As a mixed-race person, who identifies heavily with his black identity, I have experienced the bad and the ugly of the racial stereotype game. I do have some privilege in the respect that in some spaces I am not read as black, but often I am subjugated like my black male peers to the stereotypes that haunt us from day to day. There are many examples of this subjugation throughout my life, especially in the South, but also in college and even in my childhood. The hardest part of dealing with these stereotypes is finding a way to escape them, whether it is dealing with them head on or just leaving the space when possible. While my experiences are not the end-all-be-all of handling racial stereotypes, I hope that these stories help folks from any background understand the various ways black men continue to face discrimination in the United States, and why this negative treatment of black men needs to stop.
1. Invisibility, but Not Like a Superpower
Living in the South as a mixed-race for three years was no walk in the park, even in an amazing city like New Orleans. While the more progressive bubble of the city was nice when you were within its borders, anytime you stepped out into the surrounding parishes felt like you were constantly walking on eggshells. This was the case when I lived just outside of New Orleans in the neighboring suburb of Metairie and decided to go get a haircut down the street from my apartment. None the wiser, I figured going to a locally owned barber shop would be a good thing to do, especially in an area I had only lived in for a few months at the time.
You can imagine my reaction when I walked in and said “hi,” only to be met with confused/disdainful looks from the three older white barbers, two of which had clients in their chairs, and the third sitting in the back eating a bologna sandwich. Still trying to be a good new neighbor, I ignored the strange looks and took a seat, hoping Mr. Bologna would finish his lunch and call me up to his seat. Rather than that, he got up from his seat, stood next to his chair, and analyzed me from my curly afro, to my just-too-dark skin, to my hoodie, sweatpants, and running shoes. After finishing his analysis and attempted (successful) intimidation, he went to sit back down in the corner, and I noticed two things: his confederate flag belt, and the full-size confederate flag hanging next to where he was originally sitting.
I was rendered both hyper-visible and invisible at the same time: my blackness became the focal point of this strange standoff, yet my presence was ignored as the barbers continued to take other customer, skipping me, until I left 45 minutes later than I should have. I got out of there, starting to come to terms with the body terrorism I was just subjected to, and never looked back while my fiancée offered to cut my hair instead, avoiding any chance of feeling cornered and dehumanized by another room of confederate flag-toting old white men.
2.You Are the Company You Keep = Racist
One of the complications of being mixed-race is that people will often see me as either exclusively black or white depending on where I am and who I am with. While the benefits of “passing” as white are abundant—and carry with them a lot of conflicted feelings—I also experience many of the oppressive aspects of being read as black in public spaces.
The simplest example comes from being in public spaces with my mom, who was black, as opposed to my dad, who is white. When I am walking around a store, such as Costco or Target, with my dad, we are hardly noticed, or at most we are just asked if we need help by a passing clerk, without any further supervision. If I was in those same stores with my mom, though, it was a completely different story: store clerks checking on us multiple times, following us through the store, becoming more worried when we would pick up or ask about items, assume we did not have money to pay for things, etc. Much of the disdain and discrimination would focus on me, as a young black-appearing boy, with worries that I might steal something or cause some sort of disturbance.
What I learned to do over time was to understand that the discrimination and prejudice I was facing in these public places was not inherently about me, but about the issues those forcing their prejudice on me were dealing with in their own lives. While I still fear the potential for violence in these situations, as many black people and other people of color face, I know that there is nothing wrong with me or my identity in these space; there is only something wrong with the hateful views and body terrorism other people harbor.
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3. Permanent Resting Angry Face
Throughout my experience working in and out of college, my identity as a black man was often the focal point of which responsibilities I was given. This also came, in part, to my constant Resting Angry FaceTM, which led many people to constantly ask me if I was “okay” or telling me to “cheer up.” My resting angry face mixed with my mixed-black male identity was the perfect storm for my supervisors to relegate me to jobs that involved security.
The stereotype surrounding black men as good security guards seems harmless, until you connect it to the history of black men serving companies/organizations/etc. as low-level employees with no chances on advancing into higher paying or highly respected jobs; black men are left to protect the higher-paid white executives and managers as their underpaid/underappreciated security guards. This is what happened to me in my last year of college, after being laid off as a student employee in a higher paying dynamic job, when I ended working as a student food service worker at one of the dining halls. I started out working the various food stations or in the dish room, but when I started showing an interest in working as the cashier, the managers saw my typically stern expression and the surrounding stereotypes of black men as scary as assets they could use in protecting the “integrity” at the dining hall.
