"Son, you can't do what they do."
The first time I heard this phrase from my grandfather was in response to the confusion I expressed at being suspended from school for "attacking" one of my classmates. In actuality what was deemed an attack was a fight that my white classmate started. My expectation was that me and my fight partner would be sidelined next to the teacher for the remainder of recess. I'd seen this countless times before. Or so I thought. You see, these fights were all between my white classmates. I happened to be one of the neighborhood kids (re: black) who had the nerve to have an aptitude for science and math and test into the magnet school rather than remain in the "regular school." Instead I found myself in the principal's office alone, facing suspension. Only upon the forceful and pointed inquiry of one, Mama Frank did the vice principal and my teacher admit that they hadn't actually seen me do any "attacking." Rather than admit their mistake they suspended us both. Yay progress...
It was while serving my one and only suspension and recounting my ordeal to my grandfather over the phone that he first uttered the phrase that would forever affect my life: “Son, you can’t do what they do.” He knew the time had come to begin tutoring me in the most necessary of courses: Life in America or Institutional Racism 101, depending on your melanin count.
Much like the game of spades, this phrase has many regional variations, phonological permutations, and situational derivations. Some recognize this as a subset of the greater conversation black parents call "the talk." No matter the recipe the dish served always tastes the same, bitter. The takeaway was this: The world does not by default see you as equal and you must act accordingly to survive.
As such began my education in navigating the treacherous terrain known as being a black man in America. Benefit of the doubt is not a courtesy extended to you. Don't be quick to anger or you'll be labeled be the "angry black man." You have to work twice as hard to maybe get half as far. Never. Ever. get caught up in the criminal justice system. A criminal record combined with your skin color is tantamount to a 3rd strike in the game of life.
Never explicitly stated, but always omnipresent is the idea that you are different. Less than. The other. And it is your job to demonstrate to the (white) world at large that you're not one of "those" black people. Because the default assumption is that you are. The most cardinal of sins is daring to mention any grievances related to your status as an “other”. It is highly inconsiderate to make those with full access to the rights and protections afforded to citizens of this country uncomfortable by pointing out your being denied those very same rights. After all, it's high time we got over it. That was like 400 years ago, so quit whining.
Having been educated in both magnet and prep schools, it wasn't until college that I experienced a challenge to the rules of my world. Something I would later come to understand was internalized white supremacy. I’m not talking about white sheets and Nazi salutes. Minds like these exist as profanity in the language of racism: direct and vulgar in conveying its point. The most common and more nuanced form of supremacy that undergirds western civilization is not a system in which the dominant (white) culture is ever explicitly stated as being superior. Instead it has become the standard by which everything and everyone in society is measured. By virtue of being an impossible standard unless you yourself are white, all things not on the level is by default inferior. For people of color this includes your culture, your community, right down to the color of your skin and the hair that grows out of your head. A large degree of self-hate and shame accumulates over the course of a life spent being told ever so subtly by a society you consider yourself a part of, that you don’t quite measure up. This shame manifests in many ways. There was always a slight embarrassment in having to constantly correct the pronunciation of my name. No, not Dijon. DeJuan. Yes, the J is capital. On the ethno-meter I would have scored my name an 8/10. I knew my hair was considered “good.” Society placed more value on my lighter skin than that of my darker classmates and kin. You see, the closer a colored person is to the standard in both look and mannerism, the better they were taught to believe they are relative to those farther down on the scale. I cringe at the recollection that these ideas became my rules of the road.
This is not to say that I wasn't fully aware of and proud to be black, but to that point the black historical experience in North America played out like a series of flash cards in my mind. We were slaves. Harriet helped some escape. Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. Martin had a dream. So on and so forth. Absent from my grade school curriculum was the pan-Africanism of Marcus Garvey, the pinpoint prose of Dubois that spoke directly to my soul’s double consciousness, brother Malcolm's appeal for an unashamed pride in self. Not until I began earnestly pursuing a minor in African and African American studies in college would I learn who I was and where I descended from, untainted by history’s victors. Once “woke” I then took it as my mission to never again return to a place of tacitly accepting and believing the inferior status society heaped on to me. There was no turning back. I was a revolutionary out to change the world.
Or so I thought. Around graduation is when the world began to reassert itself and I was reminded that it was the world's (white) standard against which I would be measured, not my own. In the effort of finding that ever elusive first job it was at this time that I took my advisor’s guidance to “go along to get along” and swallowed my pride. Gone from my resume was the African American studies minor I took great pride in earning. Ethnic studies might turn some recruiters off. I toyed with the idea of using one of my more “race neutral” middle names (I have two) in the place of my first name on my resume. Absent a face, many recruiters are likely to pass over resumes inferring that the applicant is African American. A pick here. A prod there. All done in the vein of molding me into something innocuous and inoffensive. For my efforts, I was rewarded with the coveted “first job” and moved in to the workforce. And head first into complacency.
As such, with anyone that reaches a level of middle class comfortability, certain levels of cognitive dissonance slowly began to take root. Much in the way a lame man's limp becomes a part of him, navigating a corporate world in which one of the primary aims was not to make white people uncomfortable about your blackness became as natural as breathing. Don't rock the boat. Keep your head down. Gradually I began to buy into the idea that although there was still progress to be made, America was trending in the right direction. I mean, I made it right? Things can’t be that bad. 21 year old DeJuan is looking up from his dog eared copy of The Souls of Black Folk in disgust.
Then Trayvon Martin died. More specifically, George Zimmerman got away with killing him. This incident served as a sobering reminder of the value (or lack thereof) of black life in this country. It also served as a Rorschach test around which I learned that a lot of people that I considered friends lived in a different America than I did. One in which a teenager coming home from the store was somehow responsible for his death, and not the armed man who stalked, confronted, and then killed him. During this time, I found myself in a bit of an existential crisis. I had become the person I promised myself in college I wouldn’t become: the one who traded the painful truth for a comfortable lie. And DirecTV.
Then Jordan Davis died. Then Michael Brown. Then John Crawford. Then Eric Garner. Then Tamir Rice. Then Walter Scott. Then *insert murdered name here*...
Each successive death blasted away ever growing pieces of the non-confrontational shield I built around myself so as to avoid any tense conversations. I found myself not only less afraid to have those uncomfortable conversations, I welcomed them. No longer could I afford to accommodate the thoughts and feelings of minds I was unlikely to change. No sir. Lives were at stake. Gone was the shame society taught me to feel about myself. Gone was the need to empathize with the stress experienced by folks having to contemplate the unearned benefits associated with white identity in America. No more hand holding. No more patient explanations. No more attempts to coax people onto the train of progress. It will leave the station with or without its cabins full. Most importantly, my implicit assumption of the inferior status imparted into me through institutional racism found itself obliterated. With this came the realization that my citizenship afforded me the full promise of the Constitution and as a citizen it was my duty to ensure that my government fulfilled that promise.
I've always imagined that Neo had similar feelings once he learned the true nature of the matrix. He knew that the option of maintaining an oppressive status quo under a veneer of comfortability cannot be seen as an option at all. He also knew how to dodge bullets, but I digress. I have made the choice to never again extinguish the fire in my belly for fear that its heat may burn away some folks' illusions of a just, color blind, meritocratic America that has never existed. My spiritual walk has taught me that anything God places on your heart is not done so lightly or without providence. Some people call it passion. I call it purpose. Some call it radical. I call it rational. I am a patriot and it is my duty to leave the world to my children in a better state than when I found it. Besides, who am I to disagree with God?