I spent two years living in Orlando during graduate school, the first half living with my girlfriend at the time and the second half living with a long-time platonic friend who also served as Dr. Frankenstein to my resurrected social life. Coming out of a long term relationship and re-entering the dating market is weird like that, almost like waking up from a long mid-summer nap on South Beach: sometimes it’s cool and you’re relaxed and you can enjoy what’s ahead of you; most of the time though you’re just disoriented, sweaty, overheated, thirsty as hell and thinking all this wasn’t as great an idea as you initially hoped.
So my roommate, Tina—as outgoing a person as a blonde freckled white woman in Florida can be (which, as many of you well know, is pretty damn outgoing)—took it upon herself to fight against my introverted nature and introduce me to what seemed like half the population of Central Florida, all while dragging me to every bar in town whenever the inclination hit her (which was often).
A few of these outings were to a place named Cowboys, which looks and feels about the way you’d think a bar in Orlando named Cowboys would look and feel. Going to Cowboys was never my idea. I hated the place for many reasons, the most significant being that I’ve never been fully comfortable being the only black guy in a room full of distinctly non-ethnic people (I know, it’s something I’m working on). I also intensely dislike most modern country music, makes me want to stab my eardrums out with a turntable needle (but that’s just my personal taste getting in the way). However, in the spirit of celebration and to avoid the alternative of sitting at home with extreme cases of FOMO, I would occasionally tag along to Cowboys despite knowing I wouldn’t be at ease for a single moment while I was there.
On one of these occasions, we were visiting Cowboys specifically to see a friend of Tina’s named Bobby. Bobby had just been hired as a bartender there (so, in reality, our group was there for a drink hookup). I knew Bobby too—I’d never had more than a couple of superficial conversations with the guy, but he seemed cool and amicable during all of them; threw a couple of jabs my way about how much better the Gators were than the Seminoles, then offered me a beer. Typical born-and-raised Floridian twenty-something-dudes type stuff.
Walking into Cowboys that night, I was my usual amount of uncomfortable. There’s something about fiddles and lines of drunk white men and women dancing in unison that gives me a distinct Twelve-Years-a-Slave-y feeling every time (like I said, I’m working on it). But venturing out with Tina’s entourage always came with a few disclaimers in that regard. There was rarely an evening with them where I didn’t have to deal with something in the way of other-ing—the staredowns, the scoffs, the invasions of personal space, the blatantly racist statements, in retrospect it was all ridiculous to the point of being almost laughable, really—but at that point I’d had so much experience with this aspect of society that I was an expert at masking my emotions, ignoring my surroundings and simply pretending to have fun (fake it ’til you make it, amirite?!).
With all of this history, I was relieved when I saw Bobby stationed at the back bar, far away from the giant wooden line-dancing stage that took up the entire middle of the room. Figured a familiar face is rarely a bad thing. So I walked over, catching his eye as I approached, nodding and possibly tossing a few finger guns (I wouldn’t put it past myself). Bobby stood next to the other bartender on duty, both of them posted up on a beer cooler waiting for the late night crowd to pour in. When Bobby walked over to me, the other bartender followed and both grinned.
You sure you in the right place? Bobby said, nudging the guy next to him with his elbow. I didn’t think they let your kind in here.
Then Bobby laughed, and the bartender standing next to him laughed, both of them looking me right in the face as they did. A couple of the girls standing next to me at the bar sipping their drinks also laughed. And it was the combination of all that laughing that triggered my own forced and expressly humorless chuckle, followed by the typical-at-the-time bowing of the head. As if in deference not just to Bobby’s right to make that joke but to the right of his fellow bar staff and the bar patrons in the immediate vicinity to participate in the celebration of it. I can only guess this is why—twenty minutes after the incident, as I was trying to order a drink—the second bartender who had joined Bobby in that little leg-slapping moment of racial hilarity looked me right in the eye before waving me off and taking care of somebody else.
Seven years later, during a visit to Orlando, I’m initially moved by nostalgia at the sight of my alma mater, a flock of good will fluttering up from my memory banks. A moment later the good will fades to bitterness though as I’m struck by not just the memory of that night at Cowboys, but the memories of countless similar occasions that occurred while I lived here that left me feeling like an outsider, a mannequin, an object whose sole purpose was to amuse the perceived majority.
