Being Black in America

6a00d83451b2c969e20167666c6337970b-500wiWe might have a black President but being black in America still has many prejuduces.  This particular topic has been on my mind since I wrote about the Trayvon Martin verdict. 

This past weekend we went to see the movie Fruitvale Station.  The movie is based on a true story of a 22 year old black man, Oscar Grant,  who is murdered by the police at the Fruitvale Station in San Francisco on December 31, 2008.  Oscar had his share of issues but that particular night he was pulled out of the train with a bunch of his buddies who really were not doing anything illegal.  They were harassed by the police and unfortunately Oscar was killed.  Would this have happened if they had pulled out the white men who were involved in the same scuffle on the train?  I am not so sure it would have.

Then I read the inteview in the NYTimes with Obama talking about the income gap and how that is fraying the US society and he also points to race issues.  He even makes a comment that points straight to prejuduces he feels when he points out “If Congress thinks that what I’ve done is inappropriate or wrong in
some fashion, they’re free to make that case,” he said. “But there’s not
an action that I take that you don’t have some folks in Congress who
say that I’m usurping my authority. Some of those folks think I usurp my
authority by having the gall to win the presidency.”

Then over the weekend I read the book Americanah.  The book is a love story about two Nigerians who are young when they meet and eventually leave the country to look for better lives but return eventually finding each other again.  Yet, the book is actually about racism in America.  The main character, Ifemelu who has literally gone to hell and back to finally land on her own feet begins a blog called Raceteenth: Understanding America for the Non-American Black.  She writes about the subtle things that are said to her from white people who think they are connecting with her, the difficulty to get a job, the people that follow her in stores to make sure she isn't stealing, the cab drivers who don't pick up black people, etc.  It is all there in the book. It really makes you think because it isn't if you have not seen everything she is writing about before but if doesn't affect you then it isn't as skin crawling. 

There is one part that really stuck with me, as small as it might be.  She finally catches a break and gets a job interview for a real job and her friend tells her to get rid of her nappy hair, get it relaxed because she will never get a job looking that black.  She listens, gets her hair fixed and gets the job.  The reason I keep thinking about this particular part is an incident that happened to me the other day. 

I was walking down Christopher Street, it was the middle of the day and hot as blazes outside.  Six young black men passed me who had their baggy jeans pulled down with their underwear hanging out, a few of them had do-rags on and some chains.  They all appeared as if they were up to no-good although that could have been my own reaction.  I looked at them and thought about how many people would walk by these kids at night and perhaps be scared.  Is it wrong of us to judge the way that they looked?  Should they have to assimilate and dress a better part if they are going to be not judged? I felt awful feeling that way. 

The statistics for blacks in America are staggeringly terrible.  They make up 13% of the population but make up 38% of the prison population.  30% of all blacks live below the poverty line.  Black people make up a very small percentage of Americas elite.  Why has not much changed since Martin Luther King marched on Washington?

I have a colleague who is an African American who I would categorize in the elite category. He is very smart, insightful, charming and successful.  He has suffered from discrimination as he has told me about it.  On one hand I am blown away but on the other hand I am not surprised.  It is painful but it is real.

I have zero idea what it means to be black in America and I will never know.  I know what I hear from others, I know what I read, I know what I see and I know what I felt the other day on Christopher Street. I continue to think about how are we going to change racism in America over the next 50 years.  I hope these thoughts in my head become larger conversations in every community around our country. 

Comments (Archived):

  1. awaldstein

    Human perception is not color (or race) blind. Nor is society.Learning how not to judge or identify or categorize anyone by how they look is not a line we cross but a point of view we adopt and work towards.I’m optimistic.(I often go back and watch this scene from A Time to Kill….

    1. Gotham Gal

      Im optimistic too. If we are all openly having conversations about race issues that ia a good thing

  2. AnaRC

    Thank you for bringing up this topic Joanne. Yes, it’s a serious issue that needs a larger conversation. Thank you for sharing how you felt with those kids. Not everyone dares to do what you just did. Racism is very much alive. It hurts most when your own kids experience it for the first time and you need to help them “get used to it” and toughen up. My own mom tells me to relax my hair every single time she sees me. I know she does it out of love and her deep experience of racism as an AfroLatina. Out of all my kids, the lighter ones get invited to more parties, get better grades and “do better”. Is it a coincidence? I don’t think so. When I forced my district to implement the multicultural project and suspend the kids who bullied Pepe for being “brown” everyone thought I was over reacting. We should all over-REACT. Cause It’s real.

