When I was a little girl, I was skating in an ice arena with my sister. We were cautiously holding on to the wall and each other as we moved around the rink when two guys pushed by us. When I screamed at them for having pushed my little sister, they yelled back, "Shut up, stupid black girl!" I remember being stunned, and when my camp leader listened in horror to my story and asked me to point out which boy had made the "racist comment," I recognized that the encounter had been based solely on my race. Since then, I have found the racism I've experienced to be more covert in nature: Instead of people blatantly shouting out their bigoted racist ideals, it became glances, stares, hushed comments, daily interactions, and subtle social divides that prove to me that though America claims to be a post-racial society, racism is still very much alive, although maybe not as visibly venomous as it used to be.
James Baldwin once wrote in his highly acclaimed piece "Stranger in the Village," "I reacted by trying to be pleasant -- it being a great part of the American Negro's education (long before he goes to school) that he must make people like him." As someone who was raised in a neighborhood whose demographics are only 6-percent black, I too quickly learned how to be "pleasant," which, for me, translated into how to acceptably be black, behaving in a way that should make me seem more approachable and relatable to my white peers.
I talk in a way that could make you mistake me for a young WASP. I can tell you what's new in the J.Crew fall catalogue. I played badminton throughout high school and listened to some small, indie rock bands. And it's not as if I felt pushed into this without liking it. I loved the bands, and I loved the badminton, and I loved the J.Crew sweaters that filled my closet, but a small part of me was always aware of the fact that, unlike some of my white peers, by doing this, I was helping myself assimilate into my larger community so as to not stand out or be singled out for acting in ways that are labeled as "ghetto," "urban," or "black."
Therefore, once I was accepted by my university, as a black female, I felt like I had made it. From here on out, I would be safe. I don't mean the security that comes with getting into a good school and the knowledge that there are many years of alumni and tradition and endowments that I will now be able to depend on forever. I was safe in the sense that my little student ID card was an indicator that I was not and in no way could be a dangerous black kid, that I was not in some way deserving of the many stereotypes that are cast on black people as expectations before I even open my mouth. Because that's what I've been taught, right, that if I look, act, talk, and behave a certain way, I should be immune? I walked the walk, talked the talk, and now had a physical indication (the ID card) that shows that I am an educated person. However, this didn't stop a store owner from turning up her nose at me when I entered her shop and having one of her associates follow me around. And this didn't stop the suspicious stares of residents in a small town where I visited one of my friends this past year. And this doesn't stop my peers from making passive racist comments that stem from an assumption that because I am black, I am less knowledgeable or less qualified.
And even with that, I know I have been "lucky." Every day, black people in this country are subjected to racism, no matter how well-dressed, well-spoken, or well-mannered they are. So much of my life has been spent watching and listening to people telling me that the way I could avoid or not be subject to racism was if I, as many say, "acted white." This summer, which was one that was particularly plagued by racially charged encounters that garnered national attention, I felt like although there were many conflicted opinions, a generally accepted point was that if so-and-so hadn't been dressed this way, or acting that way, or talking in such a way, he or she wouldn't have suffered through whatever undeserved ill treatment he or she received. But having lived dutifully under this "act white" code while still experiencing racist encounters, I find it ridiculous when people assert over and over again that the race problem in America isn't so much a race problem as something stemming from the way that African Americans talk, act, or present themselves. It is completely naive of us to try to believe that if black people "act a certain way," they can avoid the racism that lies at the stitches of America's ideology. I think it's an unfortunate reality that in order to avoid some possible race-based interactions, black people have to act and behave in a way that might be contrary to how they would be more comfortable or natural. But the reality is that as often as media and people try to tell black people we can be safe if we "act white," it is not going to prevent us from being subject to people who are inherently racist or unfair political and judicial institutions that are stacked against us.
I say that racism has become covert because instead of it being acceptable for white people to yell obscenities or forcibly create barriers to either separate black people or disadvantage them, we have instead accepted a system of viewing black people as victims to themselves. We project this image that if it weren't for how they carried themselves, they wouldn't be subject to certain types of treatment. But the fact of the matter is that, with that, what we are truly saying is that what is hindering black people is the fact that they are black. We need to look at race as an issue that can no longer hang out in the back corners of what are considered modern day-American problems.
We have perpetuated this idea that we can partially justify awful things that happen to black Americans because of how they were acting or dressed that characterized them as suspicious or dangerous. For us to truly arrive at a post-racial society, the conversation needs to shift from a focus on how black people "should" act to evade racism in America toward a conversation that more directly tackles the broader external forces that perpetuate prejudice still today. The perceived need to modify black behavior is purely a function of the framework of racism that already exists; as soon as the framework collapses, it will follow that the insistence that black Americans should act in "appropriate" ways to protect themselves will disappear.