I also, for many many years, felt like somebody who needed to remain as jovial and insignificant as possible to avoid finding out what happens when that particular brand of attention turns hostile. And it is in this timidity that I find most of my current regret.
Sitting in a rental car typing this on my phone, I look back at the many moments that had the potential to be pleasant, moments that were instead infected with bigotry and now lie scattered like toxic litter all up and down the trail of my past. And even now, as a more secure, stable and assertive individual, certain elements of these incidents still dig at my ego. It isn’t just that people have slung racist crap at me for years (a lot of it way worse than Bobby’s little Cowboys quip); it’s the notion that, for so long, my reactions to this bigotry—the reaction I was taught to have, not just by my parents but by every older black person of influence in my life—was always the same: laugh, bow your head, don’t ask for trouble.
It’s not worth it.
In other words, don’t give them a reason to turn the joke into more than a joke, because it’s not worth the inevitably bad outcome; the insinuation there being that you will lose that particular fight every single time. It’s a Martin-Luther-esque inclination that has been passed down on a grand scale from every previous generation to ours, ever since that first slave hissed at the second slave to keep quiet or risk the wrath of Massa; this idea that the chips are stacked against black people already and we should therefore respond to the never-ending bigotry with humility if we want to survive long enough to actually see it defeated.
Choose your battles, son.
And yet, it’s 2017. Bigots still exist. Racism still exists. Sexism still exists. Discrimination still exists. And—as is apparent by the mountains of evidence gathered throughout American history, especially in recent years—whether these oppressive attitudes are proudly displayed in public or remain sitting just beneath the surface behind locked doors (hope you’ve all seen Get Out by now), they still have the same effect of undermining the peace of mind of a giant portion of the population; a peace of mind that is an absolute right each human is born with and should continuously and adamantly fight to protect.
At a certain point, you have to admit to yourself when something is not working. And treating race relations delicately when you’re on my side of it—especially when you’ve seen time and time again that the other side seems not to know what the word delicate even means—then you owe it to yourself to admit that the status quo has failed and the tactics for dealing with this epidemic need to be re-examined.
Not a knock against Reverend King, the man was an icon.
But so was Malcolm X.
Of course, there can be a middle ground. It’s obvious now though that the middle ground society needs has to be demanded and taken, not requested.
Though I lived about 15 minutes from Sanford during graduate school, by the time Trayvon Martin was murdered I’d already embarked on my short-lived pilgrimage out-of-state, relocating to NYC. Nevertheless, coverage of Trayvon’s untimely death peppered every entertainment outlet in Manhattan like moths. There were a variety of opinions from people of all demographics concerning Trayvon’s death and the subsequent trial, social media lighting up daily with people’s personal monologues. An odd amount of commentary I came across sat in the middle somewhere, sort of toe-dipping into each side of the argument. But the most surprising reactions I saw were from other members of the black community who seemed not just outraged by the murder, but simultaneously angry at the victim, Trayvon Martin. The consensus was strident: Trayvon should have known better, should have never been walking around that neighborhood like that, hoodied up, hands not clearly visible, drawing unnecessary negative attention. If it wasn’t Zimmerman that got him, it would’ve eventually been somebody/something else.
In other words, Trayvon should have known what was likely to happen. Because everybody knows walking down the street at night with clothing others deem inappropriate might lead to you getting shot, right? It’s been rapists’ go-to argument for years, why not murderers?
It’s almost as if a specific demographic within black society (here’s looking at you Dr. Cosby, ya frisky s.o.b.) was relieved to see Trayvon gunned down, so they could hold his picture up as they turned to the rest of us and screamed “See?! We’ve been telling you for years to pull up your goddamn pants!!”
This sentiment was echoed throughout portions of the white community as well, as I found out while at the New York real-estate-based publishing firm where I was employed during the Trayvon coverage.
The owner of this firm, Jeff, hired me about a month after I left Florida, following a slightly nerve-wracking interview process which included him questioning the validity of my graduate degree from UCF (but I digress). I was working at a Brooklyn copywriting company at the time, commuting two hours each way from the room I was renting in Harlem. So when Jeff hired me, I overlooked the mid-20K salary (plus health care, he was always quick to add) and rejoiced over the fact that I had relocated jobs from Brooklyn to Times Square.
