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What it's like to be black in America

January 24, 2015, 2:21 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 799

By @mariocantin

These are the stories of  five Quora users.

Story #1:

by Ezuma Ofong

Two stories from two different sides of the aisle. Both pertaining to entrepreneurship and business. Both dealing with implications which I hope are thought provoking. I could share many more touching on other parts of life, but I don't see that this perspective has been represented here yet.

Story One - Outside In

I met an investor-friend a few years ago. I actually didn't know he was a potential investor when I met him. We were thrown together by a mutual friend in an impromptu meeting at an uppity sushi bar.

We sat down and did the usual intros and broke the ice with some man talk. The conversation turned to business -- because that's 90% of what comes out of my mouth -- and within 15 minutes he was prepared to sign a check for a venture I was working on. Surprise to me.

Now that's flattering. Race didn't get in the way of anything here (a real concern which I'll illustrate in story two), but unfortunately I wouldn't escape the night without a stark reminder of what being black in America means.

We carried on for a while, sharing goals and ideas and small talk and whatnot over drinks. I actually don't drink, but of course alcohol melts tension and relaxes bodies. I went off into a spiel about brand philosophy and marketing, and in a carefree slide down a slope of comfort he interjected with a joke:

"Man, you've got really good ideas for a black guy!"

Pause. A pause so quick it's unnoticeable to outside observers but time slows down for the people in it. I could see the flash of uncertainty on his face as he searched mine for anger. Too far? End pause.

"Haha..." I let out one of those 'funny but not fucking funny' chuckles and let him make it. There's a hard, dense, projectile truth inside every joke.

Story Two - Inside Out

More recently I've been working on a new venture. One day I was catching up with my mom on the phone and updating her on some promising progress. I expected her to get excited and be cheery, but instead her enthusiasm was pinched. Her response was surprisingly grave: 

"Just don't let 'em know you're black."

Wow.

I'd convinced myself to put that fear away. Or maybe I'd outperformed the fear. She was speaking from the mind of a girl who became a woman during the height of the civil rights movement. But truthfully it wasn't just some bygone notion.

It took me back for about 48 hours. I was down and afraid to reach out to customers and potential partners. I was afraid to do business as myself because I felt just being black would sabotage relationships.

Maybe I should put up some ambiguous twitter pic. Maybe I should make no mention of who the founder is. Maybe I should hide every trace of the fact that I'm black until it's too late to deny me. 

This fear is real. The fear of black skin getting in the way. The fear of black identity getting in the way. The fear that blacks can't eat at the big table.

Will customers be turned off? Will potential partners decline? Will investors not invest in me? Will it stop key relationships from forming? How many doors are closed to me? Can I hide the fact that I'm black long enough to reach 'critical mass'? Can my creativity and intelligence escape my black skin? Does it curse me? Should I even write this?

Two days later I called my mom back. I'd worked through it all again and assuaged those feelings. I told her I can't quantify what being black costs me... but I refuse to hide and I simply can't afford to. 

She agreed and apologized for pulling me back.

Story #2:

by Aaron Ellis

Before answering this, I just want to say that I love being black, I love America, and I love being black in America. Most of the time I am just another person in this great country. But, in the recent words of one of my close friends, "Every now and then you get a reminder that you are black in America." 

I got a reminder just two weeks ago on Christmas Eve. My best friend, who was in town from Atlanta, wanted to go to a local mall just to hang out. He invited me and another good friend to meet up with him.  

So that's the setting: three clean-cut, college-educated black men in their 30s at a nice outdoor mall the day before Christmas. We were dressed fairly conservatively, wearing sweaters, jeans and dress shoes. We were all done with our Christmas shopping, so we were just strolling around the mall to be around people, enjoy some snacks, catch up with each other, and just feel the winter air.  

