Young, black and living in Trump’s America|
It’s something that James Burge has been paying ever since he entered the workforce. A notion that the 27-year old says he’s been aware of even before entering corporate America.
“Black people have to work and perform a regular task twice as well as white people in order to get half as much recognition,” he says.
It became all too real when one day, he learned about his white colleagues’ salaries, which were much more than his. “[We were doing] the exact same job, he says. “Not only were we doing the same job, we were also hired at the same time.”
It’s a reality that isn’t new for black Americans, who are largely underrepresented in corporate America. A recent study showed that only 6.7% of black Americans held management positions among the country’s 16.2 million management positions. Among the Fortune 500 lists year after year, there’s been only fifteen black CEOs. Ever. A new corporate diversity survey showed that black Americans were a mere 4.7% of executive team members in the Fortune 100 companies. Being black in startup culture isn’t even better. A recent study from last year found that less than 5% of startups in Silicon Valley had employees who were black American.
But these mere statistics are merely numbers. They don’t come close to the human experiences and frustrations black Americans feel in their own respective workplaces. To be a black professional in America, after all, oftentimes means that you are alone, the lone wolf who must fend for yourself. It means you’re the “token” black person who must bear the responsibility of carrying the entire black race on your shoulders. It also presents challenges for many who feel they must undo stereotypes and stigmas others have towards black America.
What’s it like in a post-Trump fueled era? For a new president who vows to make businesses thrive, has there been a change in office places across America? Is there even less restrictions and regulations when it comes to cultural sensitivity now that we’re living at a time where political correctness has become obsolete?
“I’ll be honest, it was scary because we didn’t know if the precedence that the Obama administration set was actually going to be upheld or simply thrown out,” says Sarah Springer, co-founder of Inclusion in Digital Media, a non-profit based in NYC that promotes diversity in work places. “I certainly had a fear that people all over, people in positions of power, hiring managers, etc. would finally say, ‘Yes, forget this quota stuff! We don’t need to hire diverse candidates because our president doesn’t say so!’”
Certainly, hate crimes spiked after President Trump’s election. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 42% of hate crimes “included specific references to Trump, his election, or his policies.”
From the many black young men we’ve interviewed, many hold the same sentiments. Some have vocalized how they have been judged by their skin tone, or put into a box. Others, felt that racism was still alive and well, microaggressions as prevalent as ever. Many of them are like Marcus Scott, a writer based in New York City.
“People like him are lazy,” he once heard a publisher say about him.
Or like Taj Reed, an integrated producer in New York whose white co-workers use the term “my nigga” casually.
From writers, lawyers, startup employees, to students, Very Good Light™ reached out to 13 black American men to share their very real experiences. Here they are in their own words.
1 Taj Reed, NYC, integrated producer
Maybe it was a testament to my blackness, but I developed savvy before I could even grow a mustache.
Young black men are hyper-aware if their surroundings (at least, they should be), and, with each close-minded interaction, either reinforce the stereotype cast on them or do their part in enlightening someone.
There’s a larger conversation to be had about white America’s fear of race and religion dissimilar to their own, but, in short, I’d sooner change careers than to be less of who I am.
My experience with class and race varied, however—I went to twelve schools in four states through grade school—but I never felt burdened to enlighten people who didn’t understand me, or, in worst cases, didn’t like me because I was black. Instead, I learned to be malleable without compromising my integrity as a young black American, and it’s my assumption that most black men in the professional space have the discerning ability to adapt to any environment they’re in, as well.
Fortunately, I’ve never experienced having to change my identity for work—I just refused to compromise. I’m also pretty straight edged. In most instances the ask was to straighten their “curly” hair. “Curly” in this case means natural hair: afros, dreads, braids and most non-chemical hairstyle solutions for black people. Which, to me, reads as being told dial back the blackness. With respect to their employers, fuck that. There’s a larger conversation to be had about white America’s fear of race and religion dissimilar to their own, but, in short, I’d sooner change careers than to be less of who I am.
I worked for a company based in Germany, and for a while was the only black American, male employee. There was a situation where one of the German editors made mention of someone referring to him as their “nigga” and how proud he was of the declaration. Now, it’s either ignorance, or the fact that before having to work with many black people, he could be as candid as he wanted in the group Slack channel. Whatever the reason for the remark, I thought our bosses would address him and every other employee about their intolerance to this kind of bigotry. That address never came. My reaction was to come up with an exit plan. A company that didn’t find comments like that disturbing, or at the very least, unprofessional, wasn’t a place that would champion for my success.
