I grew up watching family members cope with the racism that they encountered daily in a society where being an American meant being white. These are the messages we, as non-white Americans, encounter: messages that communicate to us that we do not belong.
Because of our skin tone, I soon learned that hostile treatment, being held to high scrutiny, not being believed, not called on in class, being ignored and invisible, are only a few of the injustices we still face today in schools, streets, workplaces, courtrooms, grocery stores, and in every aspect of life.
As a child, I wondered “why are we not acceptable”? I learned that simply by having more melanin in our skin, whites and the system of white supremacy in which we live, we are not believed, we are underestimated, we are treated poorly, we are not seen, we are criminalized and we are killed.
Where did this begin? It is enshrined in our constitution and is known as the 3/5ths clause, which has sent the powerful message that black people had the value of 3/5ths of that of a white person. Having this message of inequality in our constitution remains the source of this ongoing denial of our citizenship and of our humanity.
And so, from the 17th through the 19th Centuries Blacks had virtually no right to liberty, no right to literacy, most had no right to vote and no right to live free from fear of enslavement.
In the 20th century most Black Americans attempted to assimilate in the face of a new set of atrocities and onslaughts: lynching and Jim Crow laws restricting our presence in public spaces.
We conformed to white standards of beauty: In addition to straightening our own hair, I watched my mother straighten the hair of friends and family in our kitchen by pressing it with a hot comb. I hated having my hair pressed but it was simply not acceptable to wear our hair natural until the mid 60’s when I immediately embraced natural hair. It was a revolutionary act.
Some men used conk to straighten their hair--think Nat King Cole and James Brown--while others slicked their hair down with pomades, and stocking caps to flatten the natural curl.
We tried to remove the blackness from our skin. My step-grandmother from Arkansas had a jar of bleach cream that she used on her face and neck daily. I often wondered what would happen if these creams actually worked and the result was a face and neck shades lighter than the other less visible parts of the body. Nevertheless, she faithfully applied it with the hope of a lightened skin tone.
We tried to prove our worth. By serving valiantly in the military. By being polite, dressing nicely, and speaking properly with good grammar.
Through this fine presentation of straight hair and respectable attire, we hoped to avoid the behavior that would inevitably remind us that we had no right to live as ordinary Americans.
we find new rules to bar our presence in public spaces:
Our children are suspended from school because our hair styles do not conform to white standards of beauty as embodied in the school dress code. Our youth are ostracized because they adhere to the latest fashion by wearing saggy pants.
Our lives are at risk when we engage in routine activities now considered “driving while Black”, “walking through a neighborhood with skittles while Black”, “playing music in a car while Black”, “playing with a toy gun in a park while Black”, “selling CDs or cigarettes while Black”, “knocking on a door while Black” . . .
I fear for the safety of my sons when they tell me that they have been stopped by the police.
How have we coped with these written and unwritten rules and laws? It is very simple. We dare, every day, to live as ordinary Americans. And, some still think that this is a revolutionary act.
Yet, while fighting the ongoing messages of white supremacy is exhausting, nevertheless, we persist.