15 July 2012

rest in peace, willis...

Note: This is one of those heavy posts.

When I moved to California, I had spent all of my time in a really small private school, and upon moving, enrolled in a slightly larger private school. At no time in my life had I ever consistently spent lots of time in huge classrooms, and as you can imagine, I had never been around a ton of Black people in school in general, and in class in particular (prior to this, I had NEVER been in a class with another person, and only knew other blacks went to school because I had a brother who was also going to the same school). Once I got to public school, I figured out more about life and expectations than I had ever expected.

One of the things I marveled at was the ability for most students to walk among the crowd totally unnoticed- when you go to a really small school (I had a class of 3 and a class of 4 for a full academic year) going unnoticed is actually impossible. But with so many people, I was enamored with the idea that I could go about my day, totally under the proverbial radar. What I didn’t realize that in a big school, things that made you stand out, either physically (really big and strong, or conversely- under 5’ tall) or intellectually (if you’re the dumbest fucker in class or the kid fucking the curve for the rest of the class) make it virtually impossible to skate through the world un-noticed. So you can imagine a kid, 4’11” tall, and a virtual academic all-star who tended to score among the highest scores in a given class, my ability to go un-noticed was non-existent. I was now the short smart kid that fucked up the curve in Math, Chemistry, History and Spanish (never an off the chart English student, felt the kind of writing I was allowed to do was a tad stifling and the writing I currently do was not only not allowed, but openly shunned and mocked as illegitimate (Fuck yourself, Joan Cone), because it was too much like me and not enough like the King’s English (which if you know me, I never stray too far from, even in a motherfucker laced writing sample).

Coupled with this backdrop, it’s important to remember I’m Black. This had at no point in time ever been realized by me as being anything other than matter of fact (I’m Black, I’m also male, short, right handed- story sometime- and kind of obnoxious). It was only upon entering El Cerrito where it really started to play a role. But initially, it was odd for me just to be around the sheer number of Black people I was around. Coming from a county where you’re the only Black FAMILY and going to schools where there were NO Black people, it’s easy to imagine my image of what Black in America was might have been romanticized. I had my family and really The Cosby Show to refer to (didn’t watch much TV at all, and we didn’t live in an area where it mattered, as there were so few PEOPLE where I lived, it didn’t really matter what you WERE, just that you were). So going to EC meant I now would meet more Black people than I had ever imagined- and there was one overarching theme about the experience- I was told, by ALMOST ALL of the Black kids one of these statements:

“You talk white” or “You talk like a white boy.”
“Why you tryin’ to act white? You ashamed of being Black?”
“Man, you an Oreo.”

I had never HEARD any of these accusations, didn’t know Blacks could ever even be accused of acting “white” much less by other Black people. I didn’t even know the Oreo reference and assumed the kid had seen my lunch snack choice. He laughed and told me it meant “Black on the outside, white on the inside.” Another statement I didn’t understand. If this was how this public school shit was gonna work out, I was probably going to be arrested or killed soon, because this was some bullshit.
So I’m the short, smart Black guy that’s harassed in classes for fucking up a curve here and there, I’m literally the shortest person at the school, I’m a year younger (at least) than the rest of the school (skipped grades earlier in life) and now I’m being demeaned by kids who are raping the English language like Jodie Foster was in The Accused and I have nobody to talk to…this is going to be a shit-tastic experience…

…until I walked into freshman Honors World History class. It was the first place I felt a zone of protection, where nobody wanted to give me heat for being a smart kid. It was in this class where I met Willis Abraham…

…and it was a relatively uneventful meeting. Except that he was in the Honors class. One of the things I noticed is that the school did something called “Tracking” where they try to rank students academically and then, based on that ranking, try to get students of like academic skill sets in the same class- allows for kids that need extra help to get it and kids that need to go faster to do that as well- but it does make these determinations and it’s really hard to get into another track (for example, I transferred from a top-tier private school, but was tracked in “average” classes- until my Mother came in and made them make me take a placement test- was in Honors the next day, so I guess it worked out). By the time kids got to High School, most were locked into tracks, and in the Honors track, there were just not very many Black kids. Willis was one of those kids. But he was, for lack of a better term, a different cat. He just operated to the beat of a different drummer, and was unabashedly indifferent if you were with him or against him, as long has he was doing what he felt was right…this starts by being a smart guy…