In a post-Trump era, it’s scary. And I was the optimist at the start of it all. I was the person that said, “let’s see what he does in office, and give him chance to be a decent leader.” I’ve seen nothing close to decent leadership since the inauguration. Just self-aggrandizing, self-serving rants of tyranny and bigotry. I think this era has only fueled people to become more of who they are. As creatives, we should do the same. We should be using our platforms to create art and movements that incite change in a positive, more unified direction.
2 James Burge, Denver, digital marketing
Growing up in America as a black male was challenging. I spent much of my childhood years growing up in Birmingham, AL where I attended predominately black schools. In my ways the south, specifically Birmingham was still stuck in the 70s and 80s. I can remember learning that there were “white schools” and “black school”. Many of the “black schools” were in the poorest parts of the city, while the “white schools” were in the more affluent areas.
There were challenges like being told by white teachers in middle school, “black kids don’t get into college”
Now this segregation wasn’t based on a law, rather, based on the post-civil rights era culture of the 90s. School and education was very important to my family, and me, as many of my family members were teachers. I can remember from a very early age seeing college as the end goal. Fortunately for me, I was able to accomplish that goal but it didn’t come with its own share of challenges. Challenges like being told by white teachers in middle school, that “black kids don’t get into college”, and I should give up my goal. In many ways, I face some of those same challenges today.
As a black American, you’re expected to fall into a certain role/category and stay there. It’s rare that black children are told or even shown that they can be more and can do more. I can imagine this is a challenge for many other children of color.
“I’m glad you cut your hair because we almost lost our client.”
Years later as a professional in the work place, I was taught you must perform, present and prepare. Growing up I learned a lot about “black tax,” the notion that black people have to work and perform regular task twice as well as white people, in order to get half as much recognition. This point was driven home with me, when I learned that one of my white peers was being paid more than I was to do the exact same job. Not only were we doing the same job, we were also hired on at the same time.
I can also recall a time I grew my hair out into a hairstyle called twists, while working for a firm. Obviously, I had been growing this hairstyle out for a while, but no one seemed to notice until I cut it off. The very next day at work, I was pulled into the office by management and told, “We’re glad you cut your hair because we almost lost our client.” I was confused; my hair was never a point of conversation or attention, so I asked, “Why would the client leave?” The answer still haunts me to this day: “It made you come across aggressive and uneducated.”
My reaction to the hair comment was minimal, as I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers and at the time really needed my job for income. I think that many people of color find themselves in this type of dilemma. A) Do I say something and hope that they understand where I am coming from and the comment never happens again? B) Do I say something and they don’t agree with me, and then eventually find a way to get rid of me? C) Do I keep my mouth closed, continue to come to work and keep my job in the process?
In Trump’s America, I feel as though we all are in a position where we must look out for each other. In these days, it has become apparent that we must do what the government has chosen not to do. This change in leadership has driven me to be even more involved in my community, with the intent of helping those who need it. In times of hardship, it’s important communities come together and not divide.
3 Sabir M. Peele, Philadelphia, founder and creative director of Men’s Style Pro
Growing up as a black American is an experience. What I mean by that is as I’ve gone through the different phases of my life there have been moments of extreme consciousness of how the world views me and how I viewed myself.
As a child, I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood of North Philadelphia. I knew that as a small child I wanted better for myself. My family roots were strong, so I decided that I would do my best and that no one could deny my greatness. At the age of 6, I turned my focus to my education. I got to school early and stayed late.
I’ve always been perceived differently because I valued my education more than my peers. Especially as a kid growing up in an area where the only options are selling drugs, going to jail or playing basketball – my focus was always centered around consuming as much knowledge as possible.
During my adult years, I think my work ethic has propelled me as being viewed somewhat favorably amongst most people. After college, I became a social media influencer. Being a part of the industry I do feel as though I’ve been passed over for campaigns because of my skin color. There have been instances where I’ve been contacted and pretty much handed the contract to see at the last minute brands will have had a change of heart. Then two weeks later, I’ll see that campaign executed with a white dude. That’s when I realize that many brands still think “black people” don’t sell well to the majority.
