I’ve found myself in conversations, as many have, where conflict arises. Someone says something insensitive or rude, and wether or not it is intentional, I find myself correcting them. I consider myself to be an adaptive person, and in many situations I am blunt, I expose what it is that has made me uncomfortable and I confront the perpetrator. Depending on group dynamic, I am able to decide if my comments would be humiliating, and as an effect, make me a hypocrite. I might pull the person aside and ask for clarification, or tell them how I interpreted whatever they said, or how it may be received by others.
For example, I found myself in a classroom setting in a diverse group of about five. We had become distracted and began talking about mutual friends, not negatively, just seeing who knew who. There is this boy, who was not in the group, we will call him Joe. Joe is black, I’ve known him since I was four, he has a dark complexion, his parents are Egyptian. He celebrates Kwanza, and in grade school, he was unable to participate in many Americanized traditions, like Halloween or Christmas gifts. In conclusion, he is more in touch with his “black” roots than most. Joe also golfs and is an academic scholar, he wears button-ups and khakis to school, and as most people, he speaks well. Anyway, we are chatting about Joe, and the white male at the group states, “Joes is the whitest black kid I know.” Everyone laughs and agrees. There is no controversy. I do not laugh, I am offended and confused and I stop him, “Excuse me?” The group quiets down while I explain how equating a black person to a white person because of their sport and their academic success is an insult to black people and puts white people on a pedestal. I told him that Joe’s parents celebrate African holidays and that as a child I went to their home for Egyptian cuisine. I told him that if he looked at Joe, Joe is definitely black, and I asked him how he could make such a silly mistake. The group realized after my speech, that stereotypes and comments like these further perpetuate racism and a Western ideal. So while Joe, a black man, defies stereotypes, and pushes the envelope on what a black man looks like, he gets called “white.” The boy who originally made the comment apologized, and explained how he had never heard someone put it like that and he would not only watch what he says, but also question the way he sees “black men.” After class, another boy in the group, thanked me for my speech, he himself had laughed along at the original comment. This boy is also black, mixed with white, his mother is from England, and he expressed to me that he is often the target of similar comments. He told me he inspired me to not just laugh along, or think these comments are harmless, but to question and challenge his friends to see him as a black person, and not an exception.
So yes, I got everyone riled up, and we did not even begin to work on our psychology project. Yet, being interrupted by our teacher, she realized that this was psychology in a way. Having a group of young people discussing internalized racism in such an intimate and personal way, was really more powerful that constructing neurotransmitters out of clay. We studied how we interpret other’s comments, and how a simple joke, can say a lot about where we live, and who we are, and how this generation doesn’t know where we stand when we look at “racism.” I took my individual thoughts and created a collective, I changed the reaction of the group from laughing at a joke, to contextualizing it’s impact on an entire race.