Measuring (black) life with white tape
What it’s like to be black in a country where white is normal
by Derrick L. Weston
My colleague Jeff Schooley asked me to contribute a companion piece to his latest Souls of White Folks article. I am privileged and happy to add some perspective. Whereas Jeff has done some outstanding intellectual analysis, my take will be more narrative in nature. I believe, however, that we will end up in much the same place. Our hope in this collaboration is to give you a small window into the experience of being black in our society. I can’t speak for all black people; I can share my perspective, knowing that there are resonances of others’ experiences.
To be black in this country is to be constantly measuring yourself against an outside standard of normalcy. I think this is what many of my white friends fail to see. In this country, “white” is “normal.”
I spent my formative years living in a fairly affluent white suburb. Incidentally, it is the same suburb where Schooley currently serves. I have joked many times that when the 2000 census reported that my town was 99 percent white and one percent “other,” that other most certainly meant my house. In my neighborhood, certain norms were assumed. A certain level of resources was assumed. A certain level of education was assumed. A certain appearance was assumed. Certain beliefs and political leanings were assumed. Some meandered outside the lines here or there, never enough to rock the cultural boat though. Most of those deviations were easy to hide. No one needs to know you’re a democrat. You can fake having resources if you buy certain status symbols. No one may know that you only have a high school diploma if you’ve been successful in your business dealings. Black skin is harder to hide.
I took three different tacts with my lack of normalcy throughout high school. First, I tried to blend in. One can adjust speech patterns, consume the right media, and dress a certain way that fits in with the surroundings. There’s only so much blending in I could do though. At some point, I was still the pepper in the salt shaker. The fact that my family was living way above its means didn’t help much either. Blending in requires a budget. The second strategy was to play into stereotypes. This was my junior high strategy. No one bought it. I don’t have a thug bone in my body. I’m awful at basketball. I can’t dance or sing. The final tact was to be myself and let the chips fall where they might. It was only in my senior year of high school that I really said “screw this!” and just did the things I enjoyed. I was in every musical ensemble in the school. I acted in a play (a very small part). I hung out with other people on the fringes of the student body. It was probably my happiest high school year, but it was still incredibly awkward. I wasn’t “black enough” to be the black kid and I wasn’t “white enough” to just be a black white kid.
‘I think that there is growing consciousness that as African Americans we can never succeed in a system that was not designed for us.’
Here’s the rub, I always assumed that I picked up on this “standard” because I was raised in the suburbs. I assumed that black kids who grew up in black neighborhoods were not subjected to the same scrutiny. Since then, I have primarily worked in black neighborhoods in my professional life, and I have discovered that I was wrong. These black students are perhaps even more aware of the white standard. And they are aware of all of the ways they fall short of it. The solutions to this dilemma have mostly fallen along the same strategies that I tried during my school years. There are those that try to fit in. It’s what comes out in the language of respectability politics. If we can conform our black selves to a white standard, some believe, then we can fit in and achieve on the same levels as white people do. There is some truth to that. But then I look at our president. Let’s face it, he’s achieved on every measurable rubric of success yet there are still those who will degrade him in every conceivable way based solely on the color of his skin. He can’t win.
The second tact is what gets all of the attention. Black people who are well aware of the standard of normalcy created by white culture create their own subculture. It is open rebellion and defiance of a dominant culture in which they will never be excepted. It’s reflected in the language, music, art, dress, and even economics. Drug dealing becomes entrepreneurship. The “thug” culture, of course, is not the only expression of pro-black/counter-white behavior. It is the one that gets the most ink because it is the one that can be simultaneously vilified by and capitalized upon by white culture. Mass marketing black culture has made many white clothing designers, music producers, and advertisers very rich. Oh, and let’s not forget that little thing called the prison industrial complex.
While I hate the term “third way,” I have set myself up for it. I think that there is growing consciousness that as African Americans we can never succeed in a system that was not designed for us. Yes, there will be individual successes, but our schools remain inferior, our wages remain lower, and our prison rates remain disproportionately high. What we are witnessing right now is a renaissance of the black voice for liberation. It is a voice that screams “black lives matter!” It is a voice that protests the idea that black culture is a monolith. It is a voice that challenges the white norms of beauty and demands a different gaze upon the world. It is a voice that highlights the accomplishments of black artists and thinkers. It is a voice that promotes black entrepreneurship and focuses black spending power. It is an intersectional voice that recognizes that the fight against the norms of whiteness is also a fight against the norms of patriarchy and heteronormativity. It is an interfaith voice that is fighting against the norms of cultural Christianity. It is a radical voice questioning whether or not we can ever have unity and equality in an economic system that is designed to have winners and losers.
The world of the white norm is beginning to erode, and there are people who are feverishly trying to protect it. When I hear political candidates saying that they want to “take the country back,” I hear a desperate clinging to a status quo of a bygone era. The world is changing because people are beginning to understand that we cannot build the world of the future by the standards of the past. As Schooley suggested in his piece, I hope that you will give me the benefit of the doubt. I hope that you will trust that this is my experience of reality and that it is not a unique experience. And if you are willing to offer me that benefit of the doubt, I hope that you will listen for the resonant voices that exist elsewhere in the black community. And if you are willing to give those voices the benefit of the doubt as well, I hope that you will take the time to reflect. I challenge all of my white friends to consider their investment in the norms of a culture that has been allowed to present itself as “normal.” And I challenge them to consider whether or not they are willing to reinvest in a future where yesterday’s norms are no longer the standard.
Derrick L. Weston is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a community builder for the 29th Street Community Center, and cohost of the podcast God Complex Radio.