    1. Gotham Gal

      We should all react. Absolutely

    2. Gotham Gal

      Btw. I love your hair

      1. AnaRC

        Thank you 🙂 it took me 30 years to learn to love it. And an Italian husband who praised it every day!

  3. Kirsten Lambertsen

    Thank you so much for talking about this, Joanne.I would like to recommend Tim Wise’s work.…Because you’re right. As white people, you and I will never fully understand the black experience. But Tim Wise does a fantastic job of bringing us about as close as we can get. Just watch it. You’ll be so glad you did.And for anyone has never watched, “Eyes On The Prize,” do so as soon as possible. You cannot begin to understand the USA until you understand the history of the Civil Rights movement (the real history).And for some reason, I feel the need to mention something. I grew up watching “Sesame Street” in the early ’70’s. That show was SO important in forming my attitude about race, which was, differences are to be celebrated. I was surrounded by racial prejudice, but nothing could shake the values I learned from “Sesame Street!” (It drove my father crazy.)

  4. Cynthia Schames

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately for a number of reasons. One is that I’m a Florida native; I grew up 15 minutes from where Trayvon Martin was murdered. For me, that case was hometown news–and truly devastating. There are some other reasons race issues have been top of mind for me as well. One is that AbbeyPost’s target market of plus size women includes many women of color for whom plus size means something very different than it does to a suburban, white housewife. So on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc, I interact with WOC throughout the course of every day. I’m a firsthand witness to their struggles, and though I can’t fully empathize, I care deeply about the injustices still so present in our society.I believe the ONLY solution to racial inequality (hard to believe this is still even a thing in the year 2013) is for each of us, white, black, orange or purple, to consistently and constantly challenge ourselves to respond to others as fellow humans. Full stop. It can be hard as hell to do at times, but until we see and love one another for the person underneath the skin–this goes both ways–we’ll continue to live in a society tainted by fear, resentment and anger.

    1. Kirsten Lambertsen

      Right on, Cynthia. Be the change you want to see 🙂

  5. Brandon Burns

    There are many different ways to be black in America. I’ve lived one experience, but I’ve witnessed many others — and I’m not convinced race is the defining issue when it comes to profiling.Now, I’ve dealt with my fair share of racism. Everything from having been denied a ride in a taxi, to being told that I only got into Northwestern due to affirmative action, to not getting a full time job at a company where I measurably outperformed all the other (white) interns (who mostly all got jobs) because I didn’t “fit the culture.”But, as a black man who (usually) presents himself well and speaks like someone with a $200k education, I’ve also gotten some benefits. I’ve been stopped by cops for petty things kids get stopped for, and and walked away with not even a ticket because I’m clearly not a hoodlum. I’ve even gotten jobs because I’ve been profiled the smart black guy, and it was impressive to have one on the team (even though I hate being a token anything).I say all that to say this: appearance is everything. But, above all, socioeconomic status is everything. And your appearance reflects your status more than it does your race.Had Trayvon Martin been wearing khakis and a polo, no matter if its right or wrong, that story would have almost definitely ended differently. The attire Trayvon wore that night shouted “hoodlum” much louder than his race did. And lets be honest, as we’ve learned via the media, Trayvon came from a pretty hoodlum-esque culture filled with guns and selling drugs. His attire fit the life he led. It in no way means that he deserved to be attacked, but there are many people who hang in his circle, and dress like him, who had been committing murders in the neighborhood he lived in — and he looked just like those people. I’m in no way defending Zimmerman (he should have stayed in his house instead of trying to play Captain America), but that doesn’t make the situation of Trayvon’s background and the way we all profile people based on appearance any less true.You, Joanne, experienced that when you saw those kids by Christopher Street. But ask yourself this: had those kids been white or asian, and still dressed exactly the same, would you have still thought they were up to no good? I’m willing to bet yes. I certainly would have. Have you been to Flushing? I’m not trying to mess around with any asian hoodlums! And there are plenty of white thugs all over the Bronx and Staten Island. I’m not trying to mess with them during their night out on Christopher Street, either.Race is a dicey topic. But so are appearances. They are linked, but I think that link has moved from racial to cultural over the years.The “hoodlum appearance” used to be racial, as it used to be about black culture; the stuff you saw in almost all-black hip-hop videos in the 80s. Now, that culture isn’t black only. Its a general street culture, prevalent in latino, asian and white areas of low socioeconomic status. There are many more races of people adopting the look. And they all get profiled. For better or for worse.Still, being black in America ain’t a walk in the park. Not by a long shot.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Great comment. Your thoughts on thr gangsta style is spot on. Imho

      1. Brandon Burns

        No reason for your opinion to be humble. The burden of white guilt is just as bad an issue as race discrimination. Being shy about talking openly doesn’t help anyone. We should all say what we think is true, discuss/debate, and move on. As you did with this post!