When the topic of Trayvon came up at work one day, the five of us that constituted Jeff’s work staff all seemed to be on the same page: what had happened to Trayvon was f’d up. Jeff, passing by, overheard the conversation but didn’t offer anything up right then other than a thoughtful nod. Later though, during one of the many impromptu meetings he called in his office to speak to each of us individually (during which I always noticed his office was bigger than the combination of my bedroom, closet and the bathroom I shared with my roommate), Jeff made his opinion clear when he compared Trayvon to me.
You see a guy like you, Jeff said. You come in here and you’re not dressed like a hoodlum, and we hire you because you’re educated and can speak well. Some of these people though…and then they wonder…
I remember Jeff let his words trail off there. He was theatrical like that.
A few months later, on Fourth of July, I would get a series of frantic calls from Jeff while at my apartment enjoying a rare day off. One voicemail he left told me that I needed to come into the office immediately, insinuating that my job might not be there tomorrow if I didn’t. So I got dressed and hit the subway. Sitting in his office half an hour later, I bowed my head as Jeff reamed me about two typos that had slipped into an issue of one of the magazines I was managing editor of (to be honest, by that point both my salary and months of eating ramen noodles for dinner had drained all of my give-a-damn). Jeff’s face turned red as he shouted, looking me up and down as if I had crapped on his office floor.
You realize I had to catch a limo in for this? he asked. From the Hamptons. That’s not close by. I’m embarrassed.
As he spoke, I looked around once again at Jeff’s giant office, and I thought about the tiny room that I was renting for a grand a month in the tiny apartment located in a predominantly black and predominantly broke part of upper Harlem (damn near in the Bronx); my tiny room right above both a liquor store and a junkie who slept in the stairwell on the floor below mine and always asked me for change, every day on my way out, no matter how many times I told him I was broke too, bruh (I offered him five bucks one day to get rid of the rat(s) that kept scurrying around above my ceiling every night, but he just laughed).
It was then—staring at Jeff’s red face describing to me his rush limo drive back from the Hamptons—that I decided to apply for a teaching position back in Miami. ‘Til the day that I hopped on that plane to MIA from JFK, Jeff—a proud born-and-raised Jewish New Yorker with many, many family and professional ties to the New York real estate industry, let me tell you, this guy right here—insisted that he’d been doing me a favor by giving me that job. That he’d been doing me a favor not many others would have given me (because apparently it’s one hell of a sacrificial gamble to hire somebody with credentials and experience). And every time he spoke like that, I was reminded of the way he’d shook his head at all of us in the board room that day we were talking about Trayvon’s murder.
Pictures of Trayvon after his death nearly brought me to tears because of how similar to me in my teenage years he seemed. I wondered so much about him, what his self esteem was like, what type of verbal and physical crap had been tossed his way throughout his life in Central Florida, how many people had told him from birth that this society was out to get him, maybe even telling him–as they’d told me–that he had basically two choices in life: survive through conformity, or risk the wrath of U.S. Oppression. I wondered if Trayvon even really understood as he walked out of his house on that last day of his life that being killed for his physical appearance was not just a possibility, but an eventuality.
I can’t believe that he did understand. Because I was Trayvon at that age too, and I never understood. None of my black friends did either, not at first. It would take years of negative interactions for that fact to sink in; the fact that there are just some things black people can’t do.
Driving with my girlfriend to pick up her daughter, I see the head of security, Ms. Williams, standing in the walkway leading up to her school, directing globs of children to their respective vehicles. Ms. Williams is a black woman, and judging by her mannerisms and all her actions she very obviously cares deeply about the safety of the children in her care. It’s one of the reasons we believe that she is noticeably harsher when reprimanding black students than when reprimanding students of any other race. I’ve never spoken to Ms. Williams about this, but a spade is a spade any which way you look at it.
I had a few Ms. Williams’s throughout my K-12 years, older black women and men who would grab me by the ears whenever I got out of line, sit me down and tell me some version of the same ol’ stuff: you are a young black man living in the United States. Do not give them more of a reason to screw you over. Preaching compliance as self-preservation, I appreciated what these role models did for me, and understand the sentiment. As do my parents.
