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I’m Not Black, So It’s Different

Numb. For the past 12 hours, since the Zimmerman verdict came in, I’ve been completely numb. I don’t mean physically numb. I mean completely numb. I was literally unable to even form a thought, or process a feeling. My only thought was, “No”. That’s it. 12 hours of “no”. I didn’t call anyone, I didn’t open my computer, I didn’t want any input at all. I woke up this morning, still not wanting to read anything on social media, but needing some input.

Fortunately, iTunes downloaded what I needed; a special episode of one of my favorite podcast, This Week In Blackness. If you’ve never heard of it, you should really download a few episodes. It’s not what it sounds like. It’s exclusively not about “blackness”. It’s about inclusion more than anything else. I started listening a couple of years ago because I realized that, even a person who has never had a racist or non-inclusive thought in her head, I have no idea what it feels like to be black in America.

A little background on me; my parents moved us to California from Iran (where I was born) when I was about four years old. I never went to preschool. I went straight into kindergarten. After all of the placement tests before the school year happened, I was placed in a mixed kindergarten/first grade class. There were about a dozen of us five year olds in the class with about a dozen six year olds. We were separated into different sides of the room. The person that ended up becoming my best friend through elementary school was named Efua. She’s black. I didn’t realize she was black for (probably) five years. You would think the name would have tipped me off! I realized she was black when a kid from Japan transferred to our school. Everyone was fascinated with him. There wasn’t anything remotely racist about it. It was just childlike fascination with something different. But that was when I realized that society saw differences among humans. That’s when I realized there was a difference between Effie (that’s what we called her) and I. Our school was pretty diverse, and I never sensed or saw any racism at all until a couple of years after discovering what I thought was an innocuous difference. The hostage crisis was happening in Iran. For those of you who don’t remember, there were fifty-two Americans being held hostage in the US embassy in Iran for four hundred and forty-four days. There was one kid in my class who decided it was my fault, and felt it necessary to torment me every day. Even as a sixth grader, it didn’t bother me. I could see that he hated himself more than he hated me. Even though he had no effect on me emotionally, he imparted racism on me intellectually. Around that time, my father (who was Iranian) had a group of his friends and brother and sisters over for dinner. I’d never noticed it before that night, but these people were incredibly racist toward (mostly) black people. As I heard them speak, all I could think was, “you should know better”. I knew that if I had one racist asshole tormenting (trying to) me at school, that they were getting it every day, everywhere they went. I couldn’t understand the inability to connect what was being done to them with what they were saying about other people. Since then, I’ve seen many, many examples of minorities being racist toward other minorities. My understanding of how that happens hasn’t grown with more exposure to it. I simply don’t understand it.

Racism has never been emotional to me. It’s always been cerebral. Every time I see it, I explain it the way I did with that self loathing kid in the sixth grade. That’s not to say that I don’t see it. I see it more than most people.

I see the institutional racism that exists in this country every day. I work in Human Resources, with an emphasis on talent acquisition. I see the institutional racism every time I’m directed to increase diversity outreach. People fundamentally misunderstand the role of racism in corporate America. Take what I’m about to say as the anecdotal evidence that it is. White collar corporate America (which is where 95% of my experience is) is not inherently racist. I have often been given the directive make minority hires for positions, so companies (at least really big ones) are aiming for diversity. The issue I run into with these searches for diversity candidates is the lack of qualified candidates to fill them. The proportion of diversity college graduates with experience is not equal to the proportion of minorities in America. That’s just a fact. It’s getting a little bit better every year, but it’s still a problem. Two or three generations ago, black people simply didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. College is a generational thing. If your parents went to college, you’re almost certain to get a college degree so that first generation is the key to every generation that follows it. And that first generation approach college much differently than the third or fourth generation. That first generation isn’t aware of all of the different career possibilities. They’re not going for careers in publishing or mechanical engineering because those careers don’t exist in their universe. They’re choosing from a limited field of careers and getting general degrees like “business”. Third and fourth generation college graduates have more exposure, and are getting more specialized degrees and have their eye on a specific career. First generation college graduates have their eye on a degree. This is just the natural evolution of educating a population, and it’s not unique to minorities. The institutional racism exists in the fact that white people have had the privilege of being at it for much longer. And the institutional issues go far beyond time. I have a friend who is in the admissions department at a major university in California. She told me that when reviewing applicants, there’s a disparity in how they weigh GPAs from different high schools. A 4.2 GPA from a high school in south central is equal to a 3.7 GPA from a school in Beverly Hills. Why? Because high schools are better in Beverly Hills. So if you work your ass off in south central, you still haven’t received the same education as someone who merely did well in Beverly Hills. The problem is systemic.

