A few days ago at lunch, a colleague congratulated me for the hard work I was doing in the community. I thanked him, but I had no idea what he was referring to so I asked what prompted his pat on the back.
“I saw your picture on the school’s webpage, loading water that was to be sent to West Virginia,” he told me.
I looked at him perplexed, and after a few back-and-forth exchanges, I finally convinced him that it wasn’t me in the picture. Later that night, another colleague sent the picture that prompted this confusion.
Needless to say, it wasn’t me. It was just another hard-working black man who my colleague believed looked like me.
The fact that an older white colleague mistook me, a young black man, for another black man really brought to the forefront many feelings that have caused me consternation in the last few weeks concerning my presence in our society.
I grew up in small-town North Carolina, and I have a lot of white friends. Truth be told, I have more white friends than I do black friends. At one point in my life, I felt I would be able to transcend race, to be seen as an individual and not be subject to the gross misrepresentation of people who share my complexion.
I was wrong.
I nearly swallowed my tongue in high school when a close white friend told me one day after school, “You know, Mike, you’re not a nigger.”
He said I was in essence a good black person, not like those others who he said were “doing bad things.” He didn’t know that the people he was referring to were like my cousins, men I have known since childhood, men from my world, men who followed a different path than mine.
This friend wouldn’t even think that those men and I were related. It was as if he was saying there is a good black gene and a n----- gene. But that was just the beginning of my indoctrination into the way we all see race.
At first, I justified being dumped by some of my white girlfriends as a matter of preference. I initially thought the other guys were funnier, smarter, more their “type.” But later, I found it to be suppressed and indirect racism and ignorance reinforced by their parents.
It wasn’t stupidity. It was simply ignorance fueled by irrationality and fear.
Some of my white friends may be shocked to think that I, Michael Robinson — the kid who shrugged off being called “Oreo” and was described as “the whitest black person” they’d ever met — would feel impacted by the recent deaths of armed and unarmed black men by law enforcement or many of the other inequities young black men face on a daily basis.
I can hear some of them saying so many things:
“But Mike, you listen to John Mayer.”
“Mike, you know when I say those things I’m not referring to you, right?”
Absolutely, I think.
But now I realize I am part of the problem.
Because of me, you feel as if we live in a “post-racial world.” I have helped you believe the narrative you tell yourselves that blacks would be better off if they just work hard and take opportunities lying right in front of them. That they would not get into all that trouble if they just listened and did what they were told.
Throughout most of my life, I have made a conscious decision to suppress my thoughts and feelings about the treatment of people who look like me by people who look and think like you because I wanted to be accepted by you. I thought I had to do that because you confirmed it for me.
To act out of line with what you imagine society should condone, how “people” should be — i.e., to be just like you — would, in your words, be a “n-----.” As a result, I denied my blackness in an attempt to be accepted.
But I too attempted to see the world through a lens devoid of race. I wanted to give people the benefit of the doubt because I refused to see the world the way my parents and grandparents were forced to see it. I too believed the way we get rid of racism was by not paying attention to it.
Then I realized how ridiculous that idea was.
Imagine if someone said to you, “The way that we will end rape in America is by acting as if it never happens.” I bet you would look at that person as if he had two heads.
No issue gets dealt with by ignoring it, and now in my late 20s, as an educator and college-student mentor with a master’s degree, I realize it is my job to begin to confront the subtle and not-so-subtle racism I and others face on a daily basis. I finally realize that I would be no less black if I denied it — and that you acknowledging that I am anything but black, or somehow more acceptable than my brethren because they are not like me, is unacceptable. That it is no longer my job to make you feel comfortable.
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