        1. Gotham Gal

          Thanks Brandon

  6. Guest

    I think thats all it is..the more we talk about it the more people will talk about it. America…particularly White America…are often afraid to talk about it because they feel unqualified or guilty. Comedians like Louis CK who is able to talk about race in an intelligent way isnt criticized…hes praised by other comedians like Chris Rock.I do wonder if Trayvon Martin were White or Asian whether he would have gotten as much media attention; news reporters just lusted after the race issue. If Martin were white would Zimmerman be known for his Hispanic side and not his white side? If Martin were Asian would this have been covered by every media outlet? Asians are marginalized and not really a part of the race discussion in America.

  7. Yu-Hua Yang

    American racism is very much in existence and all minorities and sometimes the reverse the majority (white) all experience it at some point in their lives, whether they know it or not.But before we speak about the racism in America, we should take a look at racism from other parts of the world where the entire country is composed of a homogeneous population. In these places, racism is not even attempted to be cloaked or hidden, it is outright open and even approved by the government at times. Check out the story in Italy:… Do you think if a politician in America publicly states such comments he would survive the public backlash? Remember, most of the other countries in the world do not even allow immigrants to become citizens of their countries.So I am not saying that there are no problems in America. I am just saying, from an immigrant’s perspective, racism in America by comparison to the rest of the world, is tolerable and most of all, denounced by the government instead of endorsed. There will always be stereotypes and prejudices against each other in a society made up of different cultures and backgrounds, IMO its deep rooted human nature from caveman days. Just be glad at least you are in America

    1. Brandon Burns

      I hear your point loud and clear. Among other countries, I lived in China for a year. I’ve been called everything from “fucking foreigner” to “big black guy” to my face, in Chinese, by complete strangers who didn’t care if I understood what they were saying or not.While that’s pretty shitty, I’d never consider racism in the U.S. any better. I’d certainly never call it “tolerable.” Discrimination is not tolerable anywhere, in any form.”Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

      1. Gotham Gal

        great quote. so right.

        1. Honest

          Gothamgal…you come off as a really big suck up to black people…it doesn’t make you tolerant…it makes you look fake. Everytime Brandon says something, you fawn over it like it’s the biggest epiphany ever. Maybe don’t try so hard .

  8. pointsnfigures

    As Brandon points out, I don’t think racism is a one way street. Every group can be racist.I do not doubt that every single black person in America has experienced racism in one form or another.But, at the same time, 75% of black births are to unwed mothers. Kids from single parent homes (regardless of color) are already statistically behind the 8 ball before they hit the starting line.I thought Don Lemon of CNN had a nice thought the other day. Kids are making the choices they make-no one is forcing them. No govt program is going to change that.Kids in both inner cities, and rural areas don’t have access to decent education-and reform is stymied by big government agencies (Dept of Education) and Teacher’s Unions.What I didn’t like about the Martin case was the way it was spun. The race baiters in America used him as a prop to further their cause-they make money off it (Jackson, Sharpton et al). The anti-gun lobby used Martin, as did the pro-gun lobby.No one reported the truth and let people decide. They wanted us to be spoon fed our own decisions.For me the whole thing is a case in bad judgement. Zimmerman should have called the police, and let things be. Martin may have been up to no good-we will never know. As Reason reported, it’s not as if Martin were some sort of angel or something.… I also thought that Juan Williams wrote a good piece on it.I thought Obama used the bully pulpit to inflame racial tensions, and advance gun control. He was irresponsible.I spoke with a law professor. She thinks that the Martin family probably has a good civil case against Zimmerman. It won’t bring their son back though. Ironically, Zimmerman has a pretty good defamation of character case against NBC for editing the transcripts and tapes the way they did to shape the story. The only good that could come out of this is if NBC money found its way into the hands of the Martin family.

    1. Brandon Burns

      You’re right that the whole Martin / Zimmeraman case is a shit show and far from the best case study for how to look at these things.And, either way, we really need to look beyond race. Are so many black people discriminated against because they’re black, or because 75% of black people are born to unwed mothers and start their lives growing up in a culture / socioeconomic environment that sets them up for failure — the same failure met by whites, latinos, and everyone else who grow up in similarly disenfranchised environments?Unfortunately, I don’t think the American public has the attention span to look deep into problems like these (or like any). They want the obvious soundbites that are easy to digest.

