Have you ever felt so angry at someone just for existing? It’s not even their fault — you just hate the fact they are there. It’s not about who they are, but what they are.
When I attended middle school in deep South Texas, there were three education levels.
- One for regular education. Your average classes that featured the majority of students. Your basic math, science, and whatnot. These classes largely featured African-Americans, Spanish, and anyone not blessed with the smarts, privilege, or ambition, to take higher classes.
- Your AP classes — Advanced Placement or Honors, as the American Education system likes to call it. Basically, more challenging classes that provided a more challenging education, but looked even better on report cards. There was a certain social status from attending these classes. A discreet way of saying “My kid is smarter than your kids”. If you attended these classes, you were considered pretty smart by traditional standards.
Actually, I was a mix of 1 and 2. I was forced into Honors classes when it became obvious that I wasn’t being challenged enough.
Then there was GT — or Gifted and Talented. Long story short, they were considered the smartest tier of our school. Your classwork was exceptionally harder…but the students were even smarter. Not just smart — outright “gifted”. Generally, a mix of white, Asian, and whatever minorities were blessed with the intelligence or privilege to join. But mostly, just white kids with more opportunities and better backgrounds.
It was the GT kids that particularly drew my ire. It wasn’t that they were smarter than me that I had a problem with.
(Extremely debatable too. Depending on your education style, school can be a detriment, but that requires a different conversation.)
It was that society placed them on a pedestal in full display for the rest of us to see. They were constantly rewarded better than the rest of us and treated better than the rest of us.
- When other kids got candy for good performance, they got whole dinner parties.
- When we were treated as potential criminals, nobody so much as blinked at their after school activities.
- Every year, hell every month, the school would remind the rest of us, black and brown and spanish students, that they were better.
In 6th grade, my patience for this spectacle ran out. One day, I got into altercation with one of the GT white kids. He decided to make a sly remark about how I should go back to the “Hood” with the rest of the “Africans”.
With a flash of anger, I gripped his neck and forced him into the nearest wall. I contemplated ending this kid, but a teacher stopped me before I had the chance. However, in that moment, I saw something in him:
I looked towards a nearby mirror and saw my own face. The redness in my eyes, the tears on my face, and the heaviness of my heart. I didn’t feel anger. I saw…
Envy. Shame. Pity.
I learned something that day. I wasn’t angry with them. Not really. It wasn’t their fault that society created this system and placed them on a pedestal. It wasn’t the fault of the teachers that were just doing their job and perpetuating the system. I wasn’t even angry with the system itself, despite how much I wanted to be.
I was angry towards myself and my place in it. I wanted to be this kid…badly. They wasn’t hated by society — they were beloved and were given opportunities the rest of us lacked. It was the first time I understood the power of White Acceptance and being pleasing.
These kids were “pleasing” to the rest of society. It wasn’t just classroom performance that gave them leeway. They spoke proper english, and not vernacular, thus they were respected. They had nicer backgrounds and thus were taken more serious outside of school.
They were pleasing to society…while the rest of us were not. Not to the same extent, anyway.
Afterwards, I dedicated myself to downplaying my blackness, and being pleasing. Not just getting better grades, but saying and doing the right things that could give me that same praise and the same opportunities.
I wanted people to love me too, even at the cost of my identity.
Lucky To Be Born
To paraphrase a popular quote from Avatar The Last Airbender:
Some kids are born lucky. I was lucky to be born.
A harsh reality of growing up black in America is that we must outwork our white peers. It’s a lesson taught from birth to many black and brown children growing up and one that we’re constantly reminded of. That we must fight harder and outlive more struggle.
When you look at most minority neighborhoods, the first thing you see is how run down they often are. Old building, dilapidated areas, and a sense of unease comes your way. Your paranoia arises and you wonder if today may be your last. The irony being that none of us asked for this. We never asked to be born into centuries of generational trauma.
The long-term effects of Redlining, the financial segregation of neighborhoods between White America and the rest of the minorities, can be felt everywhere. It created massive wealth inequality and opportunity gaps between those groups. With desperate times, came desperate measures. Naturally, crime became an everyday thing as people do whatever it takes to survives and stay financially well. People are often quick to point out crime rates in low-quality neighborhoods yet never ask how it got that way to begin with. Generational trauma and racial bias is a curse that haunts many black and brown people in America. From the time we’re born, life is just naturally harder for us.
