Watching this CNN series of short vignettes about the first time a variety of individuals realized they were black reminds me of so many interactions.
In fifth grade gym class, I don’t remember the antecedent event, but I do remember that a white girl named Robin Smith called me the n-word. I was stunned, not because I hadn’t realized before that I was black, but rather because she used the word in an attempt wound me.
I remember my friend Meghan, who I’ve always loved for this, didn’t miss a beat, had my back, and immediately set off to check that girl. Seeing Meghan snapped me out of my daze and I followed behind her to confront Robin.
There were very few people of color in Brockport elementary schools then and maybe my memory has faded but I don’t remember anyone else, student or teacher, saying or doing anything in that moment. What I realized then was that to be black in America meant that I would always be treated differently. I would always have to be better and work harder than my white peers. And even if I did work harder and did achieve more, there would always be someone who would try to diminish my accomplishments. They would mistake my confidence for arrogance or my getting into a certain university as a product of affirmative action.
When I walk into a predominantly white space, I am conscious of the perceptions and stereotypes of blackness that accompany me into those spaces. I have to prove my competence and once I do, I see the visible change in the way people perceive and react to me.
I have always known that my life has meaning and value. My parents ensured that their children grew up with a strong sense of self confidence, a sense of identity which preceded their choice to come to America.
I am not a nigger. I will never use that word or any variant of it to describe anyone. I’ll pause and won’t repeat it in a song lyric. There’s no reclaiming this word for me. That word was created in a racist context to suppress the humanity of black people. To be black in America is to be viewed, by a society invested in maintaining white supremacy, with suspicion, as a threat, as inferior, as violent, and as incompetent. My confidence, real or imagined, is an act of resistance and self-preservation.