I realized I was black on the first day of kindergarten. After three years of sending me to predominately black schools, my parents decided to put me in an overwhelmingly white private school. No one said anything. Not my classmates, my teachers, or even my parents. But as soon as I set foot in the building, I knew I stood out.
From that day on, everything and everyone around me made it perfectly clear that I was different. Everyone seemed to have a house in some place called the Hamptons and “vacationed” on various beaches in the Caribbean. As a child, I had no way to contextualize this information or discern any real meaning from it. What I did know quite intuitively was that I looked much more like my friends’ babysitters than my friends. I also seemed to have a lot more in common with them.
All the while, no one said anything outright. I made friends, did well in school, and gave off the appearance of a well-adjusted kid in tune with his surroundings. Even as the concept of race began to form in my mind, I thought that only a few shades separated me from my peers. At such a young age, no one thought it necessary to tell me how very different I was from my friends. Instead, my family allowed me a few more years of innocence before thrusting me into reality.
One conversation shattered this notion. On an ordinary Sunday evening, my family told me how to conduct myself around the police. The discussion lasted two full hours, hours filled with personal anecdotes and personal beliefs everyone but me seemed to share. My aunt even had an informative pamphlet on what to do when stopped. When I asked my white friends if they ever had similar talks at home, they seemed baffled. Years later, when I first had a close group of black friends, I asked the same question. We spent the rest of the afternoon sharing stories about how the talk affected our lives.
Black men play by a different set of rules, some codified in drug laws that disproportionately affect the black community and others found in the way media outlets portray the black community at large as thugs, fools, or both. The most damning, however, are found in the hearts and minds of people throughout America and around the world. These unwritten laws portray us as lazy only to make it impossible for us to improve. They make us out to be dangerous no matter what, putting us in danger. They paint black males as predators only to leave us prey to law enforcement.
For a long time, many believed that a select few within the black community could circumvent these laws. By trying to distance ourselves from anything that might connect us to the black community, the argument went, we might be able to escape the trap. When once we might have whistled Vivaldi while passing an elderly white woman on the street, we could now listen to EDM while wearing Nantucket red Chubbies and a new pair of Sperrys.
In high school, after I had become acutely aware of my place in the world, my style changed accordingly. I started to wear button down shirts and Topsiders regularly. Argyle sweaters filled my closet, and my jeans began to fit a bit more snugly. Undoubtedly, some of these changes came from within—all people change in high school. But I will never know whether I truly controlled the changes or they controlled me.
Growing up, you cannot both try to come into your own and fulfill an image of acceptability pressed upon you. To do one you must abandon the other, and in doing the latter you abandon yourself. Societal pressures have forced black men like me to conform or face exile from civilization. There is a reason that few black businessmen have dreadlocks or afros, and it is not because these hairstyles are inherently unprofessional.
Few enlightened people deny the constant burden of living in America as a black person. But forced assimilation will not rectify the situation. In time, I have come to accept that to the world I will always be black first, a person second, and finally, to some, an individual. Many will look at me and see identifiers rather than someone with a unique identity. In a split second, they will see me as a black male and decide who I am for me. No lifestyle change can undo centuries of social programming.
I am tired of trying to quell the fear of every white person I meet. Most do not need it, and I refuse to appease those who still do. For too long, I have lived in fear of the racially charged judgments of my peers. In the process, I may have stunted my individual growth and limited my ability to discover my full potential. I will not be afraid to explore the black tradition and all that it offers just because it might color others’ opinion of me. Too many young black boys will have the opportunity to become black men taken from them. I’m lucky enough still to have that chance, and I also have an obligation to fully discover what it means.
Jaime A. Cobham ’17, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House.