After a few hours, we decided to leave. While walking out, we noticed that people were standing outside one of the businesses as though something had just happened. Mall security was busy taking witness accounts. We went in for a closer look. We overheard a witness say that a man was beaten up. Tragic, but honestly, it's the kind of crime that is common around the holidays, especially in malls.  

We headed to the parking lot. I arrived at my car first, so I said my goodbyes and they walked towards their cars. But before they could go thirty feet, several police cars sped in and surrounded us, lights shining bright on our faces. We had no idea what was happening. An officer started barking orders at us. "Turn around!" "Hands up" "Show me your hands!" They made us come over.  

They then started giving us conflicting orders. One officer would say, "Put your hands up." We put them up. The other would say "Put your hands down." We put them down. But then one would say "Who told you to put your hands down?! Get your hands up!" Back up go our hands. I felt like I was doing the Hokey Pokey dance.  

They asked us questions about where we were at a specific time. We had an alibi: we were at the Yard House and had the receipts to prove it. But that wasn't enough. The questions continued. We asked if this was about the assault that happened. The questioning officer then acted as though our knowledge that a crime had occurred was an admission of guilt. He threw accusations at us and began a very aggressive line of questioning, hoping to get us to confess to being involved or catch us in a lie.  

They repeatedly made us show them the front and backs of our hands. The idea is that if we had been in a fight, our hands would have been bloodied or bruised. Our hands were clean. But that didn't stop them from making us show our hands several more times, as though the blood and bruises would suddenly appear. 

After an unnecessarily long questioning, they finally left us. No apologies. No "Merry Christmas." Just gone. That was when one of my buddies, shaking his head, said, "Every now and then you get a reminder that you are black in America." 

I later shared this story on my Facebook and told some friends and family. The reaction to this was surprisingly insightful. Without fail, my white friends heard the story of our harassment and they were all upset and outraged. They felt that we should file a complaint with the PD. My black and Hispanic friends weren't surprised at all and just shrugged it off. And this is a simple difference in the experiences of races. My white friends have never had to deal with police harassment, and most never will. My black and brown friends, unfortunately, are all too familiar with police harassment. In a few cases, they have experienced police brutality. Something like this happens to me maybe once a year. If ever a crime is committed and the witness description turns up the words "black male," every brother within twenty miles will have to answer for the crime, regardless of age or specific appearance.  

Harassment by authority extends beyond the police. In a post-9/11 world, it's pretty well known that anyone who looks remotely Middle Eastern will get harassed by TSA when trying to board an airplane. What most people don't realize is that pre-9/11, it was black people who got that treatment. Every time I tried to get on an airplane, I was the one who got "additional screening," sometimes to the point I felt kinda violated. I had no criminal record, but this was a regular thing. I thought I was alone until I ended up on a flight with a college friend and the same thing happened to him. He told me how he had experienced the same thing since he was a teenager. He rang off an endless list of friends who went through the same thing on a regular basis. It was depressing, but I guess it was also good to know that I wasn't alone.  

I want to make it clear that I don't hate the police or any other branch of law enforcement. I find that most police officers are just decent people who have a tough job. But man, it would be nice if I didn't have to hold my breath whenever I see a police cruiser with its sirens on. Most of the time it will pass me by. But every now and then...

Story #3:

by Brian Lipscomb

I am one of those people who "talk white", meaning I speak professionally and properly when in a professional setting. I have on several occasions spoken to potential employers on the telephone and they sounded very interested to meet me in person. But upon arriving for the in-person interview, I would introduce myself and they would let out an obviously surprised "Oh!". Apparently I was not at all what they expected. I would always know at that moment that I would not get the job.

Once I got off a trolley in downtown Philadelphia and accidentally bumped into an older white woman. She immediately said "Here! Take my purse! Just don't hurt me!" I was shocked. I couldn't believe that she thought I was going to rob her.

When walking down the street, if a white woman is walking in my direction, they often cross the street or clutch their purse more tightly as I approach.