Other than business, I do feel how different life has become under Trump. For the first time in my life, I truly fear for my safety. The day of the Presidential election, I saw a white neighbor outside brandishing a gun, almost in a gesture of “This Is My Country Now.” I lived in my home for seven years and never felt that this country was more mine than his. It was a clear reminder that I have to continue to work hard and show the world that I’m contributing member of society, which is sad.
There’s a great opportunity to realize that the black experience is the American experience. We don’t need white people to apologize for things that happened in the past because most of them have nothing to do with it.
If we want to truly be good people, good citizens and good Americans we have to truly embrace the idea of this country being a melting pot. I bleed red, white and blue and it breaks my heart that the country that I love doesn’t show me and all of its people the same love we have for it.
4 Journey Streams, Los Angeles, Student
My childhood and adolescence don’t feel as though they’re marked by any feeling of prejudice, or even discomfort really. I come from a very small, diverse, and accepting school environment, so the racial barriers that I’d expect in retrospect were never really there. It wasn’t really until I was exposed to the Internet that I really acknowledged my blackness, and even then the environment I grew up in made it something to embrace rather than try to hide or stifle as I came into my own.
I feel lucky to have a community where I can walk on to campus with gold nail polish on my fingers and my ‘fro piled high on my head, and have that be considered acceptable – or even normal.
Growing up I was always the loudest, the most energetic, the most out there. This obviously rubbed some people the wrong way, as I was always quick to say whatever was on my mind, but being an outgoing person usually led to more people wanting to support me than tear me down. While I haven’t yet entered my “adult years,” I expect some challenges as I enter the Ivy League world an face the obvious institutional biases that come with it.
My high school experience actually led me to be more proud of my flamboyant (somewhat feminine) behavior, my colorful wardrobe, and my quickly-expanding afro. My high school has an abnormal number of queer kids, so coming into my own and understanding how I want to express myself as a gay person was a process that was met with no resistance. I feel lucky to have a community where I can walk on to campus with gold nail polish on my fingers and my ‘fro piled high on my head, and have that be considered acceptable – or even normal.
The past couple months have been hard. Not only physically (I can only march to City Hall so many times!), but also emotionally as I watch the ideological tides turn within days against those with with I empathize. Looking forward I can only see the liberties of my fellow black and queer folk be diminished as this administration continues to press its bigoted agenda on its citizens. I’ve been down, but through marching and interacting with the LGBTQ community, I’ve felt more invigorated to be proud of my ideologies and identity, as it’s the only way I feel I can show continued resilience in these increasingly-frustrating weeks
5 Marcus Scott, NYC, playwright
James Baldwin once wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
On paper: I did everything right, more or less. After I graduated high school, I went to college and got degrees in Communications and Theatre Arts. During five years in undergrad, I interned at several publications and media outlets, writing over 200 hundred original stories.
“Because people like him are lazy.”
Before my final year of undergrad, a mentor of mine, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, even said I rivaled that of most master’s degree candidates. I have since received my master’s degree and yet, in my profession I’ve often lost various positions to people with less experience. I don’t necessarily believe this is a race issue, perhaps it’s nepotism or that I came to this city with zero connections.
But there have been several times where I was told to shrink myself because “I come off way too strong” or that I am “way too defensive,” right after someone has just blatantly offended me. Nowadays, perhaps I overcomplicate things because I march to the beat of my own drum and I’ve been around the block a few times for anyone to speak down to me. That sends a message to some. It says that I need to “learn my place.”
There were three instances that really stand out over my career. I did an internship for an independent publication, and in conference, the publisher reached out to my mentor and told him that a person “like Marcus would never make it as a journalist and that he has no talent.” When my mentor pressed him, this publisher said something like, “because people like him are lazy.” My mentor told me this right after I received a fellowship with a major publication. Meanwhile, the editor that I worked directly under wrote me a stunning recommendation letter.
That sends a message to some. It says that I need to “learn my place.”
Another instance was when I worked as a part-time editor for a now-defunct publication that catered to women and the CEO, who at this point had lost several editors and assistants, embarrassed me in front of my interns. He called me “an imbecile” when I asked him who the target audience was; over the course of my time there, he changed the demographic all of seven times and questioned my experience and acumen at every turn.