…for my first significant block of time at EC, I really didn’t speak out- in class or outside of class. those that know me pretty well can see a world where this not speaking thing was standard operating procedure. I was afraid if I opened my mouth people would find out one of two things, both in diametrical opposition: 1) I was as smart as they thought I was and would never want to talk to me, or 2) I was NOT as smart as they thought I was and they wouldn’t want to ever talk to me- seems like an effective catch-22, which meant I NEVER spoke up, even when I felt I had something positive to contribute. I noticed that in these honors classes, as with my classes at the private school, it seemed that students were free to express themselves, and free to be incorrect and learn from their mistakes. After the negative impression I got from the Black kids at the school (I quickly learned that “white” could be interchanged with the term “educated”- which made me WAY WAY more angry with the Black kids- why in the FUCK do “white” and “educated” get to be interchangeable, and why should my Blackness be fucking questioned as inauthentic because I can string together sentences?) it made me kind of gun-shy about being willing to speak up in class (dare I say- in general). And based on where I was, as much as I liked the white kids in my class, and as much as I didn’t feel any of them even could play the same academic sport as I could, it took ANOTHER BLACK KID being willing to speak up, ask questions, be right and especially BE WRONG and not care as long as he got what he needed, gave me the confidence to begin to speak up myself, which I could never do what I’m doing now (teaching Public Speaking) if I hadn’t gotten that impetus to act from a dude that had NO IDEA of the role he played- at least in that instance…

…over the course of high school, he went from being a Black guy in my class to someone I was proud to consider as a friend. As most of my high school friends were trying to really live the role of HIGH school to it’s fullest (and I can not, in good conscience say that I did not enjoy some of those afternoon/evening/weekends myself), Willis was one of my friends I knew I could rely on to have a good time, but one that involved no alcohol or drugs. In a world of intense peer pressure, and among the kids we were taking classes with it was particularly prevalent- lots of those kids in class came from money, which meant they were more willing and able to throw it around on extra-curricular activities. But hanging out with Willis meant none of that, but it also meant you were going in for a fun-filled adventure. I lived next to a Golf Course for years and had never considered buying blocks of ice and riding down the groomed hills of a golf course. I’d never even considered playing “Capture the Flag” much less in an international airport (adding an extra component-trying not to get arrested while playing- a component I did not see coming- which happened a lot). But there were other times too, just chillin’ at his house, with his moms upstairs, watching Trespass (a great flick if you haven’t caught it, I may have to see if I can catch it on Netflix) and talking about just stupid shit- how as a frosh he was happy to have a girlfriend at UCLA: “man getting a woman here is hard, if you’re not Greek or Troy Aikman…” or about how much scandal there was in the local church: “man that pastor gettin’ on the express elevator to hell…” or just how he just LOVED and EMBRACED what life gave him. You have a car but it’s a 1964 Dodge Dart- you probably bitch and complain about it, talking about how all your friends have better cars and why can’t you get your own car, etc. That’s why you weren’t Willis. He took the Dart and OWNED it. Drove it tough, like you’d drive an Escalade. Spoke of it with pride. Drove with his head high. And after awhile, it became an privilege, even an honor, to ride in the Dart, something ONLY Willis could have pulled off.

It is only in his death that I have gotten to reflect back fondly on the times we spent together. But I never really thought about what that time means to me now, and how it was crucial in shaping the person I ended up becoming. I had a lot of “friends” in high school, some of which I still have, some will even read this- and they may be surprised. I only say that as I was surprised as well. I hadn’t really thought about how what he did help me do what I did. I’m pretty sure I told him this once, when I found him on Facebook (I quickly unfriended him, as I had done what I needed to do, and one of the unfriend mistakes I could take back now). I hope he understands what it meant to me and for me.