I guess I'm numb to it now, because I expect it. I think that's the sad part. There is nothing post-racial about our society. Racism and prejudice have just become more subtle, more nuanced.

On the other hand, most of my clients are white, and they welcome me into their homes, let me work on their computers with full access to their data, and a few have even left me alone in their homes while I worked and they ran errands. They give me an amazing amount of trust. So to me racism is not universal; it really depends on someone's experiences and upbringing.

I choose to focus on the positive, but when faced with racism, it really does make me pause for a moment and realize that we still have a very long way to go.

Story #4:

by William Saunders

In short, awesome and awful.

I can only speak for myself, so a lot of this has to do with what I was taught and what was carefully explained to me growing up, but you get this implicit and conflicting sense of your place in the American diaspora.

You know - on some level - that your "people" (more on how loaded that word is in a bit) have contributed significantly to the country's culture and infrastructure. There are the obvious creative contributions like Jazz, Rock, Hip Hop, etc, but then there are a lot of scientific and economic contributions that aren't spoken of nearly as often. On a more basic level, perhaps, some of us may develop a sense of pride that our forefathers helped build this country with their bare hands, even if a great deal of this was through slavery. Perhaps thats uncommon, but its certainly something I feel.

These are thoughts and feelings some pick up on, but only vaguely because there's a large part of the American narrative having to do with African Americans that's missing from the standard American History conversations. Another poster here makes reference to how good it feels to see black CEOs and board members becoming more common. I say forget that noise - African Americans have had a rich relationship with entrepreneurialism before, after, and even during slavery.  There's a large city that was founded by blacks on the frontier, became a popular trading outpost, and was taken away once the city became official because it happened to exist in a place where slavery was the law and slaves weren't allowed to own land. Keep in mind, these were free people who founded these outposts.

There's also a certain amount of pride I feel in seeing people of color in entertainment - like the aforementioned - or even in sports.  I'm not a big sports guy (at all) but knowing there are so many blacks succeeding in these ways makes me feel that, despite all the struggle and all the adversity (for lack of a more academic, bland word), African Americans are not only built to last but are, in a way, a tried people and therefore in possession of a strength even we've yet to fully understand.  The only thing I can think of that can more accurately describe the poetry of this is something like The Triumph of the Will - a german propaganda film specifically designed to bring out this feeling of self in the average nazi german (Triumph des Willens (1935) - Triumph of the Will)

Despite these feelings, though, I actually feel the abundance of African Americans in sports and entertainment to be almost...exploitive.  Like at some point all these black children got it in their heads that this was their only path to success.  Having lived in some bad neighborhoods, I guess I can see why; Academic and career mentors are hard to find in these contexts and college may be too expensive for most so if you "want out" then sports, music, or the illegal tend to be the short list for most under-privileged.

And that's just the beginning of the paradoxical, love-hate relationship I have with my country. And where things only just begin to get weird.

Weird because, while we all harp on racism a lot, there are certain ways that a "Systemic" racism can manifest itself that aren't easily identified as being explicitly biased against minorities. Ways that can almost be read as "positive" if you're not paying attention. For example, certain kinds of people will sort of magically associate you with all their positive feelings having to do with black culture.  This can be anything from "that white girl" with a "thing" for black guys, to your "open-minded" friends at college who want to ask you things like "whats it like to be black?" These are not necessarily racists, mind you (nor does this make them bad people) but these points are indicative of a system severely suffering from imbalance.

When I say our "people", I use quotes because calling African Americans an ethnic group is a stretch. Italian Americans, Chinese Americans, Indian Americans all know where they're from. Even other blacks - like Caribbean americans or 1st/2nd generation African Americans - understand their culture and roots. The average African American has only America - a country with admittedly strained attitudes towards African Americans - as their frame of reference, so almost by definition we cannot have that same relationship to a sense of ethnic identity that these other groups have; we are hundreds of years removed from our African lineage so even if one made an effort to reconnect it would only be novel at best.  It's also really awkward when you meet someone who's not American yet of African decent who believes negative stereotypes about African Americans. Ive met some African immigrants or Caribbeans in the past who were very specific about their preference to not be likened to or grouped in with African Americans because they "dont want to seem lazy or uneducated".