Today, I actually find most black people have been very accommodating to non-diverse people who seem to be more enraged and flabbergasted. In fact, I’d be remiss to say that most black people are not surprised that Donald J. Trump and the alt-right Republican Party won the electoral vote. I’d say we’ve become more accommodating to the white fragility of well-meaning liberals who have had their minds blown after this “revelation” that demagogues like the 45th president of the U.S. were capable of taking the White House.
Since this election, I’ve never heard more white women addressing intersectionality nor have I seen more white people in transit on the subway reading black literature in hopes of being “woke,” nor have I seen more white people address disenfranchisement as I have seen in the last few months. This is all very good and for the people who have been doing this years before it was trendy, good for them. But for the others, I don’t celebrate their newfound awareness.
I think diverse people, especially people of black descent, have been waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. I know I have.
6 Oluwatomi Lawal (Tomi), Pinehurst, NC, student
I grew up in a predominately white community and have attended predominately white institutions for as long as I can remember. However, most my my parents’ social circles were black (specifically Nigerian), so my blackness has always been affirmed and grounded in a familial setting. Growing up, I got some of what I would consider to be the usual string of comments/micro-aggressions: do you play basketball, can you swim, do you know this other black person in the school, do you like the one black girl in class, do you like The Cosby Show, etc.? Most of these I could answer with some variation of “yes, but…” which usually helped curb the stereotypes.
During my high school years I became acutely aware of how common it was for black youth to be characterized as an adult. I especially noticed this once the shootings of unarmed black men permeated the news regularly from 2012 onward.
Thinking back, people seemed to say that I was “growing up so fast,” which by itself was not really an abnormal comment for a friend or relative to say. However, during my high school years I became acutely aware of how common it was for black youth to be characterized as an adult. I especially noticed this once the shootings of unarmed black men permeated the news regularly from 2012 onward.
I became acutely aware of how common it was for black youth to be characterized as an adult.
I definitely believe that my high school experience allowed me to grow a lot as a person, because it was in high school that I began to learn how to articulate my feelings around the importance understanding difference, being open-minded, and valuing diversity and inclusion. I was fortunate enough to attend a more diverse boarding school in New England that gave me the exposure to be able to develop these new feelings in a setting that I would not have experienced otherwise. The proximity allowed me to connect with members of my high school community and find my voice. With greater exposure to people of color in an academic setting, I developed a propensity to want to keep cherish those connections that I would not have been able to experience outside of familial circles at home. Through this, I certainly became more Afro-centric (I spent most of my senior year with an afro, a necklace of Africa, and a metal hair pick in my pocket), and I loved being able to experience that.
In a “post-Trump fueled era” brought me back from a whimsical idealism back down to a mellowed optimism, which has been ultimately good. It has forced me to be more curious about understanding the differences within people in this nation, while hold firm to my values of diversity and inclusion. It has also made me think more critically about what kind of radical thoughts and actions need to be taken in order to understand and come closer to having a more perfect union.
7 Adam Hyndman, Brooklyn, broadway actor
Like many, growing as a black American was an experience of intersection. (I am of African American descent, and I am also bi-racial with Filipino/ Asian American heritage). I was raised in a rural and homogenous region. Apart from the presence of my own family, the world I looked out on was very white. That is what I became accustomed to, assimilating into the conventions, perspectives and behaviors of the community in order to find belonging.
There have been many times that the roles I am sent in for had descriptions that read simply: “early 20’s -late 30’s, African American. Drug Dealer.” Like, that’s it!
Although, I had respect for my heritage, I was thought that being “white” was default, and therefore being properly white meant being properly accepted. This resulted in a degree of dysphoria as I began to mature, age, and becoming exposed to the world outside of my home town (especially during college and beyond). Growing up as a black man in America is a process of coming to terms with intersectionality, and a journey of finding belonging.
Overtime however, I did develop a responsibility to be good and be the best, in part because of a desire to be an example that black folks can be highly accomplished as well. I didn’t see images or representations of minorities being celebrated often, so I feel like I had to carry the torch whenever and wherever I had the opportunity. That responsibility can quickly distort into, expectation and then further into a burden, and that is not healthy or sustainable. This certainly carried over into my adult life until I started to diversify my network.
