My phone case broke today. Well, it broke a couple weeks ago actually. It’s just getting to that point where I need a new one. It’s one of those with the hard back and gel-soft sides. These always break for me after a couple months; the soft part starts pulling away from the hard part and taking it off my phone completely breaks it even more. I don’t want to get rid of it, though. I like it a lot. My sister gave it to me. It’s a simple black case with three bold words printed in the middle: BLACK LIVES MATTER. I like it because it reminds me of my sister. And when I meet new people or when I’m walking around taking pictures for Snapchat, people can see it, and they know. I like it because it lets people know what I’m about, upfront. If I’m talking to you, chances are I’ll pull out my phone and check a text or something, and you’ll see it, and you’ll know.
I like it because it cuts through the bullshit of dealing with people that turn out to be racists. If someone who disagrees with it sees it, they either won’t engage with me and I’ll never have to deal with them, or they will engage me and I immediately know that they’re trash. It’s a time saver, really. And, as efficient as it is, it’s also a reminder to me of who I am and what I stand for. Hopefully that’s not something I’ll forget and require a phone case to remember, but it is a nice reminder to have.
There have been a few times in my life where I put my blackness on hold. I don’t want to say I necessarily hid it, I don’t think that that’s what I was doing. But, yeah, I definitely tried to hang it up and put it on the back burner. My freshman year in college, David Carr from The New York Times guest lectured at my Critical Issues in Journalism class, and I went up to him afterwards to ask what I can do to not be seen as “a Black journalist.” My sophomore year in college, I told my white best friend at the time that I didn’t mind if she said nigga. My entire four years in high school, I had a best friend who I let erase my blackness; the examples are far too numerous to even list.
I don’t think I’d always been like that; in fact I’m pretty sure I wasn’t.
I’ve always been aware of my blackness, at least as long as I can remember. When I lived in New York, the schools I went to were predominantly Black. I grew up watching TV shows and movies with little Black kids and at chapel in school we sang “Jesus is the Reason-(ah!) for the Season” and other classic Black Christmas songs. I remember learning about how my great-grandmother helped open one of the first banks in New York that loaned money to Black people. I remember making “yo mama so black” jokes with my friends. My teachers were Black. My friends were Black. The books my mom gave me to read were by Black authors with Black characters. The songs I listened to with my dad in the car were by Black singers. That’s just how my life was.
I was taught to be proud of myself and who I was and who my family was. I wish I had specific memories and cute anecdotes of my parents or my grandma or my teachers telling me to be proud to be Black, but I don’t. I know those lessons were there, but I can’t remember any details right now. Similarly, I can’t remember when I was taught lessons to the contrary. I can’t remember learning that I should be ashamed of my skin. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it was that I learned that being Black was supposed to be a bad thing. Just like growing up learning to love and be proud of my blackness, it was a process.
It wasn’t until 9th grade that I went to a school that was predominately white. I was already angsty about it because I was 13 years old and I’d just moved into a new suburb in rinky dink Cypress, Texas where I didn’t know anyone. But along with having to go to a new school in a new place, I had the added bonus of culture shock. I’d had white friends before and knew it was different than when I would hang out with my Black friends, but this time was different because at least before I had both. It was weird having to navigate high school with virtually no one who looked like me. My best friend at the time was Indian, but this wasn’t a substitution and, in fact, made the situation worse since she was one of the driving forces behind making me want to minimize my blackness.
For four years, I was usually the only Black student in my class and I started learning the same lessons every kid in my situation learns. How to tolerate microaggressions from your classmates and your teachers. Stomaching that gnawing feeling of doubt and second guessing yourself when someone says something that could be racist and not knowing if you should speak up. Learning about Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the same three other Negros in February for the umpteenth time while your history is glossed over during the rest of the year. Laughing it off when your white friends told you you don’t “sound Black.” Knowing how to divert the conversation when people ask you if your skin tans or what’s the best rap song or if you really like fried chicken. Dealing with the look of disgust when you tell a white classmate you don’t wash your hair everyday. Not losing your shit when the teacher mentions slavery and the entire class immediately turns to look at you, especially because you know you’d fall right into the “angry Black woman” stereotype.
