“I live in dangerous neighborhood. The people always loud and rude there, I wish I live in other neighborhood.”
This is what I read while grading one of my student’s essays. As an ESL instructor, the grammar mistakes were to be expected, however, it’s what the student’s writing alluded to that made it stand out. For this was the same student who happens to live in an area of the city that is mostly black, and who has remarked on various occasions about being afraid and displeased with where she lived.
And this was not the first time. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed less subtle and overtly negative references to black people from the international student body. I’ve overheard conversations on how rude we are or how hard it is to understand blacks when we’re speaking.
Although some of their comments may have elements of truth (to keep it real, you wouldn’t catch me in that neighborhood once the street lights are on either), I couldn’t help but have the desire many times to scream in objection, or to defend us and all our greatness, which was clearly being overshadowed by some preconceived notions, stereotypes, and/or bad apples. Plus, I assume they couldn’t fully grasp the historic context which lead to many of our complexities and issues, so in light of this, my better judgement provokes me to debunk these assumptions simply through example. Yet and still, the fact that they feel comfortable enough to make these comments to or around me, despite my very obvious brown exterior, makes me wonder if they somehow see me as “not one of them.”
Here I am, well-rounded, articulate, cultured — and black. In their eyes, I couldn’t possibly be one of them. And by “them” I mean that group or perception of black people who tend to live up to and perpetuate the many negative stereotypes that have sadly become synonymous with black culture. But no matter how much I may privately shake my head at the discouraging realities in our communities I see played out daily, I would never want to distance myself from my people, for I know that it doesn’t represent the full spectrum of us.
Which has led me to ponder, is it possible to escape the stereotypes and negative behavior associated with our people and neighborhoods (no matter how much we don’t fit the mold) without dissociating ourselves from our people as a whole? Sure, there are many who have tried to do so, either due to frustration with perceived limitations of blackness, burdened by a distorted self-image or a desire to fade into racial ambiguity. But, then there are those who, like myself, just don’t want to be expected to live up to preconceived ideas of inferiority or ignorance, only to be distinguished as something other than what we are when we don’t.
This idea is nothing new, and has been illustrated throughout history within the black/white social context in which we often live. Whenever one of us excelled, it somehow made us acceptable and embraced on a mainstream level because we were thought of as “different,” and it placed us in the category of the exception; like many of our entertainers, scholars, and athletes who have somehow been considered “bigger than black” due to one’s talent or crossover appeal.
And now, on an international level, with the world more connected than ever, this cultural phenomenon has transcended the globe. Despite having a black family in the White House, one can only imagine the disproportionate seeds of imagery planted globally with shows like “Basketball Wives,” videos of gyrating vixens, and the multitude of ratchet anthems being broadcast around the world and presented as the epitome of authentic black life in America — thus leaving many foreigners with a skewed perception of black Americans.
So though it’s been said before, in so many words, it continues to ring true that the best way to negate black inferiority is to embody black excellence. Some of us unfortunately fall into the trap of doing just the opposite and reinforcing this false notion, and although black people in this country certainly have a history that has produced exceptionally unique realities, we must not allow this to limit our standards for ourselves and each other. More importantly, we must remember that we’re in this together. Despite how tempting and comforting it may be to be viewed as somehow different, other than, or an exception to “them,” we’re still connected to the overwhelming condition and widespread view of our people. Therefore, no matter how challenging, we share the responsibility to be positive examples to each other, and to raise our reputation around the world.