When Was The First Time You Experienced Racism?
Recently on a grocery shopping trip my Dad and I were conversing and discussing memories of my childhood. We came to a point in elementary school where I remember having mixed feelings but couldn’t understand those feelings at the time. Some of the prominent variables that contributed to those feelings included racism, classism, and education. As I loaded my groceries up on the conveyor belt with one Apple Airpod in my ear, he asked me
“When was the first time you were called a nigger?”
I paused in my thoughts brushing through over 25 years of memories and finally I responded,
“I don’t think I ever have been.” Without missing a beat my dad then asked me,
“When was the first time you experienced racism then?”
That, I could remember. I went on to discuss how covert aspects of racism were certainly felt as early as elementary school when I was made to feel intellectually inferior in a class of my peers that were mostly White. This didn’t just come from other students (as I shared in a previous piece). This came from teachers as well.
Teachers who barred me access to the elite academic programs while trying to convince my parents that I should be placed in the special education program and that I had A.D.D. Teachers who didn’t care to recognize or investigate that I was the top of my class prior to being admitted to their care, that I had studied and been exposed to concepts and content I wouldn’t see again for a number of years. Teachers who were shocked when I sat for standardized testing and scored in the highest percentile in the STATE.
I took to Twitter to share a piece of this conversation and see what others had to say about it. Unfortunately the overwhelming majority of responses occurred during early elementary years as well. Have a look.
Racism Feels Isolating
There are over 30 quote retweets and direct responses to my original Tweet but the few that I’m going to showcase here touch on thoughts, feelings, and experiences of young Black children who are now adults. Although many of these experiences were the first time we could recognize racism, I’m willing to bet it was not the last time we experienced it. What struck me about this particular quote tweet is the deliberate effort made to separate her from her peers. This not only sends signals to the child that something is wrong with her, but sends signals to her classmates that something MUST be wrong with her and that therefore she should be avoided. I wonder how many of those classmates subconsciously internalized and act on that to this day.
Racism can be so painful that we actually feel safe by playing into it. You know, respectability politics that make us less threatening and therefore capable of being viewed as human. Being referred to as “one of the good ones” or “not like the other ones” is NOT a compliment. It’s the tokenizing that allows for us to enter and exit spaces unharmed until we do or say something that revokes that privilege. You know, kind of like when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars.
Intersecting Race, Class, and Privilege
The scholastic book fair was one of the highlights of elementary school for many of the students. The gyms would be turned into a sort of shopping center where the newest books, gadgets, and school supplies would be on full display for those students who had the money to afford them. It was like a school store on steroids. Unfortunately for the students who didn’t have money they had to walk through the aisles reminded of the things they couldn’t afford. They then had to sit and watch in classrooms where the students who could afford items would open, play with, and sometimes exchange with other classmates. There were a few instances where a classmate of mine would gift me a hand-me-down item after replacing it with a newer model from the bookfair. Although I appreciated the gesture, it was still a reminder of what I didn’t have. It was also often obvious to the other students that what was “mine” had previously been someone else’s.
Racism Is Systemic
Many times people will confuse the terms “racism” with “bigotry”. This is easy to do as sometimes they might feel the same, and even look the same but they are inherently different. While neither should be welcomed or accepted in practice or belief, racism has an “old school” feel as it exists in the fibers of institutions, practices, laws, medicine, and even language. Racism plays to empower and favor members of a particular race by way of systems while oppressing others who exist within those very same systems. The argument that a Black person can be racist to a White person in America can’t stand because Black people have no power or control over the systems that influence White existence in this country. There is no law or judicial system that exalts Blacks and oppresses Whites, no educational system that favors Blacks, no science or medicine that prioritizes Black health, etc. That is why this response is particularly striking.
Here are a few other responses that stood out strikeningly to me. Feel free to visit the original tweet and look through the thread, quote tweets, and comments or add your own.