‘The Very Real Racism’ Within the Black Community, Cont’d

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

From a reader who grew up in Lansing, Michigan, and went to college in Minneapolis:

My name is Jareesa, and I’d like to respond to the reader letter from Allene on racism in the Black community. As a Black American woman, I don’t share her views at all. I think she’s misguided in her assertion that Black people require others to be Black first, and to conform to a specific form of Blackness in order to be accepted. It’s been my experience that White America—not my fellow Black people—has foisted a caricature of Blackness on me.

Growing up, I was a nerdy kid with glasses who loved to read and was into science—an existence that was foreign to my White classmates, teachers, and their parents. I lived in a racially diverse area, went to racially diverse schools, and did lots of activities—engineering clubs, the Quiz Bowl team, theater club, Japanese club, and more. I wasn’t required to join any of the “Black” clubs, but I did so because I needed that community. I needed to be in spaces where I didn’t have stereotypical judgments from non-Black people, where I could just be myself, and where I never felt that I had to conform to some “standard of Blackness,” whatever that is.

Throughout K-12, my intelligence was questioned, especially when I expressed a desire for a career in engineering. White people were just amazed at how “articulate and well read” I was (and that continues even now, as an adult). I had White people assume I grew up in a single-parent home (I didn’t), or that I had a child in high school (I didn’t), or that I was really good at sports (I wasn’t).

In college, as one of the two Black women in the chemistry program at my state university, I was told by a classmate that I was only there because of affirmative action. Most of my other classmates simply viewed me as some kind of anomaly, as if I had three heads. And so I found sanctuary in the Black Student Union and my school’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers—places where I found acceptance, kindred spirits, and people who could relate to the things I was going through.

Sure, I’ve gotten comments about “talking White” from other Black people, but those comments were nowhere near as hurtful as the comments I’ve received from White people in my life. My Black life has been dominated by love and acceptance from other Black people, and acceptance for all of me.

Like Allene, I’m an American, and I come from generations of Americans. But I know that there are millions of people who still view me as an outsider because of my race. My Black ancestors weren’t considered to be human when this country was founded, much less a citizen of the United States. Throughout history, people who look like me have been marginalized in the most brutal of ways, and that continues in 2016.

Allene says she doesn’t carry the burden of her ancestors, but she’s still living with the legacy of slavery, no matter how much she wants to deny it. She may not have someone call her the N-word, but systemic racism is pervasive and far-reaching. Generational wealth disparities, housing and mortgage discrimination, sentencing disparities, racial profiling, police brutality, the achievement gap among students, unemployment disparities, the fact that resumes with Black-sounding names don’t get calls—these topics just begin to scratch the surface of the myriad hurdles that still face Black Americans. These hurdles still exist because of the legacy of slavery and 2nd class citizenship that Blacks have faced in the U.S. and still continue to face now.

Growing up, my father used to tell me and my siblings about his childhood in Detroit, in particular his memories of the riots in the 1960s. That one experience motivated my dad to begin to explore the history of Blacks in America, and he passed those lessons down to his children. I spent my childhood learning about Black history—both the good and the bad. I remember writing book reports about Booker T. Washington and other Blacks in history before I was allowed to go outside and play.

At the same time, we were exposed to Black films, books written by Black authors with Black characters, Black entrepreneurs, and more. I did not understand what my father was trying to teach me until I went away to college at a PWI [Predominately White Institution] and found myself surrounded by people who didn’t look like me and didn’t particularly want me there. What my father gave me was a sense of self, before I even knew who I was as a person. He gave me strength that I could survive any situation, and the confidence not only in my abilities, but in the type of people that I'm descended from.

The comments about me being in college because of affirmative action rolled off my back, because I knew of other brilliant Black chemists like Percy Julian, and I knew I deserved to be there. I knew that I wasn’t some anomaly or weirdo, reaching above my station. I did not question my place in the world. I saw myself as continuing the chain of achievement and resilience that Black Americans have shared since they first arrived in America in 1619.

That sense of self, awareness, and pride continues even now, as I’m a married professional with two degrees and a successful career. Now as an adult, I try to pass those same lessons on—to the children I mentor, to my family members—and I will pass those lessons on to my unborn baby.

Allene responds:

I do not question Jareesa’s experience, as stated, but I do question her stating that she grew up in racially-mixed neighborhoods and K-12 schools and yet she did not feel comfortable at college as a person until she joined black organizations? If she has never experienced negative feedback from other black folks, then I have to say she has lived a charmed life.

My point is that part of what we perceive as exclusion is not always based on racism. Most of our society—“our” meaning American society—establishes relationships based on where you live, what schools you attend, what church, what country club, what sorority/fraternity. I know for a fact that whites also experience social and personal discomfort when they meet new people in a school, a new job—you get what I’m saying?

I would have to ask this young woman at what point does she, and in turn her children, begin to disentangle their attachment from the past wrongs perpetrated against blacks in this country? Does she feel the same type of disenfranchisement when she reads about the slave trade as it relates to Africa and our ancestors being slaves in Africa and then being sold to white slavers? Exactly where does one snip the cord that binds us to a history that clearly does not allow us to embrace who we are today?

I was a teenager during the first Watts riot in 1965. As an adult I wrote and had an article published in the LA Times as a response to the Reginald Denny trial and the ensuing riot that erupted on the streets of L.A. I was/am a fairly petite black woman, almost 5' 3", who was assaulted—pushed and shoved by much larger white males in the grocery store or simply walking the very familiar streets in my neighborhood in a suburban enclave just northeast of L.A. And I somehow was able to recognize that these men that chose to prove their manliness by shoving and pushing me were just cowards!

As human beings, regardless of race, we have inherited bad actors of every stripe. To not recognize that we all face some type of rejection and exclusion in our lives is what allows human beings to deny the humanity of other human beings. To fight real oppression today—as black, brown, yellow, and white people—we have to first recognize that we are the same: human.