This Is Us

The Price of Being Pleasing

Notes on a lifetime of performing Black harmlessness

Photo: Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images

A lot of words have been spilled lately about white guilt and shame, but white people aren’t the only ones feeling it. During a recent lunch, one of my favorite former students informed me that, in the last month, he’d attended five official and two unofficial Black Lives Matters protests. I couldn’t have been prouder of him — but I also felt deeply ashamed of myself, and my lack of activism.

For the past three years, I’ve taken my students — most of whom are white — to San Quentin prison, taught them about racial inequity, smiled with pride as they marched into the streets, the college classroom, and the voting booth ready to campaign for equality, giving myself a pat on the back for a job well done. That fateful lunch demonstrated to me what a coward I’ve been. Yes, I teach my teenage students well and equip them with the tools to fight for a more just tomorrow. But I am also hiding behind them, letting them say what I have been too fearful to march in the streets and say for myself.

The first hoodie I owned had my Ivy League college’s name emblazoned on it. That hoodie was acceptable, because it was proof that I was exceptional.

I would love to walk out of my house in a hoodie and sweats and not have to care what people think of me but that is impossible; always in the back of my mind is my mother’s voice telling me that I represent them and that, if I want to be taken seriously, I have to represent well. The truth is that I didn’t own a hoodie until freshman year of college. The first hoodie I owned had my Ivy League college’s name emblazoned on it. That hoodie was acceptable, because it was proof that I was exceptional.

In Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, Aaron Burr’s character sings about his desire to be in the “room where it happens,” in the space where power is held and decisions are made. From the age of three, when my parents told me that my Black skin meant that I was going to have to work twice as hard to be considered close to the equal of my white classmates, it became my life’s mission to get into those rooms. Entry wasn’t a status symbol as much as it was a survival tool. And lucky me, I made it. I went to one of the best grade schools in my home city, one of the best high schools in my state, and one of the best colleges in the world. My father can wear his Princeton Dad T-shirt with pride because we made that happen. I can brag about getting drunk in dorm rooms where First Ladies and Presidents once slept. I can smile smugly at cocktail parties when people discuss Beloved because unlike them, I got to tell Toni Morrison how much I loved it when she was my professor. My best friends, who are the most loyal, kind, incredible people I have ever known, also happen to be the sons and daughters of parents whose wealth is written about in Forbes and whose opinions are disseminated on the floor of the United States Senate. In many respects, I have made it. I get to be in those rooms where it happens. The price of getting there, however, was any sense of my authentic Blackness.

I am constantly aware that I am Black. What I have realized, however, is that I have no authentic sense of what being Black means. I understand the suffering that comes from being Black, I intuit the struggles and the sacrifices and the choices I have to make while being Black. But true, authentic Blackness… I have no clue what that is. I’m not saying that I’m “whitewashed,” or that I’ve sacrificed my Blackness for the safety that assimilating into white culture allegedly provides (though I have been accused of both). To have done that would require me to have understood my Blackness and made a conscious decision to alter or surrender it, and I can’t give away something I don’t recall owning in the first place.

What I realize is that with relatively few exceptions, I have never had a publicly authentic reaction to my own Blackness or to things that happened to me because I am Black. My anger is always masked with a smile, my tears are always shed in private behind a locked door. My voice is always well modulated and even-toned and pleasing, even when I want to rage to the heavens. I have publicly performed Black harmlessness for so long that I no longer know where I end and that mask I wear to place myself above white suspicion begins.

I don’t own Ralph Lauren polos in 15 colors because I have an irrational love of ponies. Each shirt is a piece of battle armor.

Last week I stood in my closet trying to select my outfit for a wine tasting I was attending later that afternoon. As I glanced at the row of pastel, I finally admitted to myself that each shirt was chosen for the purpose of making me seem non-threatening to white people as much it was for my personal enjoyment. I don’t own Ralph Lauren polos in 15 colors because I have an irrational love of ponies. Each shirt is a piece of battle armor. A signal to any white woman who would otherwise clutch her purse a little tighter when I approach that I come in peace. I teach my classes in X-Men and Harry Potter T-shirts not simply because I love those characters — which I do — but in the hope that my willingness to wear shirts with people sporting capes, claws, and colorful costumes makes me look harmless.

I would love to be able to walk around in America and be openly Black, to have the freedom to explore and understand all facets of what that means without social or professional reprisal. In fact, nothing would make me happier than to have a life do-over while being unabashedly Black, in a world without systemic racism. I would love to live in a world like the fictional ones from my T-shirts, where people might be singled out for their mutant powers or because of the house they were magically sorted into, and not because of the color of their skin. And I know exactly what would be different.

My parents purchasing a home mere blocks from the house where my grandmother once served as a teenage maid would be a happy coincidence, rather than a pointed declaration of our racial and social arrival.

Their ability to do so would also insulate them from the indignity of being followed and pulled over in their own neighborhood by police who question their right to be there.

We wouldn’t have to smile in the faces of white school administrators and teachers who marvel at my perfect command of the English language and ask my parents which of them is responsible for my “articulateness.”

The white woman who refused to sell my mother a house because she was Black and sold it to another white woman for a dollar over the original asking price would not get away with it.

The white women who told my mother she was “too poor” to join their Mother’s Club would not get away with it.

The white men who leered at my mother and made her uncomfortable in my presence for the crime of being beautiful would be told to knock it the hell off.

The white boy who called me the N-word in first grade in the middle of class because I won an award that he wanted would not get away with it.

I would have fought back against the white classmates who touched my hair like I was a monkey in a zoo and relentlessly bullied me all through high school — while adults watched and did nothing — without fear of being expelled for being the “angry Black man.”

The white classmates who cornered me in the library my senior year and told me that I didn’t deserve to go to Princeton — that I was taking one of their spots and that, in spite of six years of stellar grades, community service, theatre, ballet, and other accomplishments, my only value to Princeton was that I was Black — would not get away with it.

The white classmates who told me I should be “grateful” that my high school “gave” me an education — when, in reality, my parents paid as much as theirs did — would not get away with it.

I would allow myself to enjoy the luxury of being average. I would get the occasional B, or heck, maybe even a C without worrying it would be viewed as proof that “we” don’t perform as well as our white peers.

I would just be a person.

I would unchain myself from my desk and go to high school parties. I would get into the mischief that is expected of teenagers without worrying that my hijinks would result in my parents getting called to the jail or the morgue.

I would hit back when I was hit. I would insult back when I was insulted. And I wouldn’t care whether or not I was pleasing.

I would relish not having to spend every waking moment of my life being the model, the exceptional one, the representative of my race, the standard against which that race would be judged.

I would know with certainty that I never had to worry about being the next Ahmaud Arbery.

I would just be a person.

And maybe, just maybe, I would wear a hoodie because it was comfortable.

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