But I massively digressed. I started listening to This Week in Blackness because I realized that for all of my liberal, intellectual ideas about race, I had no fucking idea what it felt like to be black in America. To be clear, I never thought that black people and white, or even non-white, non-black people have the same experiences. I live in Harlem now, and I’ve always lived in very racially diverse places. I see the cultural differences all the time.

We really aren’t all living in the same culture. I saw it when the OJ Simpson verdict was delivered. We fundamentally had different opinions as to his guilt. My black friends literally all thought he was innocent. My black friends, who I shared moral values and intellectual parity with all came to a different conclusion than I did. I saw it when Barack Obama was running for president. When those primaries came down to Barack and Hillary, all of my black friends supported Hillary for far longer than my white friends did. All of the signs in store windows in Harlem supported Hillary until a couple of weeks before super Tuesday. After it was all over and Barack was president, I asked my black friends why they held out for so long. Their answers were all the same. They simply didn’t dare hope that a black man could be elected president. It was inconceivable to them. There was a giant chasm between liberal non-black America and black America. I saw it when the Zimmerman trial started. Not before it started, we were all on the same page then; Zimmerman needed to be arrested. But once the trial started, I as well as all of my non-black friends (virtual and physical) were positive we were going to hear a guilty verdict. The black community was (correctly) convinced the opposite was true. They couldn’t conceive a guilty verdict.

Why? Because being black in America is very different than than being non-black or (especially) being black friendly. They expected what they live every day. I’m not going to pretend to be able to describe what black people live every day. That would be both arrogant, and far above my pay grade. But I know it’s different.

To me, and to all non-black liberals, this trial was about justice for a child who was murdered. It wasn’t about a black child who was murdered. To the black community, this was about the safety of their children, brothers, nephews, and cousins. Safety when doing normal things that none of the rest of us have ever thought about, like walking fucking home. This trial was about how many more generations “the talk” has to happen for. “The talk” is something I was never aware of for most of my adult life, and yet in the black community, it’s as normal as drinking water.

We don’t live in the same America. And we weren’t all experiencing the same trial. Anybody who thinks this trial wasn’t about race is simply ignorant about where they live. I don’t mean ignorant in the derogatory way we use that word. I mean ignorant in the sense of being woefully unaware and uninformed. Something I freely admit to still suffering from. I will always possess the ignorance that comes with not living a person’s or a community’s experience, regardless of how hard I try. 

Please listen to this episode of This Week In Blackness. If you’re not black, you will understand what you can’t understand about this murder. If you’re black, I’m guessing you will hear your feelings echoed back to you.

The meaning of this verdict is much bigger than an injustice. It’s about all of the injustices toward a community for hundreds of years. I don’t feel rage, which is what I expected to feel if this happened. I feel profound sadness for the Martin family yes, but for our country at large. We have a long, long way to go to fix this. Each step forward is slow, and comes with several steps back.

We did take a step forward in this case. This was the first time the nation engaged in the murder of a black person. Until now, it’s always been about pretty white girls or cute white kids. So the fact that the whole country even knows Trayvon Martin’s name is progress. But we’ve also taken several steps back. This acquittal has every mother of a black son terrified for their child. Terrified because their children aren’t safe doing what we all feel perfectly safe doing.

Trayvon Martin was walking home from the store. That’s all he was fucking doing. I posted the picture of his body after he was murdered on my Facebook page because I wanted everyone to see that he looked like any normal child. Nothing about his rolled up skinny jeans, normal sized hoodie, kicks, and ankle socks were threatening. Nothing. And he looked like a child. Don’t let anybody tell you that he didn’t. He was murdered because he was black. Period. Look at the picture again and be honest about what you see.

This was entirely about race. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. We need to start having honest discussions about race every day. Not confrontational discussions, based on our own anecdotal lives, but bigger conversations. And we need to be honest about our own ignorance. The ignorance that we all have about being another color in America.

Rage over this case is pointless. I’m actually surprised at myself for not feeling any, but I don’t. This is much bigger than rage.

I apologize for the rambling and for any typos in this post. This was a stream of consciousness that I just wrote and posted.

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