Present Day, The Past Year Or So
Originally Written in February 2017
There is a sentiment that I tend to only hear from older people of Caucasian persuasion, and it goes like this: “It’s nice to see a black person that is so well spoken, with their pants at their waist and lacks the stereotypes commonly associated with black culture. You are a credit to your race.”
Now, I understand that this is intended to be a compliment. But ye gods does it make me feel REALLY uncomfortable. Part of the trick is that I grew up specifically willfully differientiating myself from my neighborhood. The way that I speak ran counter to the casual cadence of everyone around me. I specifically keep my pants solidly at my waist because it was foolishly impractical to do otherwise. It is hard to deflect or outright denounce this sort of statement because I willfully chose to not embody the stereotypes of black culture.
But to get a pat on the back for that from older white people is… It makes me feel odd. I respect my elders as well as I can, but this phrase makes it difficult. It’s “you’re not really black”, but a version that seems to be exclusively reserved for non-PoC above age sixty-five I’d say.
When I have gone out of my way to hold a door open for an elderly black person they do not look at me and say ‘You’re a credit to our race, son.’ I have never had anyone from any “minority” say to me that I am a ‘credit to my race’. But just as non-PoC officers tend to state that I “match a description”, non-PoC elders are more apt to inform me that “You are a credit to your race.” What makes this difficult to gripe about is that this never comes from a position of ill intent. And I hold my discomfort in because I try to respect where someone is coming from.
For comparison, I recently scrolled past a story. The summary shared that a man that was now an advocate for LGBTQIA+ used to be staunchly opposed. The incident that changed his life was the death of his lesbian daughter. I do not know if her death was related to her sexual identity. In any case, it left the father with a hole inside him, and he wanted to make sure others who suffered like his daughter would not any longer.
Some responses were less than kind, angry that it took the death of his daughter to spurn the man into action. I have learned that you have to be patient. Telling someone they are wrong has them react by pushing back. Giving them an itemized list makes it worse. They are angry at who the man was, not is.
Being “a credit to my race” stings. It stings an awful lot. I think it says more of the culture pushed on previous generations than I think it does upon the individuals who remain from those days. As such, I am angry at the world as it was. Angry that overt racism was commonplace. That the law did not protect people of my skin color and sexual orientation. That, in fact, the law promoted harassment and torment. I am angry of what has endured to this day.
But the elders from that time period? That was their world. That is what molded and shaped them, and gave them context. There are many out there that think that old world is best, more still that think older would be better.
It is very possible they were raised to think that I would have no redeeming factors. They may have still-living relatives that point to news and pop culture about how worthless I would be, solely due to my skin color. They bear all that, and a lifetime of stigma and taboo, and just see me. In this light, “You’re a credit to your race” is less about me, and more an admonishment of the idiocy they grew up with.
This may seem like an impressive bout of mental gymnastics to give people the benefit of the doubt.
This phrase is about race. A meaning was carved into the elders as it was carved into me, much against my will. I aim to be who I choose to be. And they are patient, looking for more than the lies they were raised with. I will continue to be uncomfortable when I hear this phrase. But I will allow it. Because I am being seen, truly. No matter what people think of you, continue to be in the light. Truth allows for change. You do not need to be a ‘credit’ or ‘Token’ to exemplify the good.