Racism. This word, amongst others, is a word you are more than acquainted with as a black woman. However, to experience it firsthand, these politics of race become personal. When I consider the depth of this statement, my mind journeys back to my freshman year of college.
Would you believe me if I told you that I met Mr. Right when I was eighteen years old? Well, to be fair I am not speaking of romantic terms. However, in terms of enlightenment, my Mr. Right came in form of a professor. For it was he who prompted the question that would later shape my racial encounters.
“When did you know you were black?”
This question echoed throughout my first semester pan Africanism class. Prior to this query my blackness, my color and ethnicity had never been a cause for query. Being born to culturally conscious parents, I was informed and reminded of my culture more than I cared to be. Every conversation contained a reminder of my legacy, and the reality of the world around me. I sought refuge in my innocence, my young brown skin not yet penetrated with the harsh sting of truth.
It wasn’t a summer night, but the humid air fooled us into thinking it was. We had just sent my younger cousin off to prom, and had decided to go for a bite to eat. My aunt had spoken about a restaurant called Elizabeths on the upper west side. I was initially charmed by the southern feel of the ambiance. The little white awning hung over our heads like an umbrella, shelling our skin from the rays not the rain. Upon sitting down, we awaited our menus, and I went to the rest room. When I returned my grabdmothet’s face told a story of surprise and disgust and my aunt’s hysterical laughter was accompanied by the tears falling from her eyes. My grandmother then tells me that the waitress came over seconds after seating us, to inform us that the restaurant had run out of fried chicken.
Mind you- this was not a soul food or fried chicken restaurant. Despite the ambiance being of a South Carolinian charm, the menu was pure American. Thus, the comment by the seating hostess was warranted by the blackness that our presence cast upon her. Our black bodies didn’t suggest varied generations enjoying dinner together, but four black women who couldn’t possibly have any other intentions of coming out but to dine on some fried chicken.
Race and assumption played a huge role in a party that I was invited to by a former boss. Upon beginning graduate school, I got an internship at a publishing company in Berkeley. The boss was a beautiful woman who we will call belle. Belle was talented, touching but assertive and I was enchanted to make her acquaintance. Being new to the west coast, I had no plans for Labor Day and she invited me to a friends house. I was nervous and excited at the opportunity to mingle with my new boss and her friends at the most esteemed area in Oakland, Piedmont. After getting off the bus at the wrong stop I walked nearly twenty blocks, but eventually found myself at the residence. Upon knocking on the gate, a cute woman with a pretty bob answered the door took a glance at me and said “sorry no donations today.”
Prior to embarking on my twenties I had falsely been gliding through the world thinking that I was just Saaraa. Perhaps more realistically , I was hoping that all my parents and race theorists said about the conceptualizing of blackness was wrong. Or, I was hoping that I would be an exception.
My encounters mirror Dubois’ encounter with the white student who said she didn’t share with Negroes. It is through my adult encounters that have enabled me to see myself as a raced woman. Seeing myself through the eyes of others, has issued a certain degree of hurt but a much needed dose of reality.
Being black in America is something that you feel every day. Every encounter, every place you go serves as a reminder of how you’re seen by others. Perhaps the biggest challenge that results from said encounters, is to maintain your perception. The seduction of inferiority is easily and instantly applicable to the black individual who wallows too long in the perceptions of others. Both a gift and a curse, this second sight (as Dubois called it), must not serve as a distraction from the most significant of sights: our own.