Be warned, this is a blog not a Masters Thesis. The Skin I’m In is undoubtedly one of Desmond Cole’s most intriguing pieces. It has resonated with many and certainly with me. Like him, I have also had some negative interactions with the police. I have been pulled over – in my own driveway of all places; followed into a MacDonald’s parking lot where the officer stopped behind my car and was clearly checking my plate; chastised in a mall for not being respectful enough to four white officers with loaded guns; pulled over because I was “driving suspiciously” because I pulled in and out of an Ikea parking lot and the list goes on. Having worked in community development for the past 15 years and more specifically at a community health centre over the past two years, I can tell you that the disturbing issues faced by Cole are being faced by many and is causing serious damage to our health and might I add well being.
Racism- the poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race- erodes the health and wellbeing of individual members in our community. It begins with the complete destruction of one’s mental health. It seems it’s a tactic employed by racists to systematically destroy people they hate. As I read Cole’s piece, I couldn’t help but remember the old saying “if you want to hurt someone, punch them in the face but if you want to completely destroy them for life just tell them they are stupid over and over again”. Cole notes that when he walks down the street he imagines himself being viewed with suspicion and fear. This constant attack on the mind leaves you wondering and second guessing whether there are any truly good white people or good cops. But as my friend says, “good’ white people or ‘good’ cops is irrelevant because preconceived notions are the real culprit”. Please note that if you are irritated by the adjective “good” to describe people then you are one step closer to understanding how I feel as a black man. This internalized conundrum makes you view everything you hear with suspicion. In a recent study, conducted by Access Alliance on income security and health, one participant, speaking about the jobs he has had, noted that “everytime I walk into a place, I am 5’ 5” and 150 pounds. Every time I walk into a place they give me the hardest job. They say, ‘you’re young, you’re black’. Well, they don’t say ‘you’re black’, they say, ‘you’re young’ but I know in their head they are thinking you are black.”
My first teaching interview, or rather “near” interview, nearly drove me crazy and was my own personal experience of this insidious behaviour. By the time I graduated from teachers college in 2005, I had a stellar resume. I had worked all through my education from high school to teachers college and had made sure to pick volunteer positions that had me engaging with the age group that I wanted to teach. Not long after graduating, I landed an interview for a teaching position. It would be in Peel, about 45 or so minutes from where I live. It was in the part of Peel where there were clearly few black people or people of colour at the time. I suspect it’s still the same. I knew because almost every kid I saw in the hallways and every kid I saw in the graduation pictures were white. I remember walking into the principal’s office, sitting down and hearing him say that the position had changed. I remember him asking me if I was certified to teach ESL and I remember saying “no”. I also remember him telling me that he had emailed me and had tried to get a hold of me. I remember driving back home wondering how I could have been so stupid not to check my email or my online teacher profile before arriving.
I returned home and checked for the message on my answering machine, and found it empty. I went and checked my email but there was no email. I checked my teacher profile and still no email. I checked the position and to my surprise, it had disappeared from the system. For days, I checked and rechecked. It finally dawned on me that “the job has changed”, was perhaps a less offensive way to say “you’re too black to work here”. The irritating part was that I spent days wondering whether or not I had not received the interview because I was black. It was almost as if I would have preferred him telling me that I was too black because at least I would not have spent so much time wondering. I was growing angry and depressed, as a result. Our study, notes that there is “documented racialized discrimination and exploitation in the Canadian labour market in hiring process, treatment at workplace, job mobility and security…” (Access Alliance, 2011). Research further shows, “that the prevalent health outcomes of labour market discrimination include mental health issues (e.g., stress, depression, hopelessness, and addictions), digestive disorders, psychological impacts …” (Access Alliance, 2011) and so on.
Another aspect of our research which I found quite striking was noted by another participant. Something that I can’t remember Cole touching on but it is an issue that is as disturbing as everything he highlights. The participant noted that, “as a black woman in the work force they dump everything on you. They think you can handle everything you know”. (Access Alliance, 2011) I remember working at a summer camp once where a white guy told me that he wanted to be in the same bunk as me. It was a camp where there was only one other black person and she was half white. It seemed like this had been the way for some time. I can’t say whether it was engineered or not. When I asked him why, he mentioned that, “the cabin with the black guy was the cabin that worked the hardest to win everything.”
I have worked hard all my life not because I want to but out of necessity. I too was constantly told that being black meant that if I wanted to get as far as any white man my age I would have to work twice as hard and have twice as many degrees. Funny enough, a white sociologist, who meant well, informed an entire lecture hall of this design. Sadly, he was spot on. An even sadder realization is the perpetual cycle it creates in which some people think that as a black person you have been toughened enough by society that you can handle the worse and work harder than everyone else. This thought process basically sets up every other black person for failure because once one black person fails to live up to the stereotype, all other black people fail. I am sick and tired of wearing the failure of other black people. Our perceived inhumanity has historically positioned us as unfeeling drones fit to work like donkeys. This continues to feed the notion that we do not suffer from mental health issues and can “keep calm and carry on”. It is psychologically damaging to have to fit into a box that tells me that the same blackness that makes me strong is the same blackness that makes me weak.
This constant and perpetual attack by individuals and institutions is tantamount to psychological warfare. It makes it hard for black students to know whether or not they got that bad grade because they are black or because they really did poorly. For me, that is probably one of the hardest things to explain to people about being black. It may seem like a new world but I have to be aware of everywhere I go, everything I do or say.
I have taken to using a few “survival tactics” to tell whether or not I may be welcomed in certain establishments. There has to be at least one other black person or I just won’t go in. There are a few restaurants on College, I just won’t go into because I have never really seen any other black people in them. While I am on survival tactics, I am going to tell you a few that have aided in my development: Hold on to your seat, it’s about to get real! #thingsmostpeopeldonthavetothinkabout or if you prefer #shytwhitepeopledonthavetothinkabout or my preference.. #ishmywhitefriendsdonthavetothinkabout…
- This one is from my mother: I am never be alone with a white woman because if she accuses me of anything I would never get out of jail. Imagine the psychological turmoil! For years I would make sure that if I was ever anywhere with a white woman, especially at work, I would have my phone recording every move I made. A few times, I even went so far as to record myself saying what time it was then pointing my phone to the screen to show date and time. I dont do this one anymore… Though I am not sure if it’s because of the cameras that are now everywhere or because I am more enlightened…
- When I travel, I don’t go into a restaurant unless there are black people, or a pride flag – It’s sort of a marker of relative enlightenment but I am cognizant of the fact that racism doesn’t really have any boundary.
- When I go shopping, I remind myself that I will be followed by the security guard. And if there isn’t a security guard the sales associate will multi task.
- I always have my ID as it may be requested at any one of the numerous “check black only” checkpoints in the city.
- I have to be careful about raising my voice because I am immediately perceived as a threat if I do.
- I never travel with more than 2 black guys. When I do, I never have to tell them to break up into groups, we do so automatically. The fear is built in! 3 or more of us constitutes a dangerous gang!
- I do not go jogging when it’s dark. When people see black people running and it’s not on the track it makes them nervous.
- When I go into certain stores I need to keep moving because if I stand still then someone, usually white, will come up and ask me about the prices in the store as if I work there!
We have a way of compartmentalizing people into stereotypical eccentricities to satisfy preconceived notions. Being black in this city truly has its challenges and the darker your complexion the worse it is. The external fear we feel is having a negative impact on our mental, emotional and physical health. Relax…it’s not all bad. I’ll write something about my positive experiences next week…it’ll make you feel better! But for now, think about how you are making it better or worse! Oh and not all black people feel this way … I just know someone is going to go “there”.
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