Being the only Black kid in your class and dealing with this everyday normalizes it. You come to expect your classmates to try to touch your hair. You expect to be seen as the spokesperson for your entire race. You know your lunch time will be cut short whenever a dance goes viral cus everyone thinks you already know it and will ask you to teach it to them. That’s just how it is. You get used to it because there’s nothing else.
I don’t think I realized it as a kid, but this kind of thing was damaging. I’m lucky enough that it didn’t give me any serious self-loathing issues or anything, but it made me want to dilute myself. Going from a place that I fit in so easily to one that I didn’t was jarring, and I was a teenager so the only thing I wanted was to belong. Being Black made me different and it made me stand out in a new school and I didn’t want that. I became used to being abnormal and it started showing in other parts of my life too. The TV shows I watched and the music I listened to gradually began to look different than it used to. The people at the grocery store and the mall and the library didn’t look like me anymore. I didn’t see myself anywhere, and I just got used to it. I didn’t have a choice.
My college was 4% Black. 4% is not a lot, but it was enough for me. Yes, of course, of course that number is way too low. It still is. But while I was there, it was enough. It was more than I had the past four years, so it was more than enough. I surrounded myself by blackness immediately. I sought out the Black Student Alliance and the National Association of Black Journalists and Umoja and other Black student organizations because little did I know, after four years without it, I missed blackness. I missed being surrounded by people that looked like me, people whose lived experiences mirrored mine, people who knew what I meant when I made silly jokes and references, people who liked the same music and movies and tv shows and food I did. People who were like me. I missed being unapologetically myself.
Even though I could surround myself in blackness in activities outside of school, it was a different story when I was in the classroom. It was often a repeat of high school in some of my smaller classes, with me being the only Black person in the room. I don’t think it was very damaging this time around though, because I had a community of my own that I could access outside of the classroom whenever I wanted. I had to deal with the annoying stuff, but it was ok because I could go to the Malcolm X Lounge after class and talk about it with people who understood exactly what I went through, because they went through it too.
For the spring semester of 2012, I was on three waitlists, the max allowed. I wanted to get my rhetoric class over and done with early, so I put myself on three waitlists for three different rhetoric classes and decided I would just take whichever one I got accepted into first. This was a horrible idea. The first one that opened up was “The Rhetoric of Hipsterdom” and it was exactly as pretentious and terrible as it sounds. For five months, three times a week, I sat in a classroom for one hour with 20 other kids learning about hipsters. If you haven’t figured it out already, I was the only Black kid in this class. My first day there, I knew it wasn’t exactly going to be my favorite thing in the world, but I needed to get this degree requirement satisfied and it’d taken me a year to get into a rhetoric class, so I would have to grin and bear it. That same semester, I was also taking a Black Power Movement class, which I had on opposing days from my hipster class. Despite that rhetoric class being the worst thing I’ve ever paid money for, taking Black Power Movement the same semester was important because it gave me a balance I probably would’ve went crazy without.
In March of 2012, almost exactly a month after Trayvon Martin was murdered, the student paper at my school ran a very racist cartoon about the killing. It garnered national attention and put my school in the spotlight for a few days. We talked about it to excess in my journalism classes and there were many conversations that happened in them that I would rather not have been a part of or a witness too. But the worst experience of post-Daily Texan racism was in, you guessed it, The Rhetoric of Hipsterdom.
I can’t remember how the topic came up, but it was probably pretty organic because it had been such a hot button issue by then. I made a deal with myself that I would not comment on this because, not only was I mentally exhausted from the conversations I’d already had, but I’d been down this road before. I knew what it was like to be the Ambassador for Black People in a class where I was alone, and I knew if I made any comments then that’s exactly what I’d be. Besides, I had already mentally checked out of that class at that point in the semester anyway, so I just didn’t want to bother. The class discussion was going pretty much how one would expect, everyone voicing their opinion about the matter. Most agreed the comic was in bad taste, some even going as far as tiptoeing around calling it racist. Then Chad (I don’t remember his name), the blond hipster who sat in the front of the class, opened his idiot mouth.