Both my mother and father are Jamaican immigrants, transplanted here a couple of years before I was born. Knowing this country’s history of violent discrimination, my parents were understandably paranoid while raising me. What this amounted to were a lot of stern lectures on how to navigate society’s many potential landmines: racist police officers, racist school administrators, racist bosses, basically anybody in a position of power who could potentially use that power to display their inner bigoted views.
The underlying moral: beware, and don’t ask for trouble.
The sentiment is borne from an understandable but misguided ideal: that minorities should be trying to fit in with the majority, because the majority has all the power.
But sitting here now I wonder realistically: does that “majority” of society actually have power over me? Am I expected–as a perceived minority–to quietly hold up my index finger and wait for this majority to get around to acknowledging my grievances?
Or is that perceived majority power a fantasy construct that has lasted so long now it’s just considered true for lack of a better argument? Am I justified in looking past this majority, towards my ultimate goal of being at peace, and pushing away anybody who stands in my path?
Is the “majority” even really a majority anymore?
In lieu of a concrete answer, I’ve recently begun to simply ignore the social constructs inherent in the question, looking instead at the core of what it means to be human and self-aware. At that core is a basic principle: each and every one of us is a singular individual with the natural-born and inalienable right to peace of mind. And in this, the concept of “majority” and “minority” becomes irrelevant. All that matters is the pursuit of a restful mind state, and if achieving that requires challenging the status quo, then challenging the status quo is the only option we have.
Power is a construct, just as racism is a construct. They only gain credence if you give it to them. Which–here and now and forever more–I expressly choose not to do, just as I expressly choose to oppose others who give these constructs relevance.
I do not accept the majority power. I do not accept bigotry. It is my right not to accept these fantasies, just as it is my right to respond to these societal inconsistencies with a loud and passionate “Fuck. You.”
And believe me, there will be no bowing of the head in deference when I hold up this particular finger.
Let’s be clear: I am not an atheist.
At least, I am not an atheist as it is colloquially defined in modern society. I am not dedicated to the disenfranchisement of all religions, and I don’t promote the condescending position that I know nothing exists after death.
I have no freaking idea what happens to us when we die. And neither do you.
However, the word atheism is defined in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary as “a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods.” And in this strict definition, I could be considered an atheist. Because I believe in science, and science has no hierarchy. It is a set of explanations without moral tint, and the objectivity of it is satisfying in its straightforwardness.
So while I do not believe that there is a supreme conscious being pulling the strings behind the scenes, I do believe in string theory, quantum physics and other related fields. These scientific niches prove that the world is connected, that nature is a cycle and we can improve our species and planet through mindfulness, empathy and the scientific method. These fields also prove that a lot of this world is the way it is simply because that’s the way things developed. The more tangible facts we know about the universe the better we can live with each other and the surrounding world.
I believe all of this through formal education and my own personal readings, because I was definitely not raised with atheist principles. I was actually raised in a strict religious household: Christian, non-denominational, typical church-on-Wednesdays-and-Sundays-and-don’t-even-think-about-staying-out-on-Saturday-nights type of stuff.
I gave it all up around the age of 16, much to the chagrin of my family (particularly my mother, who I adore and hope doesn’t actually think I’m going to hell). But what my family doesn’t know is that my reasons for walking away from Christianity have not remained static. Throughout the years, my aversion to church has had fluid sources, starting with rebellion as a teenager, moving to cynicism in my early twenties and flipping to scientific evidence in my late twenties.
These past few years though, Christianity has taken on a more historical context for me. The relationship between Christian beliefs and the black community is many things: strong, conflicted, angry, joyful. The emotions are all tied to our background. One significant and often satirized characteristic of Black-American communities is that black people tend to be more animated and enthusiastic during church sessions than those from white communities. This stems from former slave trends; slaves “introduced” to Christianity would incorporate old rituals from their forcefully abandoned African religions, using the words of the Holy Bible as emotional release when seeking solace during particularly rough times. The concept of heaven served as a bright beacon of light, allowing slaves the hope that their suffering would be rewarded in the afterlife.
And in this lies one of the most foundational land mines ever socially-constructed.
