A Heavy Toll: Being Black in 21st Century America

The trials and tribulations of having more melanin in your skin

Caption: "Out of a mountain of despair, hope." Dr. Martin Luther King

Growing up, I remember being quite carefree. I was surrounded by the love and care of hardworking parents, received unlimited attention and care from siblings, and was told from a very early age that I was special, my inquisitive nature was quickly noted as intelligence and I dreamed dreams of boundless possibilities. I saw myself as my family saw me: sharp, funny, cute, and assertive. By the age of 10 I was reading 7 books a month; the content didn’t matter, all that mattered was feeding my insatiable appetite for more knowledge.

The exact time or season in which I began to feel the weight of my “otherness” is a bit of a fog. There was no defining moment, nor a time in which I can specifically recall when I would always be seen by many as black first and everything else second.

I can recall moments that culminated into a constant fear of discomfort; a feeling of doubt of who and what I was. These incidents included the time a white male teacher asked if I shared the same father as the rest of my other 5 siblings; being invited to a small town festival that prominently featured confederate flags and being made to feel that my objections were an overreaction; being told by a white friend’s mom that I was pretty due to my skin being a lighter tone; and hearing my mom’s white client inform her friend that life in the early 1930s and 1940s was not “so bad” for Americans.

These incidents all shaped my perspective and coated my existence, creating for me a shell that exists within the minds of many black Americans. It is, to be diplomatic, a feeling that one cannot easily describe. The best way to describe this notion is that one must constantly be prepared, prepared to defend, deflate, explain, apologize, protect, and to be more than just you. It’s a constant awareness that anything you do or say can be seen as a representation of your entire race, instead of it merely being a reflection of your own unique personality. [N – A bit more her? Perhaps a real-world example?]

Evidence in all that we see

Following the slaughter of church members in Charleston, SC, Americans were told by the media and lawmakers alike that the shooter was indeed a lone wolf, one that had no allies or organizational ties. We were never told to view Dylann Roof as a representation of the entire white community or label his mission as being tied to radical Christianity. The mainstream media told us to see him as an individual man that committed an unspeakable racist act that deserved–if not forgiveness, then Burger King for lunch–because he was “a troubled young white man.” due to the rarity of the event. [not sure I follow here– “deserved forgiveness”?] And, of course, he was taken without a scratch on him. Compare that with the police killing of Freddie Gray, a young black man charged with nothing, yet he was treated with utter contempt and violence, leading to his death in the back of a police van. None of the officers in that case were convicted.

The message we receive for black people convicted of violent crimes have not been treated as “one-off, disturbed” events. Quite the opposite, in fact. A mere day following the shooting and killing of 5 Dallas police officers, leading conservative pundits, lawmakers, and media all began to openly tie Micah Xavier Johnson to the Black Lives Matter Movement–a movement they declared was even terrorist in nature. The narrative was not to show how a man had been horribly influenced by years of hate and displaced anger. Instead, the goal of the mainstream narrative was to illustrate that Mr. Xavier was a supporter of BLM and that many members of Black Lives Matter were angry with all police and wanted revenge by any means necessary.  This is the same narrative pushed by the right wing leaders. For example, Texas State Representative Bill Zedler, a Republican, concluded that the “rhetoric of Black Lives Matters encouraged the sniper that shot Dallas police officers,” as he wrote on Twitter.

Defending an Organization whose Sole Purpose is to Defend the Lives of Black People

We are constantly expected to explain that Black Live Matter is not a hate group, and that white lives matter, and blue lives matter. We must then explain why the phrase “all lives matter” is not inclusive, and diminishes the point of a system that imprisons black people 30%  more often than white people for the same crime; a system that encourages police to pull people over for the “crime” of driving while black; a system that ignores the tears and fears of a people that has endured 300 years of persecution for the simple reason that they have more melanin in their skin.

For black people who live the reality that a loved one might not come home because of a racist gunman–or racist police officer–we also bear the burden of having to comfort white people that see equality as oppression. The burden of having to explain why black people deserve to live full and prosperous lives is one that many of us live with daily. Our words must be carefully selected, our intentions made crystal clear, and our backgrounds and previous actions must be perfect and without error. We have seen what happens to the reputations of our slain whose only “crime” was being black in America.

The feeling of having to move forward and continue to protest the unjust killing of black men and women grows more difficult after each senseless killing. Imagine having to move through these spaces while also defending the individual that was unjustly killed to outraged white individuals? And when it’s so incredibly obvious that police have overreacted and killed a black person–whether for selling cigarettes in New York, or a therapist lying down on his back with his hands up–why is it acceptable for people to call into question the actions of the murdered and injured, but never appropriate to question the action of the aggressors, who often go unpunished. In 2015, including the choking death of Eric Garner, the number of police convicted of wrongfully killing people waszero. That was the same number in 2014, too.

Being black in America in 2016 has its many moments of celebrations, unbreakable pride, ever-growing knowledge, and its constant affirmation of truth. Being black in America in 2016 also has its share of fear, doubt, distrust, and unshakeable burden–experiences that many will never know. Simply because we have more melanin in our skin that white people.

~ Nicki May

Follow her on twitter @NickiMayPhD

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