Living Stories: Race, Experiences and Understanding

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“We must remove our mask to call attention to white advantage. That may help us understand one another a bit better. It may bridge divides, disrupt assumptions and stereotypes that block empathy and get in the way of serious efforts to achieve our country. As it stands, we don’t really talk frankly about race. And too many people are too damn scared to say so.”
― Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul


Hi, I’m Richard! A substitute teacher, grad student, musician, geek, husband, father, and aspiring Pokémon master. In complete honesty, this is my fourth draft on writing about my experience in America as a person of color. In the previous drafts, I started off with a quip about an experience in Japan in which a girl in Tokyo in her early-20s was confused about why/how my the back of my hand was black yet my palms as pale as her. In another draft, I began with Colin Kaepernick’s recent protest which I would love to talk about but, really, who hasn’t in the last 48 hours. But I think I will begin this with when I went to my friend’s quince-style sweet 16—a time in which I was struggling with my parent’s explanation to me of my dad’s Chicano roots (incidentally this was also the first time I tried a beer). It was the fall of 2006, my parents didn’t have a big conversation with me but my dad had been subtly dropping hints about things.

But I had questions. Questions manifested through my peers about why my afro would curl differently or why I had so much leg and arm hair, and the ever-stigmatizing “are you mixed”?

So here I am two weeks later, a soon to be 16 year old celebrating my friend’s birthday to the sounds of Oro Solido, Daddy Yankee, and Panic! At the Disco (it was 2006). Around all of the faces, food, and the new understanding of my Latino heritage—I still felt out of place. The film Lost in Translation is probably the best way to describe culture shock—Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson play two Americans in Tokyo on business who haphazardly need each other to survive socially lest they go insane from the thoughts and experiences of being. And in a vague way, that is also the feeling of being a person of color in America.

Sure, we all speak and understand standard English but there are other things at work; culture plays in the background filtering our experience even in the mundane. I explain to my primary students that culture can be described as what a people group likes, dislikes, and loves to talk about. Trekkies, Sneakerheads, gamers, and etc. We all know, and can understand for the most part that you’re not going to talk about Mandolorian armor to a Star Trek fanatic.

But as a person of color in America, that understanding seems to be absent from the rest of the nation’s conscience. The nation cannot understand how the nephew of police officers can still cry out “Black Lives Matter.” Or how a community’s response to the influx of crime would be a request for more employment opportunities.

Understanding vanishes for a number of reasons, none of which I will go into length right now.

But even in the midst of the lack of empathy, being a person of color in this country, I’ve found, comes with a sense of comradery, or rather, a supplemented understanding.

My wife and I had the opportunity of growing close to a big family from India. The children, mostly in there early 20s like ourselves and first generation Americans, would share our commonalities of how our parents raised us, how culture still influenced how we react to popular art, movies, and the like.

But my favorite conversation was with one of their fathers, a man who left India to practice medicine, in which we talked for nearly an hour straight comparing the rhythmic drum patterns of India and West Africa. That was an understanding I’d never expected to experience. Drum patterns turned into comparing food and spices of India to my grandmother’s native Louisiana. Food transitioned to our stories of microagressions and discrimination.

As I would tell my students, we confirmed our belonging to a people group through that discussion of our likes, dislikes, and things we love to talk about.

Race discussions, unfortunately, do not happen organically or as often as this—though they should. Instead, we see them as vain pontifications. Political ideals well researched against another’s passionate emotional response; and there is nothing wrong with research or emotion but understanding has to be the goal.

Thus, I will continue my story of that sweet 16. I sat with my friends from the cross-country team. Myself and a guy named Jason, whose parents immigrated from China in the late-80s, were the only people who had no ties to this food, music, and dancing other than to celebrate our friend. As all of us runners, later joined by the birthday girl, had pointed out that the Coronas were unregulated. We all grabbed one. Some of us shared stories about how they’d tried beer before and others (just me) had never held a can. And in my first sip, I realized three things: 1. My race is regulated to my experience. And my experience doesn’t need to be the same in order to be valid. 2. My friend had invited me to experience her heritage. Not only of her nationality but of her family. Celebrating with her was an experience of race for everyone involved. And 3. Coronas are disgusting. I haven’t touched one since.


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Richard Damon S. Blacksher has recieved his B.A. in English and is currently working on his M.A. in Education.

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