While some of the African slave ancestors of today’s black Americans were established Christians–having adopted the religion in their respective communities back in Africa way before being sold into the slave trade–most slaves were not born into Christianity. In fact, a vast majority of slaves were from such diverse areas that they “had very little in common with each other. They spoke different languages, had different customs and prayed to different gods.”
By introducing Christianity to slaves though–and many times violently forcing them to adopt this new theology—slave owners and oppressors had a new method of keeping slaves docile and compliant: the word of God.
I never really took to the idea of theology as a tool for suppression. But goddamn it’s effective as hell.
Regardless of my reasons for leaving religion in the past, it’s still something I’ve had to face and deal with my entire life. Most religious individuals I’ve met throughout the years like to keep their religion close to the chest (luckily I’ve never really had to stomach too much of the street-corner-sign-holding-screaming-at-passing-cars level of that particular hierarchy). So the only real situations I’ve dealt with involving the intersection between race and religion have been under intimate circumstances.
Throughout the years I have been in and out of a variety of romantic relationships, many of them interracial due to the fact that I’m Jamaican and live in Miami, which is majority Hispanic. The high number of racist incidents I’ve dealt with in past relationships would probably surprise you (or not, depending on your level of cynicism), but none were more relevant to this current discussion than what occurred just a few months after I escaped Jeff and New York back to Miami.
(In an effort not to make this a simple soap-opera-ish roast of an ex-girlfriend, I’ll cut to the chase. I will also—for the same reason—refer to the woman by her first initial: Z)
Z is Cuban, born from Cuban parents who both immigrated to Miami post-Mariel-boatlift. Z’s mother is a woman who has never worked a day in her life. The day I met Z’s mother–this was maybe a month or two after Z and I started dating–I was not surprised by the many religious artifacts lying around the house. Z had been raised Catholic, attended a private Catholic high school, and pretty much had all the trappings of a Catholic-raised Cuban girl in Miami (which constitutes a giant portion of Miami’s population).
Z’s mother—like many Cuban mothers and fathers I’ve met–did not like me at first, and made it very clear to Z that this was because I was black (on a slightly related note, she also made it clear to both of us how much she hated Barack Obama, not just because he too was black, but because he was a “communist”; her lamentations were nearly constant, occurring in loud succession from the couch in the living room of her government-assisted housing arrangement…but again, I digress). This was all a moot point at the time though, because I was not dating Z’s mother. I was dating Z. So I therefore gave Z the benefit of the doubt that she had fallen far from the apple tree her mother was rotting in.
One day–as I was giving Z a ride to work while her car was at the mechanic’s–we passed an interracial couple walking down 27th avenue in West Flagler (not that I normally refer to interracial couples as “interracial couples,” I’m just being specific for the sake of narrative). The woman was white and blonde, the man black and tall, and they were holding hands as they strolled, giggling with each other. Z studied them as we passed, then turned to me and made a face like she’d just walked by roadkill.
Every time I see a white girl with a black guy, she said, shaking her head. She just looks so…trashy.
Thinking about the comment in retrospect, there are many things that come to mind. What it meant about Z’s self-worth is one. How I wish I’d reacted—by ending the relationship and kicking her out of my car right there in the middle of the street—is another. Instead, I continued to date her for another couple of months, which I know now said a whole lot more about me than it did about her.
It wasn’t the first time I’d endured offensive statements from women I’ve dated though. From being told I’m cute, for a black guy to being told I’m not cute enough for a black guy to flat out being excluded from entire swaths of dating pools based solely and explicitly on my skin color, the manner in which race played a role in my romantic and sexual upbringing still sort of baffles me. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the statement my parents would kill me if I came home with a black guy in casual conversation, or had people I thought of as friends look at me and tell me almost gleefully that a girl I thought was cute wouldn’t even look at a black dude, much less date one. Combine it all and the exercise of dating has been sort of like a decades-long game of Russian Roulette.
The concept of love is a tricky one though, with pretty much every outcome relying solely on personal taste. So there are certain statements and conclusions I am not willing to make based on the circumstantial evidence above, simply because of the subjectivity of romantic relationships.
But damn it anyways if it ain’t all one hell of a self-esteem killer for a significant portion of society’s young men and women.