Growing up, I would frequently witness how White America would live. There houses were nicer, neighborhoods safer, and the quality of everything is just, plain better. They had access to a greater variety of healthy food, better funded education, and just better everything. If there was something wrong, it was hard to tell from the outside looking in.
As I made my way through adulthood, I would further push down my blackness. I traded black vernacular for proper english to sound smarter (I would still code switch around the right crowd). I gave more priority to my classes over my athletics so I could feel validated through my grades. I even cultivated a wide range of friendships, that included those same kids I used to envy, as a way of feeling accepted.
However, it did have the intended effect. In high school, I was one of the cool, smart guys. I was accessing educational rooms I once thought wasn’t meant for people like me. I also gained mentors that would educate me on how the better half of America lived. Things such as real estate, the economy, politics, dieting and so much more. A level of education so high that it sounded foreign compared to what my black elders taught me. It’s no wonder we were stuck in such vicious cycles of violence.
All the while treating my blackness like it was a dark secret. I would only express that side of myself to my closest friends. Even then, it felt awkward. I had spent so much time being someone else that I often wondered if I could call myself “black”.
This would later be given credibility as various friends, and especially girlfriends, would all note that I sound and acted “white”. Particularly, from other black people that I grew up in the same hood with, I started to resent them from shunning me and treating me like some sort of outcast for being different.
Whatever this new identity is, it worked. My grades were high, and I was getting what I wanted.
I was finally being accepted by White America.
That’s what I wanted…
Black Harmlessness In America
Upon reaching adulthood, I began to reflect more on my black identity.
(Growing up in Texas, one of the most whitewashed history systems in the country, does not help at all.)
The thing is I never stopped being black — I just didn’t empower that side of me. I was black until it inconvenienced people around me. Then, I would promptly keep it to myself until it was safe to come out again.
There is a term for this line of thinking — black harmlessness.
It’s the constant erasure of black identity to satisfy, a usually white, audience. That’s pretty much what I did to myself. Actually, many black and brown people perform this. It’s not that we want to, but it’s often a necessary evil for upward mobility in America.
Case in point, the most famous example being Barack Obama. As much as we love to celebrate his wisdom and the achievement of overcoming adversity as a minority, he is just as accused of ignoring the community that helped get him into the office to begin with.
(I have included 1 link on the subject matter, however, a simple Google search will lead you to numerous analysis on the topic.)
You can be as black as you want, but if you want White America to get behind you, it often requires that you tone it down. America doesn’t value blackness, but “white passing” of others. Minories must be deemed acceptable by the White Majority if we are to move upwards. While there are exceptions to that rule, it’s not enough to change the general consensus.
8 years ago, Trayvon Martin, a black boy that looked like me, was shot and murdered by George Zimmerman. I was 18 at the time of his death.
Fast forward to today, and George Floyd was suffocated for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as the world watched on. His fellow officers did nothing to stop it. The people in the area did nothing to stop them. No one felt his life mattered enough to take action. I’m currently 26 at the time of this writing.
Things have changed since my childhood.
I no longer believe in being pleasing in that regard. Before everything else in my life, I was black. When I first came into this world, my skin was colored dark. That’s just who I am, and it’s an identity that I no longer choose to run from. Society wants black and brown people to feel lucky to be born. That narrative needs to change.
The practice of black harmlessness gives black and brown people a formula for American success, but at the cost of who we are. We sacrifice who we’re meant to be to be more “appealing” and more “accepted”.
However, the very concept of black harmlessness is flawed. Even when we’re complicit with the law, our life doesn’t matter. Police gun us down for minor infractions, discriminatory policies are still everywhere, and Trump’s America act like we’re still three-fifth of a human being.
Even NBA players, considered the pinnacle of athletic success, are shamed when they choose to display their support for blackness.
So what’s the point of black harmlessness when even the best among us are shamed for it?
None. None at all, really.
I was not born lucky nor was I lucky to be born. I was born black and I’m glad in it.
Thanks for reading!
Dayon Cotton is Active Duty US Navy and Freelance Writer. I write about social issues, life lessons, and advice on how to live a better life.