In 1953, when my parents first moved into their home in Jamaica, Queens, they were the only black family on the block. At the time, segregation was still legal. By 1964–the year the Civil Rights Act was passed–only one white family remained in the neighborhood.
In 1967–the year I was born–interracial marriage was still illegal.
In 1971, more than a dozen years after the infamous “Little Rock Nine,” the Supreme Court upheld busing as a means of achieving public school integration. The decision was met with violent opposition.
One year later I began attending public school in Bayside Queens. My bus was late, and my arrival disrupted Mrs. Schulman’s speech; I assumed this explained why everyone was staring at me. With my name-tag properly affixed to my favorite Garanimals t-shirt, students were encouraged to wander about the classroom and get to know our fellow classmates. For as long as I live, I will never forget doe-eyed Valerie making a bee-line to me, gape-mouthed and looking me in the eye as she ran her fingers gingerly across the back of my hand, as if to see if I was real.
I looked at her as if she was crazy.
My confusion registered as offense to her, for which she was immediately contrite. Her response to my shock may be the singular most innocent thing anyone’s ever said to me:
“I don’t mean to be rude. It’s just that I’ve never seen a black person before in real life, only in the movies and on TV.”
When I got home from school that day, my mother asked me what I’d learned. “Guess what Mommy” I said. “I’m black. How come you never told me?”
My utter lack of racial identity was not because I was a dullard–I’d actually entered public school reading on a twelfth-grade level. The youngest of five kids, I had one brother and sister lighter than myself, and one brother and sister darker than myself. I just assumed people came in all shades.
Color simply didn’t matter, being a good person did.
You can imagine my surprise at finding myself in the principal’s office in my first week of school. In my eagerness to make friends, I’d offered a student Tic-Tacs; he told the teacher I was trying to give him drugs.
I was six years old, and had no idea what drugs were.
Equally as enlightening was the reaction the first time I changed for gym class. “Dude, you’re black all over!” was the exclamation. Apparently, little Jimmy expected me to have a white underbelly, like a monkey.
Ultimately we shared the same source of ignorance: our parents. To me, my blackness was incidental; it didn’t grant or deny me any special privilege. I was as unaware of my own pigmentation as I was of everyone else’s.
To others, the color of my skin was fundamental; a factor that could determine with a precursory glance my social status, intelligence, and whether or not I was a potential source of danger.
What Tom experienced on safari is not dissimilar to my experiences in corporate America, except without the warm welcomes in hope of a good tip. I’ve been dependent on the kindness of strangers in a potentially hostile environment where no one looked like me. From my Wall St. days to my time in advertising to the many years I spent in magazine publishing–not including the guys who delivered my mail or worked in security–I can count the number of times I’ve worked with another black male on one hand. On the rare occasions I did work with another person of color I felt obliged to challenge them to a duel; as Highlander taught us, there can be only one.A black male in the upper echelons of corporate America is far more rare–and harder to spot–than any leopard in the wilds of Africa.
While there have always been some with the innate ability to see beyond my color to my qualifications, reality has proved them a minority. Once, after spending several hours on the phone with someone who was clearly impressed with my resume, I was asked to come in for an interview. Suit and tie, I waited patiently in the lobby for my potential employer to arrive. She made no attempt to hide her chagrin upon seeing me for the first time. “My god” she gasped “I had no idea you were black.”
My first response–in my mind–was to reprise the classic scene from The Jerk starring Steve Martin and assure her that I was not going to stay that color. My second response–again in my mind–was to express equal shock and disappointment at her not being black. My actual response was: “I hope you’re pleasantly surprised, and that it won’t have a bearing on this interview.”
Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
Then there was the time, during my tenure on Wall St., when a white co-worker waited until after hours to go into my desk to retrieve a copy of my resume. He then cut the resume up into pieces, taped the cut pieces of my address to an official business envelope–terrorist-style–and mailed threatening letters to my home. When I reported this to my human resources department I was asked to take a week off—with pay—while they attended to the situation.
By the time I returned to work, my antagonist had been fired. When I asked the director of HR–a Latin woman–why they’d wanted me off premises, she closed the door and spoke candidly: they were afraid of me.
Apparently the potential for an angry black man was a greater threat to security than a clearly psychotic white guy.
As you climb the corporate ladder this problem is exacerbated by being given authority over white subordinates. Many have never had occasion to associate with a black man in their daily lives, much less take directives from one. Never was this more obvious than the day one of my employees at a glossy woman’s magazine attempted to circumvent the chain of command, choosing to address my superior instead of me with a matter which clearly fell within the realm of my jurisdiction. When in closed-door meetings she was asked why she tried to undermine my authority, she confessed: she simply didn’t feel comfortable having to answer to me.
“You claim it isn’t easy for you, but you’re unaware of all of the advantages you have in this industry” I told her “simply for being a white female. Look around you” I said “and try to imagine how I feel. There are forty-seven people in this office, forty-three of whom are white females. Let’s turn it around: what if you were the only white female in an office full of black males–how comfortable would you feel then?”
“Totally uncomfortable” she mumbled. “But still more comfortable than having this conversation.”
