Last night I attended a networking event hosted by a major tech company based in San Francisco. The mixer was held at a popular downtown Oakland coffeehouse, which has become a symbol of the city’s gentrifying landscape complete with high priced items and well dressed hip patrons who willingly pay for them.
I arrived at the crowded cafe with my business partner and an employee from the host tech company who had personally reserved our tickets making sure that we would attend. While waiting to sign my name tag, I scanned the room and noticed that it was no different than most small business events that focus on technology that I’ve attended–the large cafe was filled with young, primarily white men, of a similar age and class demographic, who excitedly exchanged business cards of the newly founded startups they proudly worked for.
Caught up in sizing up the crowd, I realized that I was blocking the doorway and stepped aside to let a group of people standing behind me check in. As I moved, I felt a strong yank on my arm that turned me around to meet the face of a young Asian woman who sternly yelled, “This is a private event!” The loudness of her voice stopped the conversations around us and the room of white faces stood by–with locally sourced beer in hand–to watch a perhaps foreign to them moment of racism between two “people of color” unfold.
With the young woman still gripping my arm, I pulled my ticket out of my pocket and angrily tossed it on the registration table and walked out the door. Feeling completely embarrassed, my initial reaction was to step away from the situation but my wounded ego pushed me to prove to the woman that she was wrong about me. Before I could speak, she blamed the misrecognition of me on the “stress” associated with organizing the event. She said that she was “tired and overwhelmed” and that the daily activities of checking name badges and packaging gift-bags were the reasons why she made such a “big mistake.” I said there was no excuse for her racism. I told her that she stopped me because I was not like the young white men in the room that wore flannel shirts, had scruffy beards and donned dark rimmed glasses. I said that she was wrong to treat me as if I was going to rob the place and that she humiliated me in front of my colleagues. She tried to intervene but I wouldn’t let her speak. All that I could say was: “I am a Dr. I am a business owner. I am not like the other black men you see around here. I belong here. You are wrong. I belong here.”
Three years ago I was invited to present my work to a community of scholars in San Antonio, TX. I had just begun to physically pass as male and had a brand new license with my correct gender marker on hand to prove it to airport security. Before boarding the plane I showed my anxiety of traveling to a “red state” with a sarcastic tweet that mentioned Texas better not mess with me–an arguably witty retort to the popular “Don’t Mess With Texas” slogan. I planned to stay at the loft of a colleague of mine who would arrive to the same space later on that night. We communicated through text about how to take a taxi from the airport to the loft and where to find the key that she had left for me under a rock.
That night I set out to explore the historic city of San Antonio and after having dinner with a friend, I returned to the loft to prepare for my presentation that was early the next morning. While I was unpacking and chatting on the phone, the downstairs neighbor, a young Latina woman, walked upstairs to the loft, took one look at me and said, “You’re not supposed to be here!” She ran back downstairs and I ran after her saying yelling, “this is my friends house. Please, don’t run away. I’m supposed to be here.”
Within minutes of returning back to the loft, I was surrounded by police officers with guns drawn yelling at me to “get the fuck down.” In complete shock, I managed to kneel as one officer pushed me down and nestled his gun in the back on my head. Another shoved his knees into my spine while shouting at me to reveal who “the fuck” I was and why was I there. Like the moment in the coffeeshop that would happen years later, all that I could say was that, “I’m a Ph.D! I’m a filmmaker! I’m a scholar! People know who I am. I’m supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be here.”
I was searched, handcuffed and placed in the backseat of the police car where I cried like I had never heard myself cry before. With every whimper, cough, and sniffle, my body shifted and forced the handcuffs to dig deeper into my wrists and provided an excuse for the officers to threaten me with imprisonment. “Shut the fuck up!” the white officer said. “Or I’ll take you downtown and book you. Is that what the fuck you want? Haven’t you been arrested before? Don’t you know you have to shut the fuck up?”
I held my breath to stop crying and said nothing.
Eventually, contact was made with the family of my colleague who explained my presence. I was released form the handcuffs and told to “stay out of trouble” by the same white cop who had threatened to jail me for crying. As a masculine symbol of apology, he patted me on my chest that carried fresh surgical wounds, smiled and told me that I could legally return to the loft. As I made my way back, the young woman called the police softly grabbed my arm, looked directly into my eyes and said, “I’m sorry. I just wanted to protect us. I didn’t know.”
I withheld the rage I felt welling deep inside my gut that could only muster out a “fuck you.” I swallowed the humiliation that exuded from the judgmental eyes of neighbors who emerged from their homes to to watch the police catch the black criminal in their nice neighborhood. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs that they were wrong–How could they not see that I am not like those other black men. How could they not see that I belonged there? I pulled my arm away and silently walked back upstairs to the loft.
We live in a world that assumes the worst of young black masculinity to the point in which it causes concerned citizens–even those of color–to act as race vigilantes who enforce preventative measures with the hopes of keeping black men from acting out our criminal nature. The absurdity of the policing of black male violence by “good racists” lies in the reality that violence itself is used and celebrated as the preferred tactic of approach. Ultimately relaying a message that black men and boys are fair game for public scrutiny–even to the extent of annihilation. The murder of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent violent posturing of his life as an acceptable defense for his death is a perfect example.
Last night while laying in bed, I reflected on how these experiences have shaped my own performance of “good racism.” In both situations, I felt that my only defense was to demoralize the behavior of my “bad” brothers by showing that I was an exception to their brutality. I wanted to prove that unlike them, I have integrity, goals, and aspirations to be good–I am good.
I’ve been a black man for less than five years and can only imagine what its like for men my age who have lived their whole lives as victims of peer led policing. I wonder if any of them have successfully found a way to prove their “goodness” without defaulting to language that reinforces the idea that some of us are worthy of the surveillance we experience.
As I dozed off and my brain began to slip into a sleep far away from the harshness of this unkind world, I thought about my chosen path of black masculinity and wondered will it forever prohibit people from acknowledging the kindness of my spirit, the generosity of my heart, my humanity and my desire to show love in all of its manifestations. I asked aloud as if the whole population of black men could hear me from my bed: will people ever see us as good?
Not wanting to deal with the reality of the answer to this question, I simply hugged my body tight and whispered softly, “I belong here. We all belong here. And we are all good.”