I’m a grown ass man. I’ve been saying that since I was eighteen years old but being grown is relative. I’m sure when I’m fifty, I’ll look back and say, “You ain’t know shit boy”. Until then, I’d like to think of myself as pleasantly seasoned at the comfy quarter-century mark. Seen a lot of life with these here eyes, yes indeed. I’ve called people of many different races “family”, I’ve lived with a wide range of different races and both of my parents were foreign born. The fact that my mother is nomadic adds to my inflated sense of cultured uniqueness. The fact that I grew up with Black and White friends because I lived in a gentrifying neighborhood, and attended a range of schools with varying races led me to believe that I was primed for all situations. I believed that I had developed an immunity to stereotype threat and intergroup anxiety, but I was wrong.
I realized I was wrong when I hit the the town with my fiance last night, looking for somewhere new to eat. Our crippling fear of dining at a played out or franchised establishment had consumed a wince-worthy amount of gas. So finally, I pulled up every geo-tagged app I had and started searching for any place that fit our self-imposed constraints. As I scrolled through endless pages of Foursquare, Yelp and Scoutmob hits, I came across a pub nearby with (gasp) five stars. I told Google to nav the whip to the spot and we were in there. My fiance and I hopped out of the car and headed towards the entrance of the pub. Above the door was sign with a family crest pub sign, the kind you’d see in a Pirate movie or a Guy Ritchie film. For that reason, we were noticeably wary when we stepped inside. It was just like a one of those films, people sitting down at their tables turned around and stared at us. I had never seen so many White people on the south side of town. My girl turned to me and said,
“I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be here”.
In my mind, I totally agreed, but I’m her future husband so I had to make it look like I had assessed the situation and had everything under control. She grabbed my arm and whispered, “I think this is a family reunion or something”. I told her I was going to “figure this thing out” and went up to the bar surrounded by middle-aged caucasoids. As soon as I approached the bar, the bartender smiled and said,
“Oh, I didn’t see you guys there. Table for two?”
I suddenly realized that my anxiety had little merit. We were simply in a part of South West Atlanta that we hadn’t been to before and people turned and stared at us when we entered because it was cold as shit and we had left the door open. We simply forgot that people still made restaurants with doors that don’t close by themselves, we weren’t walking into some exclusive and homogeneous pub of judgement. When we were seated, our experience couldn’t have been better. Southern hospitality and Irish grit make for an entertaining combination. But I was so disappointed in myself. I thought I had achieve optimized duality. Optimized duality is how I characterize the state in which an African-American is able to seamlessly adapt, succeed and perform across environments of varying racial compositions. It’s my term for cultural adaptation, comfort, and familiarity, while embracing one’s own in-group characteristics. I failed to achieve this the moment we walked into the pub. We felt so out of place that my fiance thought we were at someone’s family reunion and I was sweating like a brother with blue lights in his rear view mirror. We were ready to bail.
Our desire to dip out was a manifestation of the fight or flight response, where animals feel the need to flee from potentially threatening situations. I felt like I shouldn’t have felt that way. I bought a damn $35 pork chop just because of the dissonance. I have White family members… I had to do better. Yet, the same physiological responses became present when I went to my graduate program’s orientation. I was hype as hell, ready to flex my dual consciousness on everybody I met. I listened to NPR on the way to the university, then I played Kendrick Lamar’s Backseat Freestyle in the parking deck. I was ready.
The moment I walked into the the lobby, all I saw was White people. I expected more diversity since I was in Atlanta, but I was severely mistaken. I felt perspiration accumulate on my brow as I attempted to casually mingle. I tried my best to seem smart, but not look like I was trying to seem smart. All the while, I was trying to making sure to not say anything that could be interpreted as stupid or ignorant, as to not misrepresent my race. I was in a “Diversity Club” in high school. I once ate hummus and roasted cauliflower with my neighbors while watching Napoleon Dynamite and listening to their dad play an acoustic guitar. Why couldn’t I handle this mingle?!
Maybe it’s because things haven’t changed drastically enough for me to consciously or subconsciously perceive a generally safe and comfortable environment. You never know when a situation may become adverse simply because you’re Black. I mean, routine traffic stops turn into ass-whoopins everyday. There are entire communities in which there is blatant racism that most of us could only imagine of in 2013. Like this high school in Wilcox County, Georgia, where the annual prom was still segregated until a few weeks ago.
Shout out to Jasmine Williams at 2:30 with that voice and that leopard print. You better optimize.
Jaw droppingly racist. However, it is good to see some kids trying to make an effort against the embarrassingly prideful racism that their community promoted. Their campaign was partially inspired by their increase in comfort with diversity. They became close to people of other races in their environment, so stress responses were reduced and rationality prevailed. The same thing happened in my graduate program. I realized that the struggles of financial statement analysis were struggles that we all shared, regardless of race or ethnicity. It took me about three weeks before I managed to work up the nerve to ask for help on the homework, but it was only after someone else called me first. Nevertheless, I was able to adapt over time and not let stereotype threat impede my academic journey. Post-Racial America clearly has a lot of work to do. Between subtle racism and these random pockets of Jim Crow communities, there’s plenty of racism lurking in the shadows.
But I’m still proud to be an American. I’m proud to be a Black American. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of optimized duality.