I spent two years living in Orlando during graduate school, the first half living with a girlfriend and the second half living with a long-time platonic friend named Tina who served as my social life revivalist after said girlfriend and I broke up. Tina—as outgoing a person as a blonde freckled white woman in Florida can be—took it upon herself to fight against my introverted nature and introduce me to what seemed like, at the time, 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 looked and felt about the way you’d think a bar in Central Florida 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 white 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 an extreme case of FOMO, I would occasionally tag along with hopes that tonight would be more fun.
One night I agreed to go to Cowboys specifically to see a friend of Tina’s named Bobby. Bobby had just been hired as a bartender. Bobby was also somebody I knew. I’d never had more than a couple of superficial conversations with the guy, but he seemed cool and amicable; type of guy to throw a couple of jabs my way about how much better the Gators were than the Seminoles right before offering me a beer. Typical born-and-raised Floridian twenty-something-dudes type stuff. Bobby, of course, was a blonde white boy.
Walking into Cowboys that night, I was my usual level of uncomfortable. There’s something about fiddles and lines of drunk white people dancing in unison that gives me a distinct Twelve-Years-a-Slave-y type feeling (like I said, I’m working on it). And I felt the feeling of discomfort was justified, as there was rarely an evening out during this time period 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. By that point though, I’d had so much experience dealing with this part of society that I was an expert at masking my emotions, ignoring my surroundings and simply pretending to have fun until I was drunk enough to actually be having fun (fake it ’til you make it, amirite?!).
So seeing as I knew the guy, I was relieved to find 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 wearing backwards camo-hats and waiting for the late night crowd to pour in. When Bobby walked over to me, the other bartender followed, both grinning.
“You sure you in the right place?” Bobby said, nudging the other guy with his elbow. “I didn’t think they let your kind in here.”
Then Bobby laughed, and the bartender standing next to him laughed, and a couple of the girls standing next them at the bar also laughed. So I forced a humorless chuckle and bowed my head. I can only guess that my timorous response 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—I’m talking pupil-to-pupil—then waved me off and took care of a white dude standing at the other end of the bar.
Seven years later, during a visit to Orlando, I’m initially moved by nostalgia at the sight of my alma mater, a flock of goodwill fluttering up from my memory banks. The goodwill quickly 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 out there, all of which 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 this timidity that I regret the most.
In each of those moments, it is my parents’ words I hear, spoken over and over again to me as a kid:
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 of black Americans to ours, ever since that first slave hissed at the second slave to keep quiet or risk the wrath of Massa.
Choose your battles, son.
And yet, it’s 2020. 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 the past couple of weeks—whether these oppressive attitudes are proudly displayed in public or remain sitting just beneath the surface behind locked doors, they all have the same effect of undermining a huge portion of the population’s right to pursue happiness.
At a certain point, you have to admit to yourself when something is not working. And treating race relations delicately when you’re on this side of things—especially when you’ve seen time and time again that many on the other side don’t even know what the word delicate 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.
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. There were a variety of opinions on the subject from people of all demographics, social media lighting up daily with personal monologues (much like the one I’m writing now).
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 black people, who seemed not just outraged by the murder, but simultaneously angry at the victim, Trayvon. 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 else, probably the police themselves.
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 being hurt in some way, 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 youths and scream “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 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 the very much accredited University of Central Florida (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 now got to work in 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, and George Zimmerman was an asshole. Jeff, passing by, overheard the conversation but didn’t offer anything other than a nod and a dismissive wave of his hand. Later though, during one of the many impromptu meetings he liked to call in his office to speak to each of us individually (during which I always noticed his office was bigger than my entire apartment), 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 he let his words trail off there. He was theatrical like that.
A few months later, on Fourth of July—a National Holiday, if not the National Holiday—I received a series of frantic calls from Jeff while at my apartment enjoying the rare day off. In one voicemail he told me that I needed to come into the office immediately, insinuating that my job was on the line. 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 me of all give-a-fuck). 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 of this.”