Todd was upset that students were asking for the comic to be pulled. The Daily Texan has a first amendment right, he said. A few students agreed with him. I remained silent. I sat in the back, like I did everyday. I quietly stared at my desk or my notebooks or at the clock at the front of the room. I wasn’t disrupting the class. So why, pray tell, after this discussion had been operating solely by students chiming in whenever they wanted, did my professor single me out and ask if I had any opinions on the matter?
I was livid, y’all. I didn’t want to comment on this in this class, and I certainly did not want to be called on. I got flashbacks to high school, when the teacher mentioned Harriet Tubman and a classroom full of eyes turned back to stare at me. I wasn’t ready for this and like I already said, I was livid. I was mad that my teacher specifically picked me to comment on the case and I was mad I was in a class called The Rhetoric of Hipsterdom and I was mad at Steve or whatever his name was for being stupid and racist. I unleashed on that class. I told Tyler he was an idiot for thinking the first amendment meant students couldn’t think the paper needed to pull the racist cartoon and that he was dumb for using the first amendment argument when he didn’t know what it meant. “Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech,” I quoted to Brad. I lit into that asshole. And when I was done with him, I blasted the class for having this conversation in the first place. God, I wish I could remember what I said, but all I remember is that my face was burning as I ranted on and on and on about how frustrated and pissed off I was about the whole thing.
There was a long silence after I finished, and finally my professor began class, probably with the history of pop up mayonnaise shops or Banksy or whatever.
The next morning, I got an email from my professor:
This is when I decided I really, really hated this class. I really couldn’t believe he sent this. If at all possible, I was even more angry than I was the day before. Not only had my teacher placed me in a situation that I didn’t want to be in, but he couldn’t even give me this empty, meaningless sentiment in person.
“Yours was a very important point of view to express and I hope it gave the students much to think about.” That was the part that got me. All I read was “since you’re the only Black student in the class, I’m glad you were there to teach the white students about racism even though you’re a student too.” I don’t know if he meant it this way, and he probably didn’t, but I couldn’t shake that feeling. It’s not my job to teach white kids about racism. I’m not the teacher. He made it my burden to teach this class full of dumbasses why a racist cartoon was racist and then lied in the email with the “I hope that I emphasized the importance of what you had to say in class.” He didn’t say anything to me in class after I went off. I resented him for putting me in that position. He never brought it up in person, and I didn’t speak to him about it in class after that. Other than when was needed, I didn’t speak in that class again at all.
After going through high school tolerating the racist bullshit my classmates and teachers spouted regularly, I was finally in a place where that wasn’t acceptable to me anymore. Even though I didn’t confront my professor and let him know why his putting me on the spot and subsequent email were both inappropriate, I still see it as growth on my part. I was immediately cognizant that this kind of conversation wasn’t productive nor was it one I wanted to be a part of and I realized that the situation wasn’t right. High school me would’ve nodded and agreed, just wanting to get it over with and not be seen as a nuisance or an outlier. But I was finally amongst people that looked like me again, not to mention my Black Power Movement class sparked inspiration inside of me every single class I attended. I was feeling like me again.
The longer I was at UT, the prouder I became to be Black. BSA meetings were the highlight of my week. I took as many African-American studies classes as I could. There was no need to pretend to be someone other than me or try to diminish who I was in front of my friends. I realized how exhausting codeswitching was and it was relaxing not having to do it anymore. Towards the end of my time in school, I would get emotional because god I missed this, and I didn’t even realize how much of me had shrunk without it.
I’m sad my phone case broke. It’s been a great buffer for bullshit these past few months. Looking at it today, as I desperately tried to salvage it, thinking about the $7 I don’t have to buy a new one on Amazon, it just made me realize how far I’ve come in getting back to my old self and evolving into a new and wiser self. I recognize my own worth again, and I’m never going back.
I spent far too much of my life trying to downplay who I was because I didn’t want to make other people uncomfortable. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t have the time or patience for it. I was quiet for a long time and I’m not ok with that silence anymore. I wasted too much time letting others define me, and I’m not ok with that either. I don’t stay quiet anymore, and I don’t let people speak for me anymore. I don’t care about making people uneasy when I speak about racial injustice; their feelings are not worth my humanity.