Life as a Young Black Man

This winter, students taking the elective course Race in America read the introductory chapters of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race? They then wrote introductory chapters to their own biographies. The following essay is part of that series. 

As a Black man, race is something that I have to be aware of in my life. I have always had to carry myself in a certain way to make other people feel comfortable and safe. I am not sure if I experienced overt racism as a child, but there is a very real possibility that I may have not noticed.

I will never forget the story that my mother tells her friends about when I told the cashier at a grocery store that I had one “White” grandma and one “Black” grandma even though both of them are Black. I did not understand that just because my Black grandmother had lighter skin it did not make her White.

I also did not understand why I was a different color than my brothers even though we had the same parents. Of course, my older brothers would joke and tell me that I was adopted all throughout my childhood, which confused me even more.  I had an idea of what race was but I did not actually get the concept of it.

Today, I am more aware of the significance of being a Black man in American society. I now understand that no matter how I act or what I do, I will be looked at differently because of the color of my skin. I will always have to be mindful of what I am doing and I will always have to fear the police. I will always be asked if I play basketball, and people will always be surprised when I tell them that I play lacrosse. I will always be asked what race I am mixed with because my hair is curly and my skin is light. People will always look at me crazy when I tell them that both my parents are Black, and that I have the same parents as my older brothers who are darker than me. 

Life is not always fair for a Black man— and most of the time it is not— but I will not let a society that is set up for me to fail bring me down. I am not comfortable going to restaurants in mostly white areas, such as the Blairstown Inn. When I am there I feel like everyone in the room is staring at me and wondering what I am doing there, and assuming that I must go to Blair because someone that looks like me would never live in Blairstown. I have never been followed around a store like many Black people have, but I have felt eyes on me when I walk into a convenience store by an employee to make sure that I am not stealing. 

One thing I have noticed is that Black men tend to not be attracted to Black women. I know that everyone has a preference, but it is very strange to me that a person would find an entire race unattractive rather rather than considering individual people, especially when it is their own race they’re discounting. I do not think I would ever be able to say that I am not attracted to a whole race especially if that race is my own. My own mother is Black, so who am I to say that Black women as a whole group are unattractive?

This also makes me think about myself. It makes me wonder if I would be found attractive by the same people that see me as attractive now if I was as dark as my brothers, or if my hair was not as curly, or if I talked in a “more Black” way. 

I have not had many encounters with the police, but I cannot say that all of those that I have had have been positive. There is occasionally the nod or hello that I give a policeman when they walk by just so they don’t feel threatened by me. I was recently pulled over, and I tried so hard not to be scared, but I couldn’t stop uncontrollably shaking in fear of the possibility of being harmed. It was a simple traffic stop, but I could not keep the thought of being shot out of the back of my mind. It was a type of fear that I know people of a different skin color do not feel. 

The only time I have really noticed being a minority on a regular basis though was going to a private high school. I do not think there was a single Black person that was not at the school for sports and it was not a secret. It made me feel like the only reason we belonged was because we were good at a sport even though I did just as well academically as non-athletes. 

It seems strange to me that just being Black can make Black people friends but usually being white isn’t what makes white people friends. For example, at Blair I would say I am friendly with all the Black students, but it is not like all the white students are friends with each other just because they are white. 

Race plays a big role in day-to-day life whether I notice it or not. It may not feel like it has that big of a direct impact on my life at the moment, but it may down the road. It impacts different people in different ways. For example, I can’t imagine what it must be like for a Spanish-speaking person to be assumed to be an illegal immigrant just because they are Hispanic. 

Studying race is important to me because I want to be more aware about the topic and have a better understanding of it. Until recently, I did not know that the idea of race was created by society, rather than it having to do with genetics. I was never taught that before taking Race in America as a PG student that people are genetically very similar to each other.

Not being taught that earlier is problematic because when my friends would say, “you are fast because you are Black” or “you can jump like that because you are Black,” I would just go along with it. Now I know that my race isn’t what makes me a strong athlete and that I have worked hard to get to where I am today. I will no longer let my hard work be taken away from me because of the color of my skin. I can change misconceptions about race and athleticism by letting my friends know that we are more genetically similar than they think, and that my athleticism does not come from the color of my skin. 

Something in society still needs to change even though Black people are not being legally discriminated against in the same way that they were when there were Jim Crow laws. There are still problems today, and people tend to forget that legal segregation only ended in 1964.  Even though so things are different now, race is still as important an issue as it has ever been and racial tensions are still high. People should not look away from race and ignore its existence but rather embrace it by learning about what it really is so they can truly accept others for who they are. 

Copyright Damon Washington 2020

Damon Washington

Damon took Race in America during his PG year at Blair. He is a graduate of the class of 2020.