Friday, March 13, 2015

The Nigga Wake-Up Call


Nobody asks to be the victim of discrimination, but are there things that we can do as black men to reduce our risk of being another statistic? That is the question at the heart of respectability politics and the discussion that dredged up my nigga wake up call. The conversation  starts with definitions. Respectability politics is a set of attempts that any underclass can use to attempt to receive equal treatment from the dominant group. It may be conforming to their standard of behavior, fashion, or speech patterns. A nigga wake up call is a moment of insight where racism becomes real, rather than an intellectual concept. These sorst of conversations are fraught with emotional landmines, so let me state my intentions up front. This article isn't intended to demonize anyone for their perceived racial intolerance. I bring it up because, so few who have moderate views on the subject feel comfortable enough about themselves or their place in the world to discuss it without the fear of being perceived as an extremist. The fact is that racism is real, but even then people can find racism in places where it does not exist. This isn't a call to paranoia, but rather a plea for social awareness and empathy.


W.E.B. Dubois
If we want to have an in-depth discussion of respectability politics, we need to look back to the days of W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T Washington. Both were proponents of policing the behavior of the black community in order to gain wider acceptance and civil rights, but they had great disagreement on how it would be done. It still lives on in the politics of civil equality to this day. One side feels that economic power maters more the appeasement. Does conforming to the standards of white people make anyone less likely to be the victim of discrimination? And if it does, is it worth seeing out our standards of culture in order to gain acceptance and equality?

When we brought up the topic in our hangout I was surprised by the number of angles from which the topic was discussed. It was one that Breeze had adopted from his podcast, The Soulful Salon. He and his sister got into it about the topic and we discussed it the night before. What was funny about the recap that we had about his conversation was that he hadn’t known what respectability politics meant when his sister first brought it up. Here was my chance, I could sound all smart and intellectual, and I leaped at the opportunity. I imagined myself to be the little nerd in class who knew the answer just wanting to shoot his hand up, but waiting just a beat so as to not seem too eager. It was a subject that I had read a lot about in The Root from writers like Jenée Desmond-Harris and I was eager to hash it out in our hangout.

The argument that he and his sister had found themselves in seemed to mirror the same sort of struggle the civil rights movement faced for generations. Breeze was representing the moderate to conservative stance of cultural appeasement, while his sister Paco was representing that of the hardline radical position of nonconformity. Their positions both had merit and I found the whole idea of the topic fascinating. I was starting to wonder why we hadn’t talked about it before. Then I realized that we had. It's just that we'd never addressed it so directly. It's one of those topics that comes up whenever there are racially motivated crimes in the news. Sometimes it's subtle, sometimes direct, always the question arises, did he do something to deserve what happened to him?

A memorial for Tamir Rice
We don't always frame it in terms of respectability politics, but we had talked about wearing saggy pants. We talked about ghetto fights on the Internet. We talked about how World Star Hip Hop perpetuates stereotypes of the thug in the minds of racist viewers and why we want to distance ourselves from them. But we never talked about the change in our own behavior, how it may or may not directly impact our treatment as black men in America, how we may have personally been impacted by racism. The reason I found the topic so engaging is because it was a subject that touched on so many aspects of our lives that I found myself wondering if this couldn’t be explored in even more detail in an article such as this. And so here I am writing about it.

The discussion we had in the hangout was almost an hour in length and that day we only had Breeze, Mark and myself in on the video call. Typically our conversations will have more than four participants and last no more than thirty minutes, but with so many angles to discuss the topic we found ourselves having to cut it short. I wondered if there was going to be enough filler to cut out in order to make the conversation less that 12 minutes like I would normally prefer, but alas it was not to be. We actually had a disciplined conversation and as much as I tried to edit the video it was still just under 20 minutes. It will probably be something that I will bring up again in either the hangout or the podcast because I think we only scratched the surface.