And I can say, for sure, I will miss my friend.

13 July 2012

All Race No Place

I hate being alone. Actually, that’s not entirely true, but that’s due to some semantics that exist for some people, but not for me. You see, I rather enjoy being by myself, that is, having nobody else around me. As much as I hate sitting in traffic on my way to work, I do enjoy getting to delve into my own head and psyche in the stop-and-go traffic that makes the Silicon Valley one of the most sought after places to live in the country (if our rent is indicative of anything). What I hate is the feeling that the thing I think and/or the thing I feel is somehow not a legitimate response.

I know I come from a different social location than most African-Americans- I know this because I have had it reinforced to be, by the African-American community my whole life. One of the things I enjoy most is having African-American women who know I’m engaged to (or at some of those times, dating) a white woman. I generally will get read The Riot Act about how I “turned my back on the race” or how “there are lots of good sistas out there, why you with a white girl?” My answer is simple, and they don’t want to hear it: when I was younger, and I was TRYING to date black girls, they wanted nothing to do with me. I was “an oreo” (which I was also called this evening, on the way home, by a homeless black kid I didn’t have any change to give), someone who was “black on the outside, white on the inside” and thus never given the time of day, much less an opportunity to date someone. Fast Forward 15 years: all those women who blew me off to fuck some roughneck are now single, with a kid usually, and wondering where “all the good black men went…We left...Got tired of waiting...i digress, that will happen sometimes…I was saying I recognize my variant social location, so I realize that this complaint may fall on deaf ears, as most African-Americans don’t get to eat (by choice a lot of the time, but sometimes by limitations) at some of the locations I’ve had specific complaints about. But here we go…

…we were out to the Faculty Dinner for the place I’m working, and we are dining at a fine dining seafood establishment in a hotel. It’s a Friday evening, and the restaurant is pretty busy, and we have a party of 25+. There is a set of orders taken before I arrive, so there’s some food on the table when I arrive (always a plus). When the waiter comes to take orders, I place my orders with him, clam chowder soup, surf and turf (filet- medium rare) and grilled shrimp (the option was shrimp and scallops, I opted for all Shrimp, most others opted for scallops only or both. I also order a Coke. Of this order, the only thing not messed up was the Coke. The soup was, literally, forgotten about (although they took our order on these fancy hand scanner type things which allows them to beam info from kitchen to waiters regarding food), which means 1) we had to ASK OUR WAITER FOR FOOD WE ORDERED, which is not standard operating procedure- I believe we would not have gotten them had we not asked). Now, if this was the only thing they messed up, I’m probably frustrated, but definitely not vocal about it (if I bitched about EVERY possible offense, I’d literally never eat out). When the food comes out, I’m handed a steak and a plate of scallops. Not what I ordered. Maybe they just mixed up the plates. It could happen. I get it. But in light of the first mistake, why should I, once again, give them the benefit of the doubt? I don’t have to assume mal-intent to have this experience be frustrating. To everyone at the table, it’s just a couple of things, why is it a big deal? Here’s why...here are some of the things it is to me…

…it’s being a sophomore at UCSB and trying to move into these cool loft apartments with some of my friends. They ran my credit rating and I didn’t get approved (I was 19 years old and had no credit at all). I assumed it was standard. I find out later they, for the white kids I was to be living with, ran THEIR PARENTS credit (which if they ran my parents credit they’d have found two perfect scores, which gets me in). so either they did something not standard without running my parents credit (shady) or AFTER (criminal). But I gave the benefit of the doubt….or the time when I was at Harrah’s in Kansas City at a debate tournament, and somehow, with like 5 of us, they somehow managed to 1) forget my order, twice and 2) give me the wrong order, twice, while somehow not messing up ANYONE ELSE ALL NIGHT…or the time when we went to a Michelin Star restaurant and they put us behind the Sommonier’s table next to a family with pre-toddler kids…or the time…well, you get the picture- at some point, all these “benefit of the doubts” begin to really just look like some passive aggressive racist shit, rather than a “get out nigger” they just give you, specifically, shitty service, hoping you get the point…