Going into my industry, as a professional performer, I was confronted with many mixed messages. Here I was, I had been this over-achieving “token” my entire life who was able to code-switch and gain access in different spaces… yet that is not what I was wanted of me. My intersectionality was confusing. My levels of complexity were not universally “black” enough. my authenticity wasn’t “black” enough. In the very onset of my career I certainly felt push back to compromise my authenticity in order to present a more stereotypical representation of my blackness in order to fit a particular idea or narrative.
Well, in casting there is no shortage of mirco-aggressions. Understandably for convenience and efficiency sake, casting departments need to send out short descriptions for the characters they are casting actors for. Often times these descriptions can become extremely over-simplified. There have been many times that the roles I am sent in for had descriptions that read simply: “early 20’s -late 30’s, African American. Drug Dealer.” Like, that’s it!
During this era, I am so clear of the need for visibility. The journey of my life and figuring out my place as a black man in this country has developed a deep love and respect for my heritage and contributions of many that have made me the man I am. To compromise the truth I have found because of fear would be antithetical to my purpose. I am empowered with the conceit that it is the stand we are for our authenticity that will hold us during these times, offering our integrity sustenance.
8 Alex Freeman, San Francisco, design researcher
I grew up in Palo Alto, or as I like to call it: The Land of Milk and Honey. It really does seem like a tech-fueled utopia, and for the most part, that’s true. However, only 2% of the population while I was growing up was Black. I felt like I was pulled between two cultures: my cousins on both sides of my family grew up in black neighborhoods and I found it hard to identify with them. However, growing up in such a white community also gave me an unsettling feeling of being ‘other’. I loved growing up in Palo Alto, but I often wonder what how much experiences of my white friends growing up there were different than mine.
Black people are so underrepresented in tech that a meritocracy only hurts us until we find equity.
I was the ‘token’. Almost all of my friends growing up were white or Asian. They didn’t treat me disrespectfully, but I was the sounding board for anything related to being Black. I took a more passive view to race while I was growing up, focusing almost all of my attention on forging ahead, getting into a good school, and landing a respectable job. When I got to Georgetown, I started to find my voice as a Black man in Washington DC under the leadership of President Obama. Now that I’m back in Silicon Valley, I’m far more outspoken about equality and equity for minorities in tech and the broader Bay Area.
I think my childhood prepared me for Silicon Valley much more than others. Those of us who grew up there are expected to end up in tech, and our education and social cultures focused on that expectation. I did grow more cognizant of my Blackness while working in technology, particularly the design field.
The really famous designers tend to be white, male, and more often than not, European. I’ve had a hard time identifying with those people and picturing myself rising to prominence in both design and in tech — there is simply no precedent. It’s exhausting walking the unbeaten path, but it’s also exhilarating. My mom was the first Black, female city council member in Palo Alto when she was elected, so if anything, I’ve learned to look to other people’s successes in order to find the motivation to stay the course.
I think the moments that really pain me, are the moments of omission. Silicon Valley takes the meritocracy very seriously (or so they say) but a meritocracy is a double-edged sword. Black people are so underrepresented in tech that a meritocracy only hurts us until we find equity. So the fact that so much of what Black people in Silicon Valley achieve is unrecognized even though it was done against the odds if particularly heartbreaking to me.
I am so lucky to work at a company that cares about the movement, and cares about black people on a deeply personal level. I’ve had several conversations with our CEO and our COO about the subject matter and their responses are so genuine and so empathetic and so personal, that I feel incredibly lucky to have them in my corner. This sentiment has permeated the workplace and it’s a magical thing to see the empathy and alliance that come from my coworkers on this front.
I feel more empowered if anything during this new Trump era. I feel myself getting more and more unapologetically Black and more and more cognizant about how I can influence the narrative of the Black citizen in Silicon Valley. There’s a long way to go, but I think this general mentality of #resistance in San Francisco is adding fuel to my fire, and I’m excited to hit the ground running.
9 Landon Dais, Bronx, attorney
I attended a Catholic High School, Fordham Prep in the Bronx. My school was mostly white. However, there was a decent black/latino population. During my younger years, I joined Jack and Jill, because I went to majority white schools, my parents wanted to ensure I had a social circle of black friends.
I have never been arrested or charged with a crime, but I have been treated like a criminal many times by a police officer.
