Am I Tired of Being Black?
by R.L. Stephens II on August 5, 2013
As Paul Mooney once said, when you’re Black in the U.S., you’re the boogeyman. Everyone wants a piece of you. When Justin Beiber gets into fights and pisses in a bucket, he isn’t being petulant and over-indulged; no, he’s “acting black“. Racially, you’re the lowest common denominator, yet at the same time fetishized, desired, and essential to the nation’s identity.
The US is defined by a racial paradigm with black on the bottom and white on top, and everyone is squeezed between these two poles.
Look at the treatment of George Zimmerman and compare it to the coverage of Aaron Hernandez. They are both racial Latinos accused of killing Black men. Hernandez, a football player with tattoos and a Black entourage, is therefore Black by association. People are digging into his past, speculating about gang affiliations, and are presenting him as if his guilt is certain. Zimmerman, who has a history of domestic violence and previous criminal cases, but had a predominantly white network of peers, was labeled a family man of good morals. Zimmerman became white by association, and it’s the main reason his story was believed and he was acquitted.
The message is clear to Latin@ people: Don’t hang around Black folks, lest you be treated like one. As it was with the Irish, the Italians, and other immigrants that assimilated into whiteness, so it now is with Latin@ people in the United States. The cycle continues.
Systemic anti-black racism is a fundamental feature of United States culture, but it wasn’t until I left the United States that I began to understand the toll it had taken on my psyche.
When I was in Bolivia, my study abroad group went to hang out with a traditionalist healer or “witch doctor”. He was sitting on a chair in the corner, and he casually greeted everyone as they entered the room. I was the last to go in, and when he saw me, he jumped out his chair, shook my hand and held it. He explained that in his particular indigenous spiritual tradition, white was evil and black was good. White represented death because when you are sick and when you die, you lose color. Therefore, blackness was the mark of life and vitality, and it brought good fortune. His philosophy was a complete reversal of everything that Western society preaches, and it was liberating for me.
It was at that moment, as he was talking to the group with an arm around my shoulder, that I realized something about myself. This race thing in the U.S. wasn’t about me. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t create it, and I couldn’t destroy it. In other words, there was nothing wrong with me. That simple truth began unraveling a lifetime of hurt and disappointment as I finally began to resolve my racial “double consciousness”.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk
Each day, U.S. culture tells me that I’m inhuman, that I’m stupid, that I’m of low character, that I’m ugly, that white is good and black is bad… that I’m a nigger.
The U.S. invented the “nigger” and projected everything evil onto it in order to displace an unsavory truth about itself: in order to create “America”, they did the most predatory, most murderous, most debased, and vilest things imaginable. Everything that we are taught to believe about the “nigger” is really the truth about this nation’s culture and history. The U.S. is the “nigger”, not me.
Once I began healing my racial wounds, I discovered that “America” was not the neutral land of opportunity that I had been taught to reluctantly embrace. I realized that anti-black racism was merely one pawn in a broader structural game. This nation was birthed from anti-Black racism, anti-indigenous genocide, and other forms of subjugation. “America” will never be greater than it’s foundation, and no amount of personal accomplishments and legal equality within US American society will remedy this country’s fundamental structural configuration. One group’s gains within the system come at the expense of another; we have to break the cycle.
I don’t want to continue pursuing the impossible dream of uplifting “America” to fulfill the ideals set out in the Constitution, those words were inadequate even at their inception. I want new ideals that inform new practices, and I want us all to create them together.
When I began writing, I thought I was tired of being Black; but really, I’m just tired of “America”.