…so it’s really hard for me to just assume that “mistakes happen” and that “it means nothing.” Maybe it’s the “we have to be BETTER than everyone else to get EVEN footing” concept that makes me furious when people, whose FUCKING JOB is to serve you in a reasonable and competent fashion, seem to CONSTANTLY makes mistakes on your stuff. If it was an overarching theme with the restaurant, I kind of get it. But if you fancy yourself to be a nice restaurant, you can’t go 0-3 on my food stuff, not go 0-3 with ANYONE else and have me NOT assume it’s racist.

The benefit, dare I say, privilege of being White is that when incompetence happens to you, you can just assume incompetence. But when it happens to me, my mind CAN’T NOT go to the idea that it could be malicious or hate filled, and yet so passive aggressive. I wish I had that liberty, unfortunately, I don’t get this liberty, and as a reward, I make about .75 to the dollar of a white man doing my job.

Many of you think I’m on some delusional, self-important rampage- wrong. To say it has anything to do with me, specifically, is some bullshit and something I’d have a hard time believing even it was proven to be true. And I don’t think it’s some conscious shit. But I do think it happens, and anyone that tells me it doesn’t has never walked a mile in my shoes.

Black people know what I’m talking about, but for some reason, because it comes out of someone that looks, dresses and sounds like me, it’s given less credence. It’s maddening to be disrespected and disregarded by your own people, because I don’t fit in the mode of what they consider “black. I consider Black people to be My People, and I am aligned with The Struggle of Our People, and I am reminded of my place within that struggle every time I hear a siren pull up behind me. I am reminded every time I walk through a mall and get followed by the same security guard through multiple stores (if this seems specific, it’s because it happened to me going to the Apple Store last week and to a Men’s Warehouse and to the Best Buy, same guard, terrible at tailing people (point is to not be seen). I’m here in town, working for one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. I’m smart. I’m articulate. I have a pocket FULL of cash to buy shit. But to them, I am a joke that my dad used to tell me when I was young, and it didn’t make sense to me at the time…

“What do you call a black man with a PhD. From Stanford in a $1000 suit?” Nigger.

He told me this joke because it was told to him at work. My dad was a Genetic Engineer, with a PhD. from Stanford. And my dad rocked the $1000 suit. He told me this because if he didn’t tell me this at home, and tell me that THIS is what I should expect from people if I ever get to the top of the profession, that I should expect this. And that I should have someone to tell, so he didn’t “kill that motherfucker.” It was the first time I 1) ever saw him curse, 2) ever saw him lose his cool, and 3) ever saw him show me ANY emotion other than Love. It reminded me that life was pretty fucked up, and I didn’t know why. I didn’t understand why that man said that to my dad. And I wondered why he told me, rather than telling Mom. Sometimes Mom had just had enough, and wasn’t really trying to hear Dad. Maybe she never got how much it fucking killed him inside. When I have really hard days, I just try to remember my Dad, doing things that I can’t ever imagine doing. I feel shitty when I have to hold my tongue to keep the peace (which fucking KILLS me that my being angry about shitty treatment should be anyone’s business- you have the right to disagree with my anger/hostility, but you don’t get to have a say in whether it’s REASONABLE to have that response). 

The duality of being treated like you don't belong by Whites (by assuming that you're over-reacting and making everything about race- [aside: when you're Black, everything IS about race] and not just assuming old fashioned incompetence or just people being assholes) and having Black people discount your experience as inauthentically Black is enough to make me just want to tell EVERYONE to fuck themselves. At the point where I get to feel alone, i don't really want to deal with the bullshit of having to pretend to conform and/or give a fuck what you think about it. 

The irony of it all is all this makes me want to do is sit around, smoke blunts and be the person everyone assumes I am anyway.