After high school, I attended an all black college (HBCU), Morehouse College. I wanted to go to an HBCU because I wanted to have the black college experience similar to my older brother. I also attended Columbia University for grad school and then to Hofstra Law School. At Columbia and Hofstra I was one of a handful of black Americans. Even with my education and resume, I have been profiled by police numerous times: stop and frisk, unwarranted search of my car, physically manhandled by a cop in HS, guns were drawn on me while working on a social program in Harlem, etc. I have never been arrested or charged with a crime but I was treated like a criminal many times by police officers.
In my professional career, I am usually either the only or one of the few black males in my office. Black women are outpacing black men in corporate America. I do not know how many times in the first 10 years of my professional career I have been complimented on the way I speak or conduct myself. I appreciate that was not an issue at my current law firm. Oftentimes, I am one of the few black males a colleague interacts with on a consistent time frame. I believe our interaction allows them to know more about the black American experience.
A former co-worker pissed me off during the anti-police shooting protests, the former co-worker would say why can’t “they” protest peacefully like MLK Jr.? I would calmly explain every MLK protest wasn’t peaceful and often the issues you see were escalated by another source and not by those protesting.
I realized that because of their one-sided positive view of police, they naturally took their side unless there was direct evidence to show the cop acted unprofessionally. Without evidence, it was assumed that they were in the right. I just could not understand how they couldn’t see the issue black America was facing with the police in America, and still don’t. Though, the introduction of camera phones and videos has begun to turn the tide.
10 Justin Fenner, NYC, editor
I had a really happy childhood. My dad worked for the government, and we moved around a lot: I was born in the Philippines, and by the time I was in high school we’d also lived in Guam, North and South Carolina, and California. Living in these different cultures and traveling from place to place gave me this exposure to the world that a lot of people don’t get until they’re older, if they get it at all. It took me a while to fully appreciate that.
I won’t lie: I was a pretty sheltered kid. My family employed live-in housekeepers until I was maybe 11 years old. I was the bougie cousin, and no one ever let me forget it. We lived in predominantly white neighborhoods, primarily because they were always the ones closest to great schools — and the one thing my dad wouldn’t compromise on was getting me and my little sister the best educational opportunities available to us.
I’m incredibly grateful for that, but I did have a lot of moments growing up where I felt like I was living between two worlds. I think that’s something all black kids experience regardless of where they live, how they’re raised, or who their parents are. If you want to make a way for yourself in a world that’s dominated by people who, at best, aren’t really motivated to help you succeed, you don’t have a choice about figuring out a way you can communicate with them. And that’s far from being the easiest thing in the world to do.
No matter where you grow up or how much money you have, you always feel distinctly watched if you’re black and male.
I got a lot of schoolyard teasing about how I “talked white” growing up, especially from other black kids. There was this perception that I thought I was better than other black people because of how fortunate my family was, but that was never the case.
No matter where you grow up or how much money you have, you always feel distinctly watched if you’re black and male. I can remember being followed around stores at the mall, for example, as if I might steal something, or teachers having me sit at the front of the classroom because that made it easier for them to keep an eye on me, like there was some inherent danger in putting me on the periphery.
I still feel those eyes on me now. I’m fairly confident I always will. I used to get really angry about it. But it’s just part of the territory now.
Dave Chapelle once said that “Every black American is bilingual. All of them. We speak street vernacular and we speak ‘job interview.'” I think that’s among the truest things anyone has ever said. Code switching is a pretty vital skill to have if you want to survive in a world dominated by people who don’t look like you. But because I spent a lot of my life surrounded by the kinds of people I work with now (namely, privileged white people), I think I had a pretty good idea of what to expect in the professional sphere.
I’m really fortunate to work in an industry that prizes diversity and inclusion, even if it doesn’t always feel that way in practice. I’ve never felt targeted or discriminated against at work, but I have had a number of moments where I’ve had to do some educating. Explaining the importance of Black Twitter to a white editor in his 40s who doesn’t really use social media, or reassuring someone that, no, headline option three isn’t going to mobilize the social justice mechanism is as much as I’ve had to take on in an office. And I’m glad to be around when those questions come up. Each one teach one, you know?
“Every black American is bilingual. All of them. We speak street vernacular and we speak ‘job interview.'”
