I’m a black man. I don’t think about it very often, but there it is anyway. I said it. It’s out there. Of course if you met me in person it might be one of the first things you think of, depending on where you’re from, or how old you are. I’ve gotten quite adept at interpreting “the look,” the one that says you see my color, the one that gives me an inkling of where your thoughts are, for better or for worse.
You see, I’ve gotten that look since I was first able to register looks. There’s the look that says, “I recognize you’re a black man and that I’m supposed to be afraid of you.” There’s the look that says, “I recognize you’re a black man and I’m intrigued by it.” And then there’s the look that proclaims, “I recognize you’re a black man and I hate you for it.” Luckily I don’t see that last look quite as much as I used to, or maybe it’s just my rose-colored glasses again.
When I was a kid I didn’t really know how to interpret the looks that said I was a black man in training. I knew I was black, instinctively, the way you know you’re in water because you’re wet. But what that meant I wasn’t quite aware of, aside from the looks anyway. Generally I didn’t come into too much contact with anyone who wasn’t black for a very long time. I lived a sheltered life, meaning those around me were largely also black. Growing up in Southwest Philly wasn’t quite the diverse atmosphere in the 80’s.
But once I began seeing white people on a regular basis, once I started high school (where to be black was indeed a minority) it became obvious that there was a difference between them and me. For one, I was seen as a member of the minority just by looking the way I did. It wasn’t a negative, per se, but it was definitely obvious. The black kids sat at separate lunch tables, sat together in class, and pretty much segregated themselves from the whites and “others” at the school. At least that’s what I saw, because to my young brain it seemed like real separation. Looking back, though, I think everyone was friendly. It was just that at its base the race dynamic tended to dominate, at least in social situations.
The looks changed, though, when I got a little older and began dating. Because I didn’t tend to choose the “safe” black girls to date, the ones that would have been mother approved simply because of the tone of their skin. I tended to look at girls who had lighter skin and could turn orange if they so chose. Luckily they generally didn’t choose this particular shade, but being white wasn’t seen as a positive. That’s where it got interesting. To that point all the looks I got and recognized were from white people, because I was a black man, and weren’t they supposed to be afraid of me? I began to get different looks when I stepped out on the town with white women.
For a black man, to be with a white woman can be daunting. First, because of the obvious stereotypes of interracial couples, but also because too many people actually believe in those stereotypes. They believe that a black man is simply a beast, and that a white woman who is with a black man must be looking to be submissive. They believe that like has to stay with like, that diluting the racial pool is akin to taking a sledgehammer to the Constitution. The looks these people give are scathing, withering stares, as if they can’t possibly believe what they’re seeing, but that it’s the worst thing that could possibly happen.
The biggest difference in these looks from the initial ones is that these looks come from just as many black people as they do white folk. So, while I was used to being seen as “other” from white people, I hadn’t gotten quite a taste of what being seen as “other” from black people was like. I got it in full force once my dating life began, even in as big and as diverse a city as Philadelphia. I guess my own circles were small enough. The looks were many, and were fierce, some people going as far as to say something under their breath, but not quite under their breath, knowing that I heard them, but also knowing I wouldn’t dare approach them about it.
Most of these people, I have to say, were older. Old black women, old white men, old white women, old black men, it didn’t seem to matter based on gender. It was just WRONG for a young black man to be attracting the fancy of a white woman. It was just unheard of for a white woman to be seen in the company of a black man, to hold hands in public, or even to show other public displays of affection so they couldn’t imagine (as they were wont to do) that we were friends, and nothing more. It’s just funny to me that even as society advanced these people went absolutely nowhere, preferring to keep holding on tightly to preconceived notions of how the world “should be.”
Then I got married and had children, who are mixed race, and they look it. I find it fascinating that now I get a whole other range of looks that at first I couldn’t identify. Many of these new looks are positive. I’m a black man who is there for his children, who is spending time with them, who isn’t a deadbeat. And I guess that’s not as positive as it sounds at first, because isn’t that an assumption that black men aren’t there for their children? My children are often called beautiful by perfect strangers who claim that, “aren’t mixed race kids the cutest?” And I often think, the more we change the more we stay the same.
These looks shift depending on who I’m with or whether I’m alone. When I’m by myself I still get the initial looks, just for being a black man. These looks don’t happen as often as they used to, but I still recognize them the second they do occur. I know this one black guy who claims to embrace the looks, who always plays on it like it’s some kind of joke. Like, yeah, “this one store only hires one black person as a token.” Like, yeah, “somebody’s gotta be black around here. Might as well be me.” I can’t be like him, though, because I really have hope for a world where it’s just another thing.
I’d like to think we live in that world already, but the looks tell me otherwise. Still.