Race

A Lifetime of Being Black

Michelle Elizabeth
Written by Michelle Elizabeth

I am tired. Collectively, we are all tired of trying to live while black. I’m tired of trying to carve out my piece of the American Dream only to be told that I’m not good enough to achieve it. I work hard. I pay my bills. I assimilate into the American culture that my ancestors helped create. But I’m not good enough. And sometimes it feels like I never will be.

We aren’t raised to be racist. It’s a trite phrase that I read all too often. But if we know that racists are made, then why don’t we all stop making them? It seems like a silly question with an even more logical answer, but the race issue in America isn’t as simple as people just stopping their poor behavior and thought patterns. It’s about changing hearts, and that takes a little bit longer.

My first recollection that I was different came not from the white people that lived in my neighborhood but from my own when I started school. I grew up in an area that was mostly Italian. Even though my family is black, we assimilated into the Italian culture to blend in. We mostly ate Italian food. I could speak a little Italian and called pasta sauce gravy, just like they did.

When I got to school, it set me up for ridicule amongst my peers because I didn’t dress as they did or use the same slang. They taunted me for trying to act white, but I was just acting like me. I didn’t have many friends because I was too outwardly black for the white kids and too inwardly white for the black kids.

Stories became my friends because, in a book, it didn’t matter what race you were or how you acted. The hero always saved the day and rescued the damsel in distress. Love was color blind, and the worlds those authors created made me feel like anything was possible.

Middle school is hard for everyone. Twelve-year-old me never thought that the world inside the school would mimic the realities of the real world. My mother kept me at home as much as she could, and as an adult, I understand why. I was twelve the first time I realized that no matter what store I went into, I would be suspected of shoplifting.

The first time it happened, I was with a group of friends who were white. I was used to be being the only person of color in my group of friends by then. We were all in the makeup section, looking at lip gloss and eye shadow as most young girls do at that age. After my friends made their purchases, the security guard stopped me at the door and told me to empty my purse. I did as I was told even though I was embarrassed for everyone to see the maxi pads I had in there.

The security guard was convinced I had stolen some lip gloss because I had picked one up. I did pick it up to check the price. This was back in the day when stores still put those orange price stickers on items. I saw it was more than I had to spend and I put it back. I told him that I put it back, but he didn’t believe me. It wasn’t until another employee saw me and told the guard that I was the manager’s sister that he let me go. My brother subsequently had him fired. But I can’t help but think what might have happened to me if I wasn’t the sister of the manager.

That one event, being accused of something I would never do, and having no one believe me set the tone for the rest of my life. To this day, I’m still paranoid when I walk into a store. I never carry a large purse if I’m out shopping, in fact, the smaller, the better. If I have bags, my husband takes them, or I put them in the car between each store. I can’t shop like everyone else because when I walk into a store they don’t see just another shopper, they see a thief.

Relationships aren’t any easier. I knew when I watched the movie Heathers and had my first crush on Christian Slater that my romantic life wasn’t going to be easy. Dating white men exclusively because that just happens to be what I like is not the easiest life when you’re black. I once told a friend who is gay that it’s like the same thing. To which she said no, it’s not and was highly offended. Then I asked her the following questions which at the time, most of them were true:

Is it or was it against the law for you to marry your partner?

Do you face ridicule from those closest to you about the person you love?

Have family members disowned you because of who you love?

Do you worry about holding hands in public or showing any display of public affection?

Have you ever wished you could just love who the world thinks you should so your life could be easier?

Have you ever had people call you names or assume things about you because of who you’re with?

She answered yes to all of those questions, and when I said I could say the same, she sat there for a while and let it soak in. Even though our struggles are different, we could both understand the pain the other one has suffered because we live outside of what the world considers “normal,” but which is very “normal” for us.

There’s never that moment of randomly running into someone without having to answer that question, do you date white guys? Do you date black girls? Dating outside of your race is always having to swallow that tiny bit of vomit that comes up in the back of your throat when you hear a guy you think is cute say, “you’re cute for a black girl.” It’s like I’m some alien species. Instead of the compliment, I know, or I’m hoping he meant by what he said. I feel like he just said, “you’re kind of cute for a Klingon.”

My children are biracial. If I had a dollar for every time someone assumes that I was the nanny for my boys, I could buy a professional basketball team. It happens all the time, at least once a week, if not more. I had a family friend tell me my children were an abomination because of some Bible verse. Only to retract it when they realized that what they said included my kids as well.

I never understood how racists could have black friends and still cling to their racism. Just because I’m friends with you, it doesn’t cleanse me of my blackness. I’m still black, and what you say about black people still offends me.

When I speak up, I’m often met with the response of, “I didn’t mean you, I meant those black people.” Who are those black people, and how am I not a part of that group? But I’m tired of challenging people and the lies about race that are written on their hearts. Mostly I just swallow it all, the pain and the hurt feelings that come from being black in a white world.

Being black in America is about swallowing all the things you wish you could say to people when they say something ignorant that’s racially biased. It’s about taking compliments that are not compliments like, “you’re very well-spoken.” How is that a compliment when you never think of saying that to another white man or woman?

I have to smile and say thank you to every manager that I’ve had that’s said that to me. I wish I could say that it was an insult. That not only has that person insulted me, but they’ve insulted an entire race of people who are talented, intelligent, and very articulate even though the world assumes them not to be.