Sometimes I think the best response to the Trump era is to be who I am fearlessly and without apology. Maybe the best way for all of us to stand up to the extreme celebration of homogeneity that led to Trump’s rise is to highlight every single one of our individual nuances as joyously as possible.
11 Scott Pierce, Columbia, SC, attorney
I can’t really answer what it was like to grow up as a black American. I can answer as to what it was like growing up as me.
I’ve had a lot of experiences that link and bind me to the black community, but my upraising was quite different from the “so-called” average black American. I don’t mean that to indicate quality, but simply that in many ways, the world I grew up in was white.
I knew that my state was hopelessly on the wrong side of history and proud of it.
As I grew older, and shed the innocence of childhood, my perception of America and the way I was perceived changed. I learned that certain privileges were taken from me without my consent due to where I lived. I learned that police officers looked at me a slightly different way than they did at some of my classmates, and I learned that this could be an advantage, on occasion, if I played my part well. I learned that any white girl who pledged in a sorority became off limits for dating and basically college life friendship in general. I knew that when someone yelled slurs out of a pickup truck window while I walked back from the bars, more likely than not the exact same words were being used in bars covered in Battle Flags of the Republic and long live the south graffiti. I knew that my state was hopelessly on the wrong side of history and proud of it.
So I used it to my advantage. I used my charisma and intelligence to open every door I could, sometimes just because it felt like someone put a door in my way. In a sense, I wish I could have given up on the anger that led to me jumping at opportunities like none others will come, but it’s made me who I am.
In the work world, I’ve never felt like a black man at the expense of my work, with the exception of this last summer of 2016. I was working in Texas with far too many Texans. And to hear people I had respected in the office uttering the most vile filth about black lives matter and police brutality broke me open.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I became more or less a shell of myself, ruined a relationship that meant the world to me and slipped back into depression. White Texans, who should know better than anyone that racism still exists today, casually compared BLM to the KKK without seeing the shudder on my face every time they spit out black lives matter, clearly thinking the opposite.
I had friends try and calm me down, saying I shouldn’t be so upset over something as simple as “politics” in the office. It isn’t just politics. I feel like it used to be. I used to stay up watching re-runs of the West Wing with my dad and having such a noble view of politics and the world. Then 2016 happened and I had to address my normal average fear of getting pulled over for a speeding ticket or a broken taillight, and expand that completely rational irrational fear into a new terrified worldview as a black American and I broke.
I honestly think that I was never prepared to fear that many people that I got along with great on a professional level. I couldn’t see how I wasn’t the same level of American they were-and yet, I grew up in that country. I remembered being near that feeling, but never experiencing it. As soon as I graduated from the bubble of undergrad, I hopped in my car and drove out to California-never to return to the South…only ending up there again and again.
I learned how to code switch like a magician
I grew up without a group. In middle school, a group of white kids in my neighborhood whom I’d been friends with for years had gotten in the habit of egging their friends’ houses for kicks. They’d write stupid jokes and cause minor mayhem but it was no big deal. When they egged my house, they also took the time to scrawl on my dad’s car, “NATOW” in shaving cream across the hood. I told my parents I didn’t know what it meant, but they’d invented a new slur for me since none of the others seemed to fit: Not A True Official White.
But every time, my heart heals. It heals with anger. Almost malice.
And the same year, on the track team which was nearly all black, they dubbed me, “Brady Bunch,” because they said I talked like I was on a sitcom for white people. Needless to say, I learned how to code switch like a magician, and there was never a “black” reference that I didn’t know because it cost too much hard earned social capital not to.
In the post-Trump era, which I feel like really started about a year ago, I just feel sad, scared and furious. Everyday my heart keeps breaking that my words are dismissed as whining and fake news and ‘libtears’ nonsense. But every time, my heart heals. It heals with anger. Almost malice. I know it’s unhealthy, but I can’t let it just wash over me anymore.
I’m almost glued to my phone for the next injustice, and with this administration you hardly have to refresh your twitter feed to find the next injustice. Yet I know that I’m just screaming into the void. Mainly, it’s made me get off my ass and actually act. I’ve marched. I took a government job. I am no longer complacent that my America is smaller than it is for a kid who grew up in the exact same family I did, but without my skin color. And frankly, I know I’m stronger for it.
