a particular role, to fall in line, to fit into a specific category that has been predetermined, carved out, and molded for me.
I’ve been taught, brainwashed into thinking that there is one true, correct way to exist, to behave, to operate in this society: full compliance with the strict social mandates I’ve been given. As Brittany Packnett, activist and expert on institutionalized racism, stated clearly, “what we have to understand about ‘white dominant culture,’ is that . . . there is a culture in this country that we have all experienced and have been taught is the “right” way to be.
I use the term “brainwashed” because this mandated set of social expectations is not simply a thing I’ve casually learned along the way. As a mentor of mine recently reminded me, there is an important delineation between education and indoctrination.
Formal education within the structured system is one thing (and even our education system is largely constructed and legitimized by a largely white-controlled society). But highly-socialized expectations, largely formulated and decided-upon by white people, being constantly and forcefully thrusted upon black and brown people is not education or even socialization. It’s brainwashing. It’s indoctrination. And it’s very difficult to combat, much less reverse.
I am grappling with it.
I am trying to get free of it.
Why comply with the expectations put in place by a society that has been and continues to be overtly hostile toward me and people who look like me? Why not be loud, especially about this, of all subjects?
Why be polite? What does “polite” even mean in the context of the struggle to receive all the rights and privileges to which human beings are entitled?
Why should black and brown people meet overt hostility, abuse, and blatant disregard for the value of our lives with anything other than vigorous opposition?
There is a reason opposition to racist and inhumane government practices is viewed by society as threatening and un-American. In 1964, the majority of white Americans believed that the “Negro civil rights movement had gone too far.” At that time, 57% of white Americans believed demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience like the lunch counter sit-ins and bussing demonstrations were hurting the chances of integration.
This process of freeing myself from society’s expectations and limitations will be one of the most difficult things I will ever do.
We are taught to dress a certain way, to speak a certain way, to interact socially in one acceptable, agreed-upon way.
Race and racism are social constructs. In this country, they were created, formulated, and implemented by white people, for a particular purpose. But those constructs are real, with real consequences. The races are not the same. The races and their respective cultures, norms, art, expression, and social expectations are different. And that’s wonderful. It’s what makes our society strong, innovative, and ultimately, sustainable.
So, why must I wear a suit and tie to work? Why must I speak with so-called proper English in order to be respected? Why must I be quiet? Why must I mind what I say, so as to insulate the powers-that-be, who have every incentive to make certain everyone complies strictly with the societal norms they designed, and which continue to serve them well?
I’ve only recently felt somewhat comfortable speaking my mind and being honest about these societal expectations. And I’m sure I will experience consequences for my disobedience, civil as it may be.
My passion and mandate is clear: I seek to disentangle the expectations and mandatory societal rules, forced upon black and brown people. Such a disentanglement and eventual modification of those rules will inherently require disobedience.
It will require us to buck trends, break from the norm, and loudly call the rules what they are: racist — crafted, enforced, and perpetuated by a society that designed our respective racial categorizations, and prefers them just the way they are.