Have you ever experienced racism?
Khalif had texted me a question because he didn’t know sign language, and serious vibes were in the air when Cleo motioned for me to look at my phone. Cleo and Nick were family friends of mine, Khalif was their neighbor, and the four of us were waiting for our food at a diner in Los Angeles after the Million Man March protest against police brutality. Small wonder that curiosity would be piqued after a few hours of raising fists and shouting “Black Lives Matter” down Wilshire Boulevard past Urban Light.
How can I never experience racism?! My eyes stayed locked to the text while deep-seated emotions and incredulity ravaged my thoughts. Khalif was a smart boy with ebon skin and dreadlocks, a prime target for direct racism, but I refused to feign surprise. The young king was to be nurtured, not judged. I looked up to Cleo and Nick, both older and through their own share of racial injustice as black folk, they gave me weak smiles and read my reverie like a book.
The United States of America’s history of white supremacy led to a current racial caste system with Black people at the bottom. Legacies of slavery, eugenics, human experimentation, Jim Crow, War on Drugs, mass incarceration, prison-industrial complex, school-to-prison pipeline, police misconduct, lynching, hate crimes, whitewashing, voter suppression, gerrymandering, redlining, education discrimination, gentrification, tokenism, blaxploitation, and cultural appropriation meant that Black oppression is woven into the nation’s fabric, and that the link between USA prosperity and Black struggle is undeniable. To shit on Black life is as American as apple pie.
Furthermore, the race narrative is a mess of malice. Black history is often altered or ignored in texts and the status quo, leading to mass misunderstandings, ignorance, and scorn of the Black experience… even within the Black community. At some point USA perfected the art of loving Blackness sans Black people. Exceptionalism is a good look for a country big on egalitarian values. Today, Black stardom in the entertainment industry is profitable, Black body features are imitated in operating rooms, Black style copied on catwalks, Black dance moves rock country clubs, and Black vernacular appear in conversations everywhere. Yet the actual Black people, creators of all things Black, are subject to state-sponsored serfdom.
As a result, many Blacks self-hate or employ racist perspectives. Google search results for LeBron James’ hairline, WORLDSTARHIPHOP, and light skin vs dark skin paint the picture. There are countless Black luminaries who “tell it as it is” by blaming Black people for their struggles. Bill Cosby is one example, respectability politics is a part of his brand and it contributed to his power in the Black community and the rest of the country before it was widely reported that he raped white women. Lastly, a “post-racial America” is in the collective consciousness because Barack Obama is President!
‘Murica the Beautiful.
For me, Khalif’s question stood in that context, the misconception of systematic racism. It had one possible answer, and it was uninteresting compared to something like my worst experience with direct racism. Anyway, I knew a personal story would work and a shitty life episode replayed in my head like a set of virtual reality goggles. I chuckled, only to start writing. The memory didn’t make any sense, and that was perfect. Does racism make sense?
Vancouver, January 2006
The setting was at Washington School for the Deaf, during a regional basketball tournament for Deaf high schools. My team California School for the Deaf, Riverside (CSDR) lost badly to rival Fremont (CSDF) in the championship game. The 3-day competition traditionally ended with a party, so new and old friends and I had a plan: get booze. High school stuff that even Presidents of the United States did before becoming masters of the Universe.
It was my first time in the Pacific Northwest and, with pooled money and off-campus privileges, some of us trekked to the local store. It was a nice and short walk that helped some of us forget about painful failures on the basketball court, and for others it was an opportunity to flirt. In the backdrop of damp and green Cascadia, we were on our way to obtain liquid assistance.
The picturesque trees didn’t hide the region’s whiteness and paranoia overtook me at the last minute. I elected to keep a healthy distance from the shop, across a parking lot, a street, and two sidewalks. I blamed my Blackness, because surely it would attract attention and somehow get me in trouble - a routine mental process for many Black people.
So, my friends respected my wishes. They went to the storefront and convinced a man on his bicycle to buy macrobrew for us. After the process went smoothly, we were soon en route campus and the dude rode elsewhere. Joseph, a teammate I’ve known since childhood, remembered that he wanted bubble gum as we were walking on the sidewalk. He asked if I could hold the bags – the alcohol – while he grabbed a stick. I obliged.
This is when things became a movie. Not 10 seconds after that exchange and before Joseph reached the opposing sidewalk, unmarked cop cars pulled up and then a female officer, trailed by a few men, emerged barking intelligible orders while brandishing badges in a cinematic fashion. The contraband was in my hand and damn thing felt weightless against the police glare. We were compelled to reveal who we were, why we were here, who was responsible for us, and to call them. Joseph saw the scene unfold nearby and rejoined us, but the police ignored him and focused on me. I didn’t panic because there were five of us and we only had beer. The applied precision of Murphy’s Law stunned me.
I assumed that the police stopping us were harmless, with non-Black friends around and because up to that point my experiences with police were mild. I was aware of the dangers as a Black person, yet my luck had held and deafness was part of the reason. It is commonly believed, although not always accurate, that police tended to sympathize with Deaf people.
Then finally, school staff arrived in a bad mood but they conveniently brought sign language interpreters. I expected the briefing of transpired events to lead to a guilty association with the illegal trip, because for practical purposes I was 100% involved. Still, I flinched after impassively watching the interpreters ASLize the police record: I did this, that, and everything.
The lead cop claimed that the store had been under watch for weeks based on reports for liquor sales to underage customers. They monitored us the entire time we were at the store, identified me as the person who paid the mystery adult for alcohol, and busted me walking alongside the sidewalk. Zero mentions of less complicit coordinates or the transfer of goods, but she was careful to outline circumstances I made a point to avoid! Some bullshit. Our small group was diverse, it was easy to observe the store, and they spent plenty of time surveilling us. There was little room for error, the simplest explanation was that they lied.
Trouble was guaranteed. The predictable tune of soiled program reputations pissed off the athletic director and the cops fingered me as the troublemaker. I explained the true nature of affairs, but it didn’t matter - the cops’ word against mine. The athletic director demanded us to be grateful for not being arrested and approximately everything was responded with explosive variants of “No shut up! I don’t want to hear it!” I resigned to accept the blame, nodded my head through staff assurances to police that lessons were learned and never to be repeated again, and through meetings of judgement back in California with principals and coaches.
My punishment? Quasi-solitary confinement, first inside a dorm room for the rest of that night and then imagined enclosures where I was forbidden to talk nor look at others throughout travels of the next day, followed by a week of academic and athletic suspensions, relinquishment of duties as Class of 2006 president, Student Body Government vice president, and dismissal from the school’s Deaf Academic Bowl team. Save bespoke whims of the athletic staff, the sanctions were protocol. The fact that penalties were extended to only one student remained interesting.
Los Angeles, December 2014
Back in the muted sunshine of the City of Angels, I passed the mobile device to Cleo, Nick, and Khalif, and then watched them read the tiny wall of text in anticipation for astonished faces. Khalif completed the delayed feedback loop with a “Wowwww” and the gang, clad in similar hoodies that killed Trayvon Martin almost two years earlier, looked on knowingly. How much is unknown to the kid, was a source of private intrigue.
We observed the surface of racism, but thumbing the precursor to half of this post on a 4-inch screen made it easy to balk at the idea of deeper conversations at texting speeds in a realtime environment. Educating the future was critical, still physical barriers and cynicism prevailed. Who was I kidding? I was the protagonist of a lesson in racism - USA is an efficient teacher and Black life is a crash course.
Food arrived and the miniature computer went into my pocket. Greasy hands and modern smartphones presented an awkward dance and social fantasies counter-offered quiet and familiar dinnertime entertainment.