My boss came to me and told me that he needed me to go and give a presentation. “Where?” I asked. To a group hosting an event at an exclusive country club in a rural part of the south. Already, the gears started to turn in my mind. I already anticipated what I may face and a slight feeling of dread came over me. “Ok, I have to prepare myself.”
The day before I was scheduled to give the presentation, all speakers and guests were invented to dinner at the club. I put on a tie and jacket. Although other people might be dressed casually, I knew I could not. The club was about a two-hour drive away and it was raining along the way. I managed to arrive a little after everyone else but right before dinner. As I am walking towards the dining room another man approaches me. “Do you know where the bathroom is?” he asked. Sigh. “I have no idea.” I respond. I actually wanted to know where the bathroom was as well after being on the road for two hours in the rain. “You don’t work here?” he shot back rather indignantly. “No” I responded. “Oh I’m sorry” he said with a hint of shame but clearly not aware of the magnitude in which this small exchange effected me.
You see, the minute I knew where I was going, an exclusive country club in the rural south, I knew what I was in for. I had prepared myself psychologically for it. I had been down this road before. That is why I put on a tie and jacket. But still to no avail. It didn’t matter. I was a black guy and no matter how presented myself, no matter how smart I was, it was still assumed that the only reason I could possibly be in an exclusive country club like that was because I worked there. However slight or trivial this may seem to you, it was a yet another small reminder to me that I live in a culture and a world that assumes that I am inferior. That assumes that I am not good enough to belong.
I get it. I am a bit use to at this point. Enough to anticipate and to prepare myself for it. It is the burden I carry as black man in a world that has not yet fully accepted if and where I belong. A world that does not see me as equal. As a black man, I carry the burden of low expectations and the constant need to prove or validate myself when the same is not required of others. Even with my experience and expertise in my field, I still have to earn the respect that others are afforded freely. Whereas others may start out on the ground floor, I must start in the basement first and work my way up in the perceptions of others. My successes must be an over achievement to warrant acceptance while my failures are magnified, as if confirming the suspicion that I am inferior. My margin for error is smaller and my hurdles are raised a bit higher. Where the best is assumed of others unless proved otherwise, the worst is assumed of me and the burden is on me to prove the best. This is the world as I see it. That man would have never known that. He has the privilege of living in a world assumes he belongs.
To others, I carry the weight of every other black man on my shoulders. All of his failures and short comings. The fear he may invoke in others who don’t understand him is laid at my feet. His fear becomes my fear. His anger my anger. His suspicion is my suspicion. His crime, my crime. I carry the assumption that I must be like him, until proven otherwise. Conversely, if proven otherwise, I carry the assumption that I must be an anomaly. If I don’t fit the mode or the stereotype that our culture has automatically formed for me, then I must somehow be “unique”. I must be the exception not the rule. In order to be accepted, I must deny myself, I must hide my blackness. I can not break the allusion.
Moreover, I realize that what I experience everyday, for me, is an inconvenient and can often be annoying. But for others, the stacks are much higher. For other black men in our culture, this burden can become consequential and even deadly. When someone automatically assumes you are violent or a criminal just because you are young and black and male, it could often lead to events that can cost you life. Recent history in our country bares witness to this.
Still, I am under no illusion. My favorite line from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Although this is the ideal, that we can be judged by our character and not by the color of our skin, this too often is not the reality. We still live in a world full of stereotypes and hidden biases, racial profiling and prejudice assumptions. And, if we are really honest, everyone has to deal with this to some degree. Whether its because of your race, your gender, ethnicity, where you are from, your height, your weight, or whatever. We all are prejudged by society based on something. And if we are honest, we do the same thing to other people. Its part of human nature. However, the particular set of prejudgments and assumptions made of black men are particularly burdensome. Deep within the subconscious of our culture, black men are assumed to not only be inferior, but outside the margins of what is acceptable and desirable. We are the outcasts. We are the undesirable. We are rejected. Unless we can perform athletically or have some talent to entertain, it feels like we have little value or usefulness and this underlying feeling plays out daily in how we are perceived and in the assumptions made about us.
How should we respond? We can get mad and live angry but that doesn’t solve anything. We could just ignore it but ignorance left unsolved can often have deadly consequences. We need not look to far in the past in our culture to see how this plays out. Then what do we do about it? First of all, as a man, you have to understand that your goal is not to live for the acceptance of others. God accepts you. People are always making assumptions about you, whether you realize it or not and trying to correct all the wrong assumptions that people have of you is a waste of time and energy. People can and will prejudge you. But what people think about you should not be the measure by which a man defines himself.
Moreover, if you want to really confront stereotypes in culture, the best way to do this is to this is rise above it. You rise above it by simply succeeding. A man does not need to complain about being prejudged or being misunderstood. His response to the low expectations placed on him is to constantly live a life of defying those expectations. His response to being prejudged is to be confident in who he is and to resist the urge to prove anything to anybody. His character and his success speaks for him and it forces people to confront their own hidden biases for themselves. You see, there was no need for me to get indignant when that man made a biased assumption of me.
I knew the next day he would be sitting in the audience listening to me speak. My excellence spoke for me and his ignorance became his burden, not mine.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t times when you have to call out ignorance and expose it for what it is. Each time we overcome ignorance, every time we confront it in character, every time we expose it with our success, each time we refuse to give in to it, we are taking a step closer to living a royal lifestyle.
In the end, the ignorance and stereotypes of others aren’t really the black man’s burden. When you expose ignorance with character and greatness it no longer becomes your burden. It becomes the burden of others who hold these views. However, we are still not off the hook. As black men, our true burden is look beyond all the negative stereotypes and assumptions made of us and to be proud and confident in who we are, not giving in to pull of ignorance in others. Our burden is to be excellent and successful in all that we do and force others to wrestle with their internal biases and prejudice. And our burden is to confront injustice when we see it, especially for those who can’t defend themselves. That is our duty, that is our responsibility,that is our burden.