EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published by Youth Communications and is reposted here with permission. YC is a nonprofit publisher of teen-written stories and curriculum to help educators strengthen the social and emotional skills of youth.
Before the murder of George Floyd, I didn’t focus on racism I had experienced. Floyd was just a normal Black man trying to get through another day, like my father, uncle, or older cousins. It had infuriated me enough to see that I couldn’t ignore any more of the microaggressions I often faced, and I had to take a long look in the mirror.
I thought about the times white people touched my hair without permission or gave me weird looks on the train, like I was a threat. Or when I heard non-Black classmates in the boys’ locker room making fun of African Americans, who are a minority at my high school. Part of me wanted to retaliate with offensive jokes about white people, but I didn’t escalate, because I was afraid of getting in trouble. Being in the minority in middle school and high school, I had learned that that the best thing to do was to just ignore their jokes and move on. Ignoring offensive things is a talent Black people have had to develop. I thought a lot about that too, and started to resent having to do it.
I asked myself what I could do to help end racism. My parents thought last summer’s BLM protests were dangerous and wouldn’t let me go, so I had to make changes closer to home. I started with my good friend Richard, who is white and who used the n-word around me. He didn’t direct it at me in a disrespectful way, but it still made me uncomfortable. Richard and I are both LeBron fans and love to play basketball. We bonded for five years by laughing at dumb videos on the Internet and helping each other with homework, but it wasn’t until the protests of last summer that I got the courage to tell Richard how I felt.
My heart pumped faster as I waited for him to answer his phone. After some chitchat, I said: “We’ve been friends since sixth grade. But I need you to stop using the n-word. I know you don’t mean to use it in a hurtful way, but I’m Black and you’re white. Hearing white people say that word makes me uncomfortable. I hope you understand where I’m coming from, because the world around us is looking more and more divided.” He was silent for a minute, and it felt like a century. But fortunately, he said, “Damn. I respect how you feel bro. And I stand with you. I won’t use that word around you no more.”
I felt proud that I’d spoken up. I knew this conversation was a major step in confronting the racism that I had experienced for far too long. Since then, I’ve thought more about race in the United States. During my junior year of high school, I took a criminal law class and learned how systemic racism didn’t end with the Civil War or the civil rights movement. It was still prevalent, moving from slavery to segregation to mass incarceration. Voting laws, the death penalty, and other policies still unjustly punish Black people.
Yet this excessive adversity gives us a different kind of strength. My people are getting stronger and wiser, and seeing the protests grow and affect change made me proud to be Black. From my new vantage point of pride, I wondered why I’d avoided confronting racism. I realized that I sometimes give the same unwelcoming glare to “suspicious-looking” Black people on the train that white people give me. I was influenced by society’s messages just like everyone else. On the news, I’ve seen reports of young African American kids in hoodies committing heinous crimes, like robbing and beating people in broad daylight. On Twitter and Instagram, conservative commentators called police brutality “law and order” and Black Lives Matter “a symbol of hate.” Black people hear that we are dangerous, ghetto, and ratchet both from within and outside our communities.
I don’t listen to rap music too loudly in public, sag my pants, or have a hairstyle that’s too nappy. The way I judge these things is partly because of how my parents raised me. My father told me to speak in a prideful tone, not so loud to come off as rowdy or disrespectful, but loud enough to make sure I was being heard. If my pants sagged, my mother told me to put on a belt, and if my hair got nappy, I got it shaved off.
I internalized that being loud with nappy hair and sagging pants is a bad representation of myself and my community. So I wear my pants around my waist and wear glasses in order to look more sophisticated. I talk in standard English and don’t use slang often. I do these things to decrease the racism directed at me because I don’t want to be negatively judged or stereotyped by others, especially white or other non-Black people. Non-Black people are often in a position of power over me as a student or employee.
But the more I learned, the more I realized this won’t protect me. There are still plenty of microaggressions, like looks on the train or racist jokes, that I have to endure no matter how I act or dress. In fact, just recently I was getting on the train with a few white friends and passengers immediately slid over to make room for them. But no one moved over for me until they were certain I was with the white kids.
Writing helped me productively ride the roller coaster of my emotions, and I have begun to worry less about seeming “too Black.” To process some of the events of 2020, I wrote a short story I called “11 Quarters.” In the story, I am killed by racist police officers after hopping a turnstile because I was late for school. This past February, my history teacher asked for submissions from Black artists for Black History Month. I sent my story to her, and the next day, in a Zoom breakout room, she asked if she could share it with the class! She called it “beautiful and relevant to what is going on in the world today.”
When I logged off, I felt reassured that the stories of Black people like myself matter, that our history and our lives matter. My history teacher’s respect and praise helped me embrace my Blackness more; it made me realize that I could use my writing to creatively express to an audience of Black and non-Black people realistic things that African Americans face on a regular basis. Expressing myself freely in this way allows me to be less afraid of being Black. I can voice, not hide, my Blackness.