One of the reasons discussions on race have become increasingly difficult is homogeneity: there are certain questions you simply never bother to ask if everyone around you looks just like you. Too many people who were born on third base actually believe they’ve hit a triple. It’s like trying to explain water to fish.
As I grew into the awareness that there would always be people who would make assumptions about the nature of my character based sheerly on the color of my skin, I came to understand that their preconceptions spoke far more about them than they ever could about me.
Twenty-five years of working within the system taught me that nothing diffuses the discomfort surrounding race relations more than having a good sense of humor. Candid discussions on race make grown people squirm, and since the subject is considered taboo, everyone simply tries to ignore the elephant in the room.
That’s usually about the time I pop out a (metaphorical) elephant gun.
“What is your exact title?” the thin blonde asked in a thin drawl. “I’m placing an order for your business cards today.”
“Director of Print and Digital” I replied to my new assistant. “Or you could just call me ‘That Black Guy.’ At least that way, everyone will know who you’re talking about.”
Translation: yes, I just started working for a company with over twelve hundred employees in six cities, and yes, I happen to be the first person of color appointed to the office of Director in the history of this company. Now that we’re beyond that, how about we have as much fun as we can with this job without compromising the seriousness of our work?
Of course, this technique is more effective with subordinates than “superiors.”
“If you’re going to make a black man work on Martin Luther King Day” I proclaimed as I entered my office on the holiday “someone better be buying me a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Extra crispy, with biscuits, and gravy.”
The large cowboy who thought himself my boss laughed nervously. “If I said something like that” he bellowed “I’d be fired.”
“If you said something like that” I shot back “it’d be about the least offensive thing you’ve ever said in these offices.”
I’ve always believed a fair measure of character is the ability to laugh at oneself when the joke’s on you. Sadly, the big cowboy did not share my sentiments.
My mom still lives in Jamaica, Queens, in the house I grew up in. From my apartment in Brooklyn I have to take two trains and a bus to visit her. Recently, when returning from one of my visits, I took a seat on the subway, only to feel my well honed instinct for trouble tingling. I looked immediately to my left; there sat a large, intimidating black guy. We’d made eye contact; I couldn’t look away without appearing cowed. Subtly, almost imperceptibly, he nodded his head in my direction: the slightest token of respect: I responded in kind. Just to my right sat another equally menacing looking black guy, who repeated this ritual of acknowledgement; again, without breaking eye contact, I returned the most meager of nods.
Safety secured, I relaxed and looked straight ahead, to see a black man in aviator glasses, a black bandana, a hooded sweatshirt and Harley-Davidson motorcycle boots.
It was my own reflection in the window.
That’s when I realized: I’m a big scary black guy. This is people’s first perception of me. No one sees my Scottish grandmother, or my half-Italian grandfather. No one sees an artist, a musician, an entrepreneur, an autodidact, a devoted son. To those that know me, the idea that anyone (who didn’t have a legitimate reason to be afraid of me) could perceive me as a threat, is laughable.
To everyone else, I’m just some black guy.
Today my social circle is comprised of a veritable smorgasbord of ethnicities. Equally diverse are my taste in women: I married (and divorced) a black woman. Subsequently major relationships were respectively with Israeli, Venezuelan, Dominican, Filipino, Austrian, and Egyptian women. In between serious relationships, the palate of women who’ve adorned my dating life has had more colors than a bowl of Trix cereal.
I’m simply more concerned with the quality of your humanity than the color of your skin. Like everyone else I’m not without my prejudices. If I’m playing pick-up basketball at Marcy projects on a Sunday morning, and I have to choose between teaming with a tall, muscular black guy and a short white guy, the choice is obvious: I pick the short white guy, every time. He’s clearly the biggest bad-ass out there, or he wouldn’t have bothered to set foot on the court.
My specific prejudice is against assholes. Fortunately no one segment has managed to corner the market on being an asshole; they still come in every gender, sexual preference, creed, and ethnicity.
I don’t claim to speak for all black people any more than I claim to speak for all men; the human experience is too unique to be encapsulated by any one individual. I believe it’s important to think of race as a social construct; an idea designed to justify maintaining economic inequality. From a world-view, whites and blacks are a minority; even combined, Asians still outnumber us two-to-one. People of color are a minority in the same way that women are a minority: in power, not in actual population.
By coincidence, the Good Men Project is–despite the best intentions–a microcosm of the disparity that still exists. The mission behind GMP is to discuss what it means to be a good man. Of the over 120 regular contributors, only two are black: myself and Damon Young. Is this because there no good black men, or are good black men either unwilling or unable to discuss intelligently the innate nature of goodness? Whether by default or design, the determination of what is good is still being made by white males.
The difference in melanin from the whitest white person to the blackest black person is less than 1/10,000 of one ounce. Tom, the next time you’re in town, come to Harlem and we’ll hang out. Better yet, come to Brooklyn: we’ll bring our laptops to Bed Stuy cafe and swap stories. I’m willing to bet we have more commonalities than superficial differences: we both believe in and want to live in a meritocracy. If a world where racial and gender equality is ever going to exist, it will begin with conversations like this, between men like us.
Because ultimately, color doesn’t matter; being a good man does.
© j summers 2011
* This originally appeared on The Good Men Project on 8/8/11.