On the job, I’m forced to keep my head down and work twice as hard as my counterparts. I can never come in late to work because if I do, I’ll just reaffirm the stereotype that black people are always late. Meanwhile, Jill can come in half an hour late from getting her nails done on her lunch break, but I can’t take a day off when my kids are sick.

I have to prove to my co-workers that I deserve the job I was hired for and that I’m not just some byproduct of affirmative action. I work twice as hard only to get paid less. I can’t afford the luxury of a work/life balance because taking too much time off could get me fired.

In meetings, my opinion is never welcomed. If I’m ever vocal about anything, I’m labeled as just another angry black woman. I can’t get loud. I know my place, and I stay in it. But I’m tired of living in that space. It’s small, and I’m bigger than that pigeonhole I’ve been put in. We’re all tired of living in that space, the tiny one we’re allowed to exist in. I want more than that, and I’m willing and able to work for it.

I’m tired of getting paid less with a Master’s degree than a white person with the same experience and only a high school diploma. It’s happened, I’ve experienced it, and I had to fight for every extra dollar I made until our salaries were fair and equitable for doing the same job.

I want to live in the world that Martin Luther King Jr. promised would come. A world where I was judged not by the color of my skin but by the content of my character. I have an awesome personality. I’m funny with just enough sarcasm that you can never really tell whether the joke is on me or someone else. I’m loyal. I’m that friend that has your back no matter what. I’m a good neighbor. I take care of my property and will go out of my way to help anyone who needs it regardless of whether or not they like me.

I’m American to the core. The vast majority, if not all, black people are American to the core. I can’t even imagine the emotional pain black servicemen and women must have felt coming home from all the wars we’ve served in only told me told they weren’t good enough. Can you imagine coming home from World War II only to be told you’re not good enough to eat lunch here? When I think about it, the only emotion I have is anger, and I think that’s where we’re all at right now. Anger.

Racism in this country is like a wound that refuses to heal. We keep putting Band-aids on the festering wound instead of cleaning out the disease. If you don’t pull a weed out by the root, it’s only going to come back. No matter how many steps we take forward, it always seems to get worse. It’s because systems are easier to change than people’s hearts.

You can pass a law that forbids hate crimes, but you can’t outlaw what resides in people’s hearts. That’s the thing that we need to change. You can make employment fair and equitable to those who seek employment but can’t change the minds of the co-workers who think you don’t belong there. You can undo unfair laws and practices, but you can’t change the minds of those who supported them, to begin with.

I know that not all white people are like this. The protests in my town, that’s at least 95% white if not more, have shown me this. The outpouring of love in my community for the cause has been overwhelming. They might not understand what life is like for people of color, but they understand the urgent need to change it. They understand the idea that all people of color deserve the right to just exist in the same ways as their white counterparts.

The truth is we’re not asking for a seat at the table. We don’t want anything we haven’t worked for. We just want to be able to live and not be afraid to exist. We want to be seen as people just as good as everyone else. We want our children to grow up free of the constant degradations that we’ve suffered.

I once had a friend tell me you never forget the first time someone calls you the N-word. I was fourteen, much older than most of my friends who had it happen to them as much younger children. It was drizzling that day, and I was walking home from my after school orchestra practice. I wasn’t running, but I was walking fast because I hate the cold rainy days, I just wanted to get home. I was still on the wrong side of Broad Street when I heard someone yell, “Hey, you.”

I didn’t stop. I knew better than to stop until I got to the other side of Broad Street. The side it was safe to be black on. Then I heard, “Hey, N, I said stop.” I knew they were talking about me. The cop car pulled over onto the corner, an officer got out and walked over to me. He asked me what I was doing out so late, and I explained I had just come from orchestra practice at the private school a few blocks away. I still had on my uniform from that same school, although it was barely visible under my coat.

He told me to open up the violin case and prove it was an instrument in there. I guess he thought I was carrying drugs in a violin case. I didn’t want to open it up because I was afraid it would get ruined. It had started to rain harder, and everyone knows water and wood don’t mix.

I did as he said and opened the case. He inspected it, disappointed it was only a violin. I waited and held my breath. I was afraid because I knew this person could do whatever he wanted to me, and I would just have to take it. He told me to hurry up and get back where I belonged as he drove slowly following me up the street a few blocks.

I never told anyone about the incident, not even my mother. I knew there was nothing that she could do about it, and I didn’t want to make her feel anymore powerless than she already did.

There are lots of things that I want in life, but mostly I want my daughter never to have to feel the way that I did that day. I wish I could wake up in a world where the only thing that mattered is the kind of person you are. I want to live in the world that my grandparents and parents wanted for me but has yet to be realized. I want to be the same, not different. I want to live in a world where I don’t have to remind people that my life matters just as much as theirs.

At this point in the fight, it’s no longer about changing laws and policies. That was the fight that came before us. Those laws have already been changed. The road ahead of us now is a much longer and more arduous one. And it leads to the hearts and minds of every American. The problems we see in America now are singular in the sense that it deals with individuals and the choices they make. To exhibit racial bias at this point in our history is a choice. I choose to love and fight it with love. Just maybe if we all decide to do the same thing, we can and will do better. And we can all benefit from living in the world that was promised. One we won’t have to imagine anymore.

About the author

Michelle Elizabeth

Michelle Elizabeth

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