There still was so much I could have said in that discussion. I never brought up my own attempts at gaining the respect of white people. It's not something I think I do consciously, but I conform to white standards of social norms. I attended a nearly all-white private school for most of my elementary education, and as a young kid I just naturally picked up the mannerisms of the people around me. It was so much so that I teased by many of the black kids for acting too white, something that used to bug the shit out of me. But I was never trying to be white, if anything I tried to act blacker whenever the opportunity presented itself. I knew racism was real, but being born a kid of the 80's in Chicago I didn't personally understand the experience of racism until I moved to Georgia. That's when I had my nigga wake up call.

from a video aimed to teach black youth how to interact with police
When I was in High school I didn't eat lunch in the cafeteria. I was fairly nerdy and had almost no friends to hang with in the lunchroom, so I opted to go to the library for lunch instead. Sometimes I wanted to grab a snack first. When lunch period came, I would meet up with two friends at the vending machine, grab something quick to eat, finish it on the way to the library and spend the rest of the period in the back of the library reading.

One day the three of us got held up at the machine and we didn’t make it to the library on time. We always cut it close, making the library just after the late bell rang, but that day we were clearly late. We finished our snacks hurriedly and made our way to the library as quickly as possible all the while not trying to get in trouble for running in the hall. When we reached the threshold of the library we slowed our pace to seem as if we were walking the whole time casually walking through the door just a few minutes after the bell had sounded. We were all making our way back to the library when I was singled out by one of the librarians. I was clearly in the wrong. I showed up late, but at the time I was with two other people. I didn’t want to implicate my friends, but at the same time I was wondering why she singled me out. It wasn't that big a deal I just went back up to the lunchroom and sat by myself wondering why she did what she did.

Why punish just one person from the group when we were all equally wrong? Then it hit me. I was the only one in my group who was black. I tried to come up with some other explanation. It seemed just too convenient an answer, but the longer I sat in the cafeteria, the clearer it became. As I sat there by myself, I noticed that the lunchroom was segregated. No one had forced the lunchroom to separate into black and white, but all the black and white kids sat in their own sections, and no one seemed to care or say anything about it.

Breeze called it the nigga wake up call, that moment when you realize that no matter how seamlessly you might blend into the white mainstream culture, no matter how well you conduct yourself, all of that work is nothing if someone is a racist asshole. It doesn't mean that you need to be paranoid and think that every white person is out to get you, far from it, I still believe that some respectability training is crucial for young people to make it through this world, but respectability politics has its limits. The greatest of those limits is the warped sense of superiority in the mind of a bigot.

A nigga wake up call in action
What I remember most about my nigga wake up call is the look on my friend's face. It didn't hit me until later, but they were afraid. I wondered if they expected me to cause a scene, to point out that they were just as wrong as I was, but I did nothing. I was ejected from the library, but I was back the next day. But my time in that library was never the same. I started to notice how that same librarian would target the back students who didn't seem to be reading and asked them to leave while she would give the white student the benefit of the doubt. I started to notice how she talked down to black student using different vocabulary thinking that they couldn't possibly be as intelligent as the white students. I was 17 when that incident happened, and even now at 34 I remember it as if it had just happened. I can remember the look look on their faces as they turned away to resume reading, the look of the librarian as I pleaded with her, the feeling of helplessness as I walked back to the cafeteria to sit alone. It the grand scheme of things it was completely meaningless. I didn’t even get written up, but I’d never forget how I was viewed as different, the powerlessness of it all stayed with me.

Had this not happened to me, I might have been able to buy into the argument that if we just acted like white people we’d get the respect and equality we deserve. Except, I know from experience that it’s not always the case. There were many times since that incident when I’d see that same librarian, a woman who be that point I personally liked, disproportionately discipline black students for rule violations. She did that the whole time, but because I wasn’t paying attention, I wasn't able to see it for what it was. And while some of those students she pointed out had done something wrong, I knew that if they were white she would have ignored it. The nigga wake up call is one that tells you life is unfair, but it doesn't mean I had to give up. I don't. I don't suspect all, or even most white people of being racist, but now I'm aware of it when it inevitably arrises. I think that I'm better off because of that learning experience because it made me aware of things that I ignored before, and I hope that those who haven't had such experiences can learn vicariously from those of us who have.




MALCOLM TRAVERS
Male Media Mind