Now, I just have to turn the anger down long enough to accomplish something and prove that I’m not just another black exception. I am exceptional, but we all are. We all have the ability to be. That knowledge cost more than I wanted to pay for it, but I’m proud to be me.
12 Ernest Bannister James, NYC, public relations
I was always seen as “soft” which automatically made me gay to my peers at such a young age.
In the African-American community, being soft is not the norm, so you’re automatically labeled gay if you don’t fight, constantly talk about girls, or have an obsession with sports. Being raised by three strong women definitely shaped my perspective on life, because they taught me to work hard, never complain, and take care of others before yourself.
I think that translated into my adulthood, because I remember employers telling me that I had a great work ethic even though I thought that working hard was the norm. Being perceived as gay in my adulthood doesn’t bother me as much now because, well, I am gay, and that’s just one of many things that define me in addition to being a man, a brother, a husband, a pet owner, a publicist, a friend, and the list goes on and on. But being young and given that title by others before printing it out and giving it to myself was harder and may explain why it took me a while to come out to my family and friends.
I have been blessed to never have been treated with blatant racism in the workplace. There have been times that my peers who were of different races felt comfortable to discuss/say things around me that could be perceived as racist, but I think it’s really in how you look at it. Since these were friends that I know and respect, I know they weren’t coming from a place of hate which never made it uncomfortable for me to be around them when those situations occurred.
Whether it’s a women’s rights issue, a gay rights issue, a black issue, etc. they’re all human issues and we need to remember that when we decide to choose who we stand up for and who we don’t.
My experience at work has always been, a hate issue is everyone’s issue. Being blessed to work in the fashion industry has allowed me to work alongside many groups that at one time or another were marginalized so we all stand in solidarity when something happens that affects a particular group.
I feel now more than ever I need to be more involved overall! I think we as people mean to do good in our lives, but we get so bogged down in our own lives that we forget to reach out and really lean in to help those around us who can benefit from our assistance. I’ve definitely been more attuned to what’s happening around the world in general because now is not the time to live in a place of ignorant bliss. Whether it’s a women’s rights issue, a gay rights issue, a black issue, etc. they’re all human issues and we need to remember that when we decide to choose who we stand up for and who we don’t. We can all be a little kinder and a little more open to each other these days and that’s my mission during the current environment we’re existing in.
13 JD, NYC, merchandising manager
I grew up as a person with black skin in America, but my family is Caribbean, which culturally, is a bit different than being black American. I found myself not understanding a lot of the historical context that was applied to the black American experience until much later in life, when I was old enough to experience it for myself.
I was told by my mentor that I’m big and black, and that my job is to be as invisible as possible.
As a first-generation American, I spent a lot of time highlighting the cultural differences between people throughout the diaspora because these differences are what make us beautiful, but here, in America, everything is skin-deep. You are forced to be conscious enough to know how you are being perceived by the world versus how you perceive yourself. How I perceived myself became low on the list of tools necessary to navigate America.
I was told by my mentor that I’m big [6’5″] and black, and that my job is to be as invisible as possible. That always stuck with me. “Your physical stature is drawing attention to you, so no need to bring more attention to yourself by not following protocol.” Being Caribbean, you live in a multi-dialect space. You speak one way at home, one way with your American friends, and another way at work. Code switching. A phenomenon that is intrinsically passed down, and also learned. If you work in banking, no tattoos, no long hair, no facial hair. I always took this personally. Forcing myself to shave felt emasculating. I now work in a more relaxed environment and one of the first things I did was grow out my hair and beard. I’ve had a beard for the last 3-4 years as a personal protest.
As insane as it may sound, I’ve had white co-workers use the word “nigga” in front of me. Once, reciting a Kevin Hart joke, and another trying to be “cute.” I didn’t think the person was racist, but I did think they were f***ing stupid and had no sense of awareness. The level of comfort you have to have, to say the word “nigga” in front of anyone, much less a black person, in the office, is a downright privilege. I was offended at their comfort level. There was zero concern to how I could respond. Deal with it. What did I do? Nothing. I was in complete shock.
Stand your ground is an interesting choice of words. The day after the election, I felt the way I did on 9/11. I’ve since recovered under the idea that, this whole shit is a joke. Americans should feel embarrassed about electing him. This is beyond governance, and political strategy. It’s about human decency.