Same, But Different
You know what’s interesting? When I go places to speak and tell people what I do (supporting black women on our journeys towards self love and championing the increase in representation of black women everywhere), particularly when I tell people my story (growing up usually the only black person in the room, never seeing myself represented in the media I consumed, and that leading to crippling self-hatred, more accurately titled internalized racism) I get this curious response from white people. Often they’ll come up to me and tell me how many people of color they grew up with, how they were always used to being the only white person in the room, how they were uncomfortable when they moved to San Diego because they wondered “Where are all the black people?!” Sometimes they’ll go so far as to tell me how they used to be bullied for being pale, or that they’ve always wanted “a tan”.
And while I seek to be understanding, to realize that they’re doing the very human thing of trying to find common ground, trying to come alongside, to mirror, I mostly feel like this:
When I talk about growing up the only black person in the room, consuming white-centered media, never seeing myself represented, I’m not talking about feeling uncomfortable. I’m not talking about wanting lighter skin because it was some sort of fashionable thing to have, I’m not talking about middle school bullying. I’m talking about systems of oppression.
I’m gonna say that one more time for the people in the back:
I’m talking about systems of oppression.
I’m talking about power and power dynamics. I’m talking about structures put in place centuries before white people had to find themselves the only white kid in a classroom. Because even in that space, even as they’re surrounded by black and brown people, guess who wields the most social power? And no, we’re not talking about who was “most popular” in school; I mean that if a white kid called the police on a black classmate, there’s a likelihood that kid could end up dead or otherwise physically harmed. I mean if a white kid and a brown classmate got into a fight in school, the brown classmate would likely be punished more severely than the white kid. I mean when the white kid left that school, as we all do, they were more likely to get a job, get a loan, get housing in a nicer area or at all, than their classmates of color.
The thing about White Supremacy is that it is every white person’s invisible backup. Outnumbered or not, uncomfortable or not, bullied or not, the actual point of it is to give white people power that people of color do not have, simply because they are white. And it is ever-present. So when a black person is the only person of color in a room, it’s a very different experience because very different power dynamics are at work. When a brown person says they grew up consuming white media, the effect was not the same as a white person who grew up listening to rap, you see what I’m saying? Y’all gotta pay attention.