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. I thought about how that tiny room was right above both a liquor store and a junkie who slept in the stairwell 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 once to get rid of the rats I could hear scurrying around in 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 from JFK to MIA, 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 heh, 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 done. 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 while we were talking about Trayvon’s murder.
Left: Me circa 2007 holding a Black & Mild and trying to look cool (yes, I used to smoke Black & Milds, and yes that is a cell phone clipped to my belt); Right: Trayvon holding some money
Pictures of Trayvon after his death brought me to tears because of how similar to my teenage self 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 short life in Central Florida. I wondered how many people had told him from birth that this society was out to get him, how many times he’d been told that he basically had only two choices: survive through conformity, or risk the wrath of U.S. Oppression. I wondered if Trayvon ever 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 don’t believe that he did understand. Because I was Trayvon too, at his age. And I never understood. None of my black friends did either, not at first. It would take years of bad shit happening to us for that fact to sink in; the fact that there are just some things black people can’t do.
Mom, dad, and an apparently shell-shocked me
My parents are Jamaican immigrants, transplanted here a couple of years before I was born. Knowing this country’s history of violent discrimination, they 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 a fantasy construct that has pervaded American society for 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 through anybody who stands in my path?
Is the “majority” even really a majority anymore?
In lieu of a concrete answer, I’ve chosen 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 pursue our own peace of mind. And in this, the concept of “majority” and “minority” becomes irrelevant. All that matters is this pursuit, of self-awareness and self-actualization. If achieving these things 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 that particular finger.
I started dating a girl named Zuly when I got back from New York in August of 2012. Zuly is Cuban, born from Cuban parents who both immigrated to Miami during the Mariel boatlift. Zuly’s mother is a woman who has never worked a day in her life. The day I met Zuly’s mom—this was maybe a month or two after Zuly and I started dating—I was not surprised by the many religious artifacts lying around the house. Zuly 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).
Zuly’s mother—like many Cuban mothers and fathers I’ve met—did not like me when she met me, and made it very clear to Zuly that this was because I was black (on a related note, she also made it clear to both of us how much she hated Barack Obama as president, 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…irony is always funny in retrospect, not so much in the moment). This was all a moot point at the time though, because I was not dating Zuly’s mother. I was dating Zuly. So I therefore gave Zuly the benefit of the doubt that she had fallen far from the apple tree her mother was rotting on.
One day, as I was giving Zuly a ride to work while her car was at the mechanic’s, we passed a couple walking down 27th avenue in West Flagler. The woman was white and blonde, the man black and tall, and they were holding hands as they strolled, giggling with each other. As we passed, Zuly studied them 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.”
In retrospect, there are many things that come to mind about that comment. What it meant about Zuly’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 says a whole lot more about me at the time than it does about her.
It wasn’t the first time I’d endured offensive racial statements from prospective partners though. From “you’re cute, for a black guy” to “you’re not cute enough for a black guy” to flat out “I don’t date black guys,” 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.
As is almost every other damn thing for black people in this society.
Growing up I was drawn separately to all musical 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. My first cassette tape was Snoop Dogg’s (formerly 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 booklet. 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 and trying to unwind.
As with many black kids growing up middle-class though, it was sometimes difficult for me to relate to the more hardcore hip hop artists. Though my parents and I spent the eighties living in an apartment complex in the middle of Cutler Ridge (what many would have considered at the time to be “the hood”), 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, a TV and video games. I went to a predominantly-white and Hispanic 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 rubberneck at the spectacle of it all. I loved hip hop, but I had no idea what the hell half 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 kinda looked 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 ever 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 started with MTV back in elementary school, watching music videos with Kurt Cobain lamenting life (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” video still gives me goosebumps). By middle school the interest had congealed into genuine love. So I started rattling off my favorite bands to her: 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). Jessica looked at me when I was done, 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 don’t know if she meant any offense by it. 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 was not made for black people, just as hip hop wasn’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. 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.