I feel the need to get some things off my chest. Please excuse the cliché, but I’m in no mood for verbosity at the moment. Also, please do not call out the ironic hypocrisy of claiming to not be in the mood for verbosity while using a word like verbosity in the same sentence. As you’ll read onwards, my friends, I make it a point to be “wordy.”
Before beginning in earnest, let me get the obvious out of the way right away. This is a post about race. If this bothers you, please click that X button at the top right-hand corner of your web browser. Thanks. Now that I’ve vacated the bigots let’s begin.
As a person of color, as a black man, I make it a point to have a full and capacious vocabulary. This is part of a neurosis that I have about speech. See, I am the unfortunate recipient of a stereotype unfairly attributed to a genetic mutation for which I did not ask, but nonetheless of which I am proud. Or to be frank, people think black folks are incapable of speaking English correctly.
I cannot begin to tell you how this affected me throughout college. But since that is the purpose of this post, let’s attempt the impossible.
I graduated from Cal State University Long Beach with a degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing. I double majored in film with a focus on critical theory. In nearly all of my classes, with the notable and obvious exception for a black studies course, I took in my first year, I have been the ONLY BLACK STUDENT, or if the fates were kind, one of two. This was nerve-wracking because in many ways I felt out of my element. I went from a setting where most of the students looked like me (I’m talking high school, here) to a setting where I was a distinct minority. I attended Leuzinger High School. This school was mainly Latinx and black. White people were the minority, perhaps not as small as I remember, but there weren’t many of them in direct contrast to black and brown students. Before going forward, I want to stress that in no way am I saying, insinuating or inferring that Long Beach State wasn’t or isn’t diverse. It is, but it is also largely a white campus. In my time attending, it was just as racially tumultuous as the country seems now. But that’s another topic for another occasion. The point that I make here is that I always felt as if I was put on the spot. I suffered racist jokes that shielded themselves from criticism because they were jokes. I had people ask me stupid fucking questions about Compton, I’m from Hawthorne. But the worst was always having to speak with diction and articulation. The worst was always having to write that way, too. If I ended a sentence with a preposition, I was toast.
See, I am the unfortunate recipient of a stereotype unfairly attributed to a genetic mutation for which I did not ask, but nonetheless of which I am proud. Or to be frank, people think black folks are incapable of speaking English correctly.
I entrusted this information to a friend of mine a while back. I expressed to him how the pressure of ALWAYS WRITING AND SPEAKING IN A STATELY MANNER felt like I was putting on a show, a different face. I also felt like a fraud, because it was in college where I learned the most about English. I felt as though I should have learned this in high school. This isn’t to say I wasn’t taught. In my teachers’ defense, I ditched A LOT. No, I mean a lot! I was completely unprepared for college. My friend told me that everyone felt that way and my experience isn’t a unique one. As an aside, the beautiful thing about being white (my friend is white) is that one tends to have a singular consciousness or this uncanny ability to see the world in one way and the precious (yes, I’m catty) assumption that everyone else feels the same as you do! But the point my friend missed is that it is different. He admitted he’s never felt stupid or uneducated if he did not speak with absolute coherence. He’s admitted that he does not know what it is like to be the only white person anywhere. But even now, my white friend won’t acknowledge that he has the liberty of individuality, and I am burdened with representation. If he speaks in an uneven manner, he can rest assured that the world will only judge him. If I take the floor in an unintelligible manner, I can rest assured it will be affixed to my entire group.
Truth be told, I’ve been editing this post as I write it. It might read in an entirely batshit way, but there it is.
I learned in college that America rewards white mediocrity and harbors unrealistic expectations of people of color. This isn’t to say that all white students attending college now, or ever, are or were mediocre. In fact, I would say I shouldn’t have to express what should be obvious by implication, but because of whiteness’ demand for individuality, one must preface any critique against whiteness, with “not all white people.” People of color are rarely given such courtesy, and when it happens, it is often begrudgingly, as if someone has to rip it out of them.
As an aside, the beautiful thing about being white (my friend is white) is that one tends to have a singular consciousness or this uncanny ability to see the world in one way and the precious (yes, I’m catty) assumption that everyone else feels the same as you do!
So now, at the age of 39, I am constantly ensuring that everything I write or say is grammatically correct, stylistically salient (whatever the fuck that means) and most importantly, coherent. This is a pressure marginalized groups go through daily. Some adapt to it better than others, but it’s there. If you’re the first black person to do anything, win a world series, win an Oscar, cure cancer, create an all-cure panacea that wipes out disease as we know it, there is tremendous pressure on you to NOT SCREW UP. This is impossible because like everyone else, black folks are human. Humans screw up, it’s what we’re good at. Fuck, I ended a sentence with a preposition.
I am working on not having such an outlook. A proper criticism of such an outlook is that I should get over myself. People aren’t that hung up on language. We live in an era of the word, bae. BAE! But it isn’t that easy. A downside to de facto segregation is that we don’t know each other. We have these ideas and these beliefs which are born from ignorance about each other which are rarely steeped in any truth. So when one of us is the only one of us in a group, we become the quintessential minority and a representative of our people. Anything we say or do can be used to excuse poor behavior, “Well my black friend doesn’t care if I say the N-word” or “I’ve dated a black woman in college, so I can’t be racist.” This is how the burden of representation works. It’s like Atlus holding the world on his back. It is a burden that white people never go through, at least not to the extent that it can affect their lives in a profound manner that it does for people of color. My chances of getting a job rest on how well I communicate, but I must be ten times better than my white counterpart just to be considered.
I expressed in prior posts how the concept of race is killing us. 19 Arabs with box cutters and sticks up each of their asses later and America thinks every Muslim is a secret ISIS member. When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma federal building, the band played on. Nothing to see here, folks. Just white folks being crazy is all. Wait, is that a Muslim going to that airport? Get him!
This double standard is pathological and sick. But it is a double standard woven into the tapestry of America, it is the thread, it is the needle. It is the ink, dried on the Constitution. It is a shield that protects whiteness from criticism. It must end.
My fear is that if and when it does, and I’m still alive to see it, I will still carry the knee-jerk expectation that people really are that attuned to my speech. I fear that if I speak incomprehensibly or don’t place a comma where one should be placed, any chances of anyone else who looks as I do to be taken half as seriously as I wish to be considered in situations such as those will be ruined. Sorry for the wordiness. You know what, I’m not. Deal with it. Brevity was never a high point anyway.