The best part is that I did the job well, better than they expected, but not because of whatever stereotypes they placed on me, but because I like doing a good job (as other black men like doing too, despite other related laziness stereotypes). But this would not come without its share of negativity, with other employees asking my now-fiancée, who was a student manager, why I am so angry all the time. It just shows that if I was effective at my job, which often involved being serious and stern (i.e. wearing my resting angry face), I was just an angry black man in the eyes of the other employees.
4. “You Must Have Been a Beast In Football!”
The stereotypes that surround blackness, specifically focused on the black male body, and sports are ever-present and ever-terrible. Black male bodies are seen as tools, working machines, and overly strong, which means black men are typically left to think that the only jobs or hobbies they should pursue should be related to sports and athletics. As any stereotype about black men, this goes back to the days of American slavery, where black bodies were only valued by the amount of work they could be used for, regardless of their well-being and with a severe lack of autonomy.
This stereotype of the black body as a tool of consumption, whether it is producing goods or providing entertainment in the form of sports, combined with me being a larger person, leads many conversations about my past to revolve around sports. “Did you ever play football in high school? I bet you were a beast on the field.” This automatic assumption that I focused on sports in high school as opposed to my education is far too common for black men, since it is expected for black men to be more concerned with physical activity than advancing their educational experience. There is definitely nothing wrong with black men wanting to participate in sports or shooting for a professional career, but the limiting nature of the stereotype is something that should be broken.
When I tell people I was definitely not in football, and that I did swimming for a year instead, you can practically see the gears turning in the inquirers minds (“a black man, not interested in playing football, and who did swimming?”). The conversation usually ends after that, and potentially for the better, since I would probably rather not keep speaking to someone who only sees my race and my body as a tool for their potential entertainment.
5. “You Must Be Into [Insert Rapper Here]”
I like music of all different kinds: rap, rock, indie, hardcore, R&B, blues, jazz, folk, even some country and metal from time to time. My vast taste in music comes from growing up with parents who also had a wide range of musical tastes, where one night we’re dancing and singing along to Sade in the kitchen and then the next I am spacing out to Pink Floyd with my dad. I am a firm believer that music should be shared and enjoyed widely, with respects given to the communities and cultures where they come from so as to not assume, for example, that a white person listening to gangsta rap makes them closer to “being” black or “knowing” the black experience.
When I am read as a black man, the automatic assumption is that I know and am into all of the current rappers and hip-hop artists. I am hardly ever asked about other genres until I either speak up about the music I listen to, which, similar to my response to being asked about playing football, is met with surprised and confused reactions. While I do love listening to Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and the occasional Kid Cudi, I do not feel like my black identity, even as a mixed-race person, should limit the types of music I listen to.
Beyond that, the assumption that I only listen to rap music when I am read as black is inherently ignorant of the fact that black folks are prevalent in other genres that are typically deemed “white.” From Jimi Hendrix and Prince to more recent acts like Algiers or Chris Freeman (formerly of Manchester Orchestra), there is a plethora of black musicians and singers throughout the variety of other genres and subgenres in the musical world.
More Radical Reads: Is Healthy Masculinity a Lost Cause?: A Non-binary Person’s Thoughts on New Masculinity
6. No, I Don’t Know Where You Can Get Weed
One of the most damning stereotypes I face when read as a black man is the idea that I automatically know where and how to get weed, and other drugs, and that I must do them, or have at least tried them. Don’t get me wrong, I have no qualms or judgments for people who smoke weed, it is just not something I do, nor do I know anything about obtaining it on the streets. I also have never tried anything, weed or harder, for the simple fact that I have enough trouble with my mental state that I do not know that smoking weed or doing any other drugs would necessarily help with that.
This was definitely a bigger issue when I was in undergrad at UC Santa Cruz. Yes, the same UC Santa Cruz that when you search “420” on Wikipedia, a picture of one of the April 20th events at the school is featured. Often on my way to class or when working at the dining hall, people would ask me if I had or wanted any weed. I always politely said “no,” and was, again, met with surprise and shock. “Really? Are you sure? I’m not sketchy” was an all too common response to my declining, as if being a person of color in college means you automatically have to smoke, or that I have to be or know a dealer.
[Featured Image: A dark skin individual stands outdoors looking to the left wearing a fedora, button-up and sweater.]