So, it’s Friday night, around six in the evening and I’m taking a Buzzfeed quiz on what Yankee Candle I am. Weirdly enough, it’s super accurate. On the sidebar, Buzzfeed suggests that I check out some “inspiring” photos from the Civil Rights Movement. I’m black, so I click on it and oh-boy did it mess me up.
It’s interesting, feeling exceptionally moved by something which is supposed to be archaic. Like, I don’t start crying at photos from the Revolutionary War and that’s American history in the same way the 1960s is American history. The only difference is that England respects the autonomy of the United States. I can’t remember the last time England assaulted us but if I wanna see a Black kid get shot all I have to do is turn on the evening news.
And yes, I know that you know that America is still dealing with race issues, but most of you don’t have to take it personally. I mean, we’re usually told not to. It’s either one bad cop or the wrong place at the wrong time. But then suddenly we’re being told that major metropolitan police departments are prepping toy guns for their next unarmed victim and I’m not supposed to take it personally. That, and I’m supposed to be stunned, appalled, surprised- whatever.
Then I’m supposed to go sit in a lecture hall with 200 students and learn about why these things happen; about these poor, subjugated, disenfranchised communities who are dissected under an academic microscope. They’re analyzed and scrutinized and used as the basis for innumerable conclusions and when the academics are done, they pick up their tools and their research teams and they go back to the comfort of their offices and write up billion page evaluations, citing and comparing their work to other academics who have done the exact same thing, maybe a little differently. After everything’s approved and published we’re assigned to read their evaluations of people who look like the six-to-seven of us sitting in this 200 person room.
We listen and take notes and offer our conclusions as we sit next to kids who then offer their conclusions and when we’re all done concluding and analyzing we write down everything we’ve gathered over the course of ten weeks. We write our own version of the billion page evaluations, double-spaced with one-inch margins. We submit our work, which is of course filled with nuance and understanding, all of which we gathered in this ten weeks’ time. We submit and wait for a grade, which turns into a number, which factors into another number and that number ebbs and flows with our concluding and analyzing over the course of four years. At the end of it all, we get that number at the top of a transcript and a piece of paper saying that we totally get it and we walk across a stage to solidify this understanding- this education- and that’s it.
The six-to-seven of us who were in that 200 person lecture hall move from hall to hall, as our numbers ebb and flow like an unsteady GPA. Sometimes there’s only one of us and we get to speak on behalf of all of us. Sometimes there’s three of us and we have a community of sorts where we can share concerned glances as the people around us tell us about our people and why they do what they do; think as they do; live the way they’re forced to live. All their information coming from the billion pages we’re routinely assigned to read. As they tell us our histories with colorful, polysyllabic language, we pass notes and create memes; host events and attempt to cultivate some sort of community in this small, multi-billion dollar bubble in which rent is accepted in four easy payments of seventy thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents.
And after all of this, when it’s all done and we have our degrees and our honors, we have to continue to prove that we got it because we deserved it. Do you know what that feels like? I read the dictionary for survival because I need the lexicon of a god. I need it the way most people just need a degree because, at the end of the day, mine is not going to be enough.
Do you ever wonder what working your ass off is like? I mean really working. Like, working to understand the culture around you, to assimilate but not lose whatever part of you that you entered with. Working to figure out what the hell you’re going to do with your hair when the New York Times recruiters come to your school. Working on not screaming in agony when yet another guy tells you how cool it would be to get with a [insert any non-white ethnicity here] girl in the middle of Beaumont’s. Working on learning to pick your battles; figuring out how to be heard; spreading the wealth. Every day I learn how to write a nut-graph or a lede or how to read six books in two weeks. I learn the difference between journalism and commentary but no one’s teaching me how to get more kids of color into this 200 person room.
And no, I’m not supposed to take it personally when someone argues in defense of not defaming a Klansmen or suggests that maybe race isn’t pertinent to the story, or at all. I’m supposed to navigate the ignorance and privilege and unadulterated wealth as it intermingles with brilliance and talent and passion. I’m not supposed to note that for smart kids, a bunch of y’all are pretty dumb. I’m definitely not supposed to get angry when they bring Charles Murray to speak because all viewpoints are important. But most importantly, I’m supposed to sit quietly in this room and try not to get distracted by the fact when I walk out of here, someone is undoubtedly going to look at me as if I’m lost. No, I’m not supposed to get upset by that either.
And I don’t. I grew up in Princeton, I know where I am and who I’m working with. It’s so normal to me that I’m actually conditioned to forget that any of this is going on. It’s so easy to immerse myself in all the stuff floating around me. I can read and write and report and study and forget where I’m standing. But then something like this Buzzfeed article will pop up and remind you exactly who and what and where you are.
Quite frankly, being reminded is so jarring I could cry. Even more so, it’s almost embarrassing that I can lose myself in the world. How dare I forget; how lucky I am to be able to. Do you forget? It’s okay if you don’t, I won’t take it personally.