      1. pointsnfigures

        or the will. When you want to change things the opposing forces strike fear in people’s hearts. What if I said, “We are going to eliminate the US Dept of Education, and turn all education money over to the states. We also are going to force public union workers to write their own checks to unions, not deduct it automatically.”I’d be struck down as against education.Yet, that’s exactly a couple of things that need to happen.

  9. OohBlessing

    I completely agree with you. As a Nigerian who live in America, I have experienced slight racism in my career as an engineer. Most people stare at me at meetings when I give direction like I am some mermaid. They even ask me how I got my degree and what did I do or who did I know to get the job. I live in West Virginia, go figure. What even offends me the most is the feedback I gather from top management about me being to aggressive and holding strong opinions. These issues are not even issues if this was a white male where it immediately signals leadership and taking charge. I stopped talking at meetings and quickly took a melancholic approach to work. Needless to say, I am now working on my own startup, because that is not who I am.So back to the racism issue in America – unfortunately, we have more than racial issues, we have gender issues, both of which are detrimental to the society. I think America is farther along that other homogeneous countries, but we have a long way to go. We need to rethink not reinforce gender/racial norms that we all do in subtle ways. We can only change from the inside out, not the other way round.Blessing.

    1. Gotham Gal

      we absolutely have gender issues as well.

  10. Frank Smythe

    Common sense isn’t so common any longer. A posting is a bunch of BS. FTR – I am politically and morally correct. Don’t color-code criticism> It’s about being competent and accountable and NOT about race.

  11. andyswan

    Don’t be so hard on yourself. If someone goes out of their way to project a “thug” image, it’s perfectly reasonable (and safer) to assume they are a thug until proven otherwise. It has nothing to do with the color of their skin.You’re projecting race into a situation where it likely was not a factor, just as Sharpton and the rest of the MSNBC circus did with the Martin/Zimmerman case.In 1992, my Dad told me to stop dressing like a moron unless I wanted everyone to assume I’m a moron. He was right.

    1. Gotham Gal

      smart advice from dad.

      1. xyzabc123

        I guess I wonder why the way someone dresses or looks has to have an impact on how we react to them? If someone dresses like a “thug” or a “moron” are they less of a person than you? Are you better than they are? It’s almost like trying to understand why someone can’t be the way that you are – that’s unfair. I actually fully believe this is something white people impose on black people: why can’t they just act like ‘us’?I agree with a commenter above – challenge yourself, every day, to treat others like humans no matter what…

        1. Gotham Gal

          i believe most people want to treat others equally no matter what but unfortunately human nature makes people react to others based on many outward appearances. it is what it is.

          1. xyzabc123

            I do understand – doesn’t make it right, or fair, though. I just often wonder who is setting these standards that everyone is expected to meet in order to be deemed ‘normal’ or not scary or not a thug, etc.Anyway thanks for broaching the subject, Gal.

          2. Bri Bri

            I do not agree with the word nature. I fully understand that human nature—social and psychological characteristics of humans—–But to call judgmental characteristics natural bothers me a little to easily. Just a quick question: If racism is human nature (keep in mind racism isn’t just black and white, let’s focus on being prejudice towards a group of people because of their physical appearance) —Again, if racism is human nature, doesn’t that mean we are BORN racist instead of being BORN INTO racism?

  12. LE

    “Should they have to assimilate and dress a better part if they are going to be not judged? I felt awful feeling that way. “I think it depends. If it matters to them what random people think on the street and the looks they get (or don’t get looked at) then they might have to do that because from a practical sense there is no way to stop that in society. Or if they want to apply for a job the same way you wouldn’t show up to an interview not dressed appropriately. Or if you are going to meet someone’s parents. It’s a “when in rome” type of thing.As far as African Americans I went from a public high school in Philly in the city of Philly where the only blacks I ever saw were the ones on the news at night doing bad things. So what type of impression would I have of blacks?I then managed to get into a private boarding school where the blacks there were totally different. The sons and daughters of diplomats or accomplished in some way. Or at least on scholarship and from a good family. One of my classmate’s father was with Martin Luther King when he was assassinated (before I met her obviously).…One of my teachers was african american and his father was Secretary of Transportation (William T. Coleman)….My point is simply that I remember thinking very distinctly at that age “oh boy I didn’t realize this” or something like that.You can’t blame people for jumping to conclusions especially when they are raised a certain way.