Recently spent some time in the Bay area to become more acquainted with it's tech scene.  When deciding that I wanted a haircut, I went to yelp to search for barbers.  After reading the first page and calling several, it became obvious this method wouldn't help me find one that was familiar with black hair. Eventually I had to figure out which neighborhoods to wander around in till I found one. I even saw that someone else had already created the yelp category "black barber shop", its just that all the regular barbers (and hair salons) were in there instead.

For more examples of this specific kind of thing, here's an interesting essay by a white woman that I had to read during discussions about race in college.

White Privilege (Unpacking the invisible knapsack)

It makes my innards cringe with discomfort when im just about to do something crazy or wild or cantankerous in the moment and I find myself hesitating to think "wait, are there non-black people watching?" Because people will unfairly hold you up as a model for their understanding of black people if they are not terribly familiar with them. What makes this unfair is that no-one assumes "this must be a white thing" when they see a white guy do something. At least nothing that's not already trivially dismissed.

I've come across this next one a few times recently, but apparently it's unfair to question whether racial bias is a cause if a non-black person says they're categorically not romantically interested in black people. I understand everyone has the right to their own preference, but I can't think of anything I categorically dislike. I can even find a country song or two that makes me tap my feet. I've a friend who I think genuinely has this preference; She says "I'm not into black guys" but if the right black model or actor comes on tv she'll definitely say "damn". To me this is what preference reads like - that you may prefer other aesthetics but not to the point of refusing to consider others. To genuinely not be attracted to any one race is probably cause to check your own bias, though.

Also, self-racism is totally a thing. I mean I think all races have this to some degree but the African American has a special relationship with this kind of self deprecation. It's a shame when I come across a cute, nerdy, creative white girl who may have the bias mentioned above. It's absolutely devastating , however, when I meet a black girl with the same traits who feels that way.

And I won't even go into too much detail about the time the cops showed up because one of our tenants called for some random reason. When my mother - co-owner of the house - entered the hallway to ask if she could be of assistance they told her to "shut the fuck up, bitch, till we get to the bottom of this" (for some reason they were assuming she was the cause of the problem).

What really gets me the most, however, is the inability of most to have any kind of productive discussion about these things.  Politically Correct doesn't mean a proper, accepting attitude, it really just means "dont discuss things that make people uncomfortable". Then of course there are those people who really enjoy the "racism is definitely not a problem anymore because just look at how much money Puffy has" argument. As if monetary wealth is the only measurement of just and fair treatment.

Story #5

by Rishona Campbell

There are a lot of amazing responses here. The only thing I have to add is this:

When I wake up in the morning, I am simply a human being. I groom myself, I eat, I enjoy talking to and being with my family.

I do not become a "Black woman" until I go outside in public. Mind you, in my head, I am still simply a human being...or more specifically a woman. It isn't until I encounter the world that I am reminded that I am different...an 'other'. The majority of these feelings are silent and unsaid. But that's the thing. People may hesitate to even say hello to me based on my skin color. They may assume that I am angry (I've actually had this said to me several times...and I was baffled. I rarely get angry...yet these people assumed I was just angry by default). They assume that we have little in common to talk about. They assume all types of things about my economic family and professional situation.

So you see being Black in America is about people seeing you, and then creating their own grandiose story of who you are and what you are about. Now you have the tough task of disproving their assumptions. It's a constant job that never, ever seems to end.

                                                      ___________________________________

Source: www.quora.com. Link: http://www.quora.com/African-Americans/What-is-it-like-to-be-black-in-America

Republished with permission, as per Quora's Terms of Service, under the subsection titled, "Quora's Licenses to You".

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