“We were always taught that white people were scared of us,” my friend revealed over a 3 am beer in her kitchen in Boston. My response was an understandable mix of shock, horror, and revelation.
My friend, a thin punk-rocking black woman, grew up in a rough neighborhood and has always battled stereotypes about blackness. These stereotypes were just as often from members of her community and family as they were from what you might call, “the usual suspects.” Her single mother worked hard to make sure she attended good schools whenever possible, which meant that she received a mix of private and public education. Unfortunately, the public schools epitomized the underfunded overcrowded inner city nightmares loosely referred to as schools. The private schools represented an opposite evil, being largely occupied by wealthy white children who had a habit of making non-white or non-wealthy students feel like they didn’t quite belong.
Girls at school would criticize the way she dressed and family members would often encourage her to assert herself through violence. She found out she was black in first grade when a classmate wouldn’t play with her because of her race. In her words, there was a distinct message that she was different no matter where she was seeking education: she was taught that black people were feared by white people.
Can we all take a moment to mourn for all of the horrific realities at play in her story. It is hard for me to hear her talk about her childhood. I want to offer a solution or an explanation. I also want so badly to not be a part of the social category that has made her feel confused and rejected her whole life. The reality is that I am exactly that. And while I was always the kid that loved all people (thanks mom), I watch so many of my peers be exactly the people that made her hate a part of herself that was out of her control. Now, back to the story, because this is so much bigger than me.
What is it like to go into a room knowing through labeling that you are a scary thing? Every psychological and sociological study in the last ten years would tell you that if you are labeled as scary, you become scary. Instead of what is called your, “inner voice,” excusing a behavior as an accident, a person labeled scary or as a criminal would say, “this is because I was born a criminal.” That circular narrative feeds into behaviors that mimic whatever preconception the person has about what makes a person scary or what makes a person a criminal. If you teach a generation of children they were born to do wrong and harm others, then they will do exactly that no matter the situation.
First: a fable that was always told to me as a joke by my ever-hilarious father:
A frog and a scorpion sit at the edge of a lake. The scorpion needs to get to the other side but cannot swim. He turns to the frog and asks if he could catch a ride to the other side of the water, as the long journey around the body of water would surely kill the small scorpion. The frog laughs, “you will surely sting me if I let you on my back!” “No, no,” the scorpion retorts, “if I sting you, then we would both drown. Why would I do a silly thing like that?” The frog finally relents, assured by the scorpions promise that she would not be stung, lest they both drown in the lake. The scorpion climbs onto the frog’s back, and they begin their journey across the water. Half-way across the water, the frog feel a sharp pain on it’s back as the scorpion’s stinger injects her with venom. “Why did you sting me! Now we will both drown in this lake!” “I’m sorry,” the scorpion offers,”it’s just my nature.”
So I understand that comparing people to scorpions is a bit of an oversimplification. However, there is a very relevant message here. Even though it was illogical, irrational, foolish, and a sure death-sentence, the scorpion still stung the frog. The scorpion, taught it’s whole life that it was a killing machine, was unable to override it’s predisposition, even if it caused immense suffering to the scorpion itself. The caricature of the scorpion took precedence over the needs and desires of the scorpion.
My friend was unable to live her true identity without criticism. One voice was telling her she’s not white enough to play, and the other was telling her to fight anyone who questions her power as a black woman. Why is there such a need for this duality? Fear happens when misunderstanding happens; as in: I don’t get it so get it away from me. There are larger problems at play here: generational education inequality, income inequality, unfair lending practices, county lines that intentionally exclude black voters. There is a historical precedent that has been set. But why is that precedent still such a defining force. Why are we all still acting so fucking scared?
Just in case this already isn’t enough unpleasantly honest racial dialogue, I want to push this further. Are they wrong for believing that white people are scared of them? Have I locked my doors in a bad neighborhood before? Was blackness a factor if I ever did? Have I been taught that people who aren’t white are less trustworthy? I think that the answer is yes. I think that the answer is definitely yes. How did that happen? Why, as an active member of civil liberty, immigrant rights, human rights, and social justice initiatives is there still a fearful voice in my subconscious that I fight?
A classmate of mine told me once that interracial children should be euthanized. This is the reality that we live in. As much as I fight and have fought these beliefs tooth and nail my whole life, somehow little pieces still sunk in. And what can we really expect from people given no possible opportunity to rise above and express their true worth, especially when even their advocates have moments of weakness.
Is the first step this easy? Is the first step just acknowledging one another’s unique struggles instead of being afraid of the often unpleasant realities that are associated? Is it as easy as matching our actions and beliefs? Okay, so maybe it isn’t easy to challenge one’s own beliefs. A huge piece of our identity can be tied up in a certain belief system– but can we give it the ol’ college try?
There are bigger problems at play, that is an absolute truth. However, big solutions can start with small changes. Maybe the first step here is getting rid of the fears that separate us and bind us to a certain identity. Especially if that identity is a ridiculous caricature.
This is a link to a very short synopsis of an experiment that may better explain labeling.