Musical enjoyment is one of the aspects of human existence I would cite as reason enough to get out of bed in the morning. I can’t live without it, and I have some of form of it with me at all times, if it’s even simply the musical notes tattooed on my arms.
Growing up I was drawn separately to all genres, from soul to country to pop to rock to jazz and everything in between. As a young black kid living in the southernmost portion of Miami though, I was inevitably exposed to hip hop at an even earlier age, a fact I’ve written about here before. My first cassette tape was Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle, a gift from my cousin that my parents promptly found and destroyed once they saw the comic book depictions of anthropomorphized dogs having sex inside the album cover. The first CD I ever bought was Mystikal’s Unpredictable, which I still own, by some miracle. To this day, it is hip hop I put on when I’m taking a shower at the end of the day and trying to unwind.
As I have also written about, it was sometimes difficult for me to relate to the more hardcore hip hop artists. Though my parents and I spent a while living in a rundown apartment complex in the middle of Cutler Ridge (what would be considered “the hood” by many), we moved out when I was eight, transplanting to a nice middle class neighborhood a few miles north. By junior high I had a basketball hoop in my front yard, a bicycle I used all the time, my own room and TV and video games. I went to a predominantly-white middle school and lived on a predominantly-white and Hispanic block. As far as I know, there has never been a drive-by shooting in my neighborhood, and if you see the cops outside with their lights flashing, everybody’s walking outside to crane neck at the spectacle of it all. I loved hip hop, but I had no idea what the hell half of these guys were talking about in their songs.
Why does Biggie keep mentioning bricks?
Has 2Pac actually murdered people?
What the hell is a dopeboy?
None of this stopped me from listening though, because the beats were sick and the artists at least looked kind of like me.
My best friend in the neighborhood up until high school was a white kid named Conrad who lived in a house that overlooked the lake located across the street from my parent’s house. Around sixth grade, it came out that Conrad’s dad had been abusing his mom which started a chain of falling dominoes that eventually (and thankfully) led to their divorce. After an adjustment period, Conrad’s mom met a new guy who moved in with them, bringing along his daughter, Jessica (sidenote: besides being the first white girl I’ve kissed, Jessica also holds the honor of being the first white girl to tell me she couldn’t openly date black guys because of her dad).
After a year or two of friendship, I would eventually admit to Jessica that I had grown an affinity for rock music. It had started with MTV back in elementary school, watching music videos with Kurt Cobain screaming and whipping his hair around. By middle school the interest had congealed into genuine love. So I started rattling off my favorite bands to her in quick succession: Nirvana, Bush, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Metallica. I had a thing for guitars that I didn’t yet recognize, except to know that this music had a way of touching portions of my soul that hip hop just couldn’t (let it be known that the same holds true vice versa).
After monologuing for a bit, I paused and Jessica looked at me, sitting on her bedroom floor with her CD collection spread out in front of us.
Rock is totally not for black people, she said.
Jessica said it so nonchalantly that I still to this day do not take offense. I truly believe that, in her 13 year old mind, she felt that she was just stating the obvious, and at the time that was as close to obvious as you could get: rock is not made for black people, just as hip hop isn’t made for white people (we’re talking like ’95/’96 here, pre-Eminem).
Today, music enthusiasts know that idea is nonsensical, and it is this transition in sentiments within the progressive society of music-lovers that I’m hoping serves as a microcosm of what the majority of society will eventually look like. The thought has me hopeful even as I write down these broad declarations in this blog-post-turned-essay.
Because whether the bigots like it or not, times are a-changing.
There is nothing black people (or any other race) can’t, don’t and won’t do. Humans are a miracle of evolution at a cellular level, a fact that surpasses all physical traits. Working together, the breadth of achievements ahead of us could be vast and not just life-changing, but species-changing.
However, the only way for the stragglers to know it’s time for them to cut the crap and get on board the train of progress is to make sure they are no longer allowed to be comfortable with business as usual. Make sure they know that both themselves and their outdated ideals will be left behind, alone and abandoned.
Let them know they are not in control anymore.
So, to reiterate:
- Be safe.
- Be assertive.
- Ask questions.
- Make bold statements.
- Voice your opinion.
- Make a difference in your community.
- Seek peace of mind
But most importantly, challenge those that think things are fine the way they are.
Because they are most definitely not.
- My life