My favorite bit of simple mind-f**k wisdom is the old Confucius saying: The man who says he can, and the man who says he cannot are both correct. Many outcomes in life are first determined in the mind. This is true for both groups and individuals, internally or externally. So, what does this mean for Black People?
I have learned to examine my self-talk and correct it when necessary because a lot of what a person believes can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have seen myself as terrible at certain things (personal and professional), and for the most part – haha – remained terrible at them. Yet the things that I choose to view myself as excellent in, or at least “enjoying”… I improve in. And – some would say – “master”.
First, Let’s Talk About White Men
Flipping this for a second, I’ve heard the term “White Guy Confidence” a lot over the last few years. I’m not making this up, look it up on Google. In brief, it’s a generic term used to describe a person who has an unwarranted sense of self-assurance. From the name, I imagine this is specifically rooted in the way White males typically carry themselves. And you’ll see this pop-up a lot in conversations about job skills and promotions, and the willingness to request a raise or a new position. This undeservedly confident stereotype regularly rises to leadership ranks in companies across America (or so the story goes).
Now, you can choose to take away whatever you want, good or bad, from that little aside I just told you about in the last paragraph — but I’ve always homed in on the fact that this unsavory character is moving up in life simply because they believe they can (whether those around them do or don’t). This is a modern example of someone saying “I can” and proving themselves correct. (Sucks to think about it that way, doesn’t it?)
I honestly think this video explains the phenomena very well…
Listen to it twice if you have to. Hearing this example, on top of other non-public conversations I’ve had about this topic, begs the question (for me), “How do I see myself?” And also, “How much of how I see myself is a product of me being Black?”
A Conversation With A Friend
I remember when one of my friends (cool Black guy – loving father, husband, etc.) once said to me, “You’re probably more likely to believe in racist stereotypes than a White person as a Black person.” (Forgive me if I’m misquoting you – I’m totally paraphrasing from memory.) He wasn’t talking about ME personally. We were discussing racial treatment in America (these are the conversations I have with my friends), and he was making a general comment about Black People and their collective self-perception(s) as a group.
When my friend says things like this, I stop and think because he regularly works with large groups of people. His day job and passion revolve around understanding the groups he’s trying to impact (in this case, Black People) more than they understand themselves so he can mobilize change initiatives. I feel like he’s spoken to way more people than I ever care to from all walks of life, and he’s making informed statements based on observations he’s seen in the world.
We kept pressing on the issue at hand and actually ended up landing on a number of examples to support his theory. This chat took place a few years ago, so I can’t say that I know what his view is now – but mine has evolved to a point of openly asking (in my head – not out loud), “How much of this self-perception is born internally vs. being taught externally?” (See where I’m taking this?)
How Do Black People View Themselves?
This question, as I mean it, is a double-edged sword. I don’t mean, “What do you think of yourself?” I literally mean, “How do you see others who look like you out in the world?”
There are two sides to this one. One is positive (and takes a little more effort to find) and the other is negative (and much easier to see at a glance).
I like to take my bad news first. And I’ll put it lightly.
If Black People look out into the world, we see that we are a minority across many positions of power in most cities. Unless you live somewhere with a high population of Black citizens, you’re probably very accustomed to seeing very few black government leaders, business people, and wealthy professionals. We are more likely to be found in positions of service than positions of ownership. And when you look in the media channels made for general consumption (as in media outlets NOT catered specifically to appeal to Black topics of interest), depending on where you look – you either see us:
Presented in the context of entertainment of some kind
Involved in some social issue related to our Blackness in some way
Shown in a negative light (involving a crime, unflattering incident, etc.)
Or not shown at all
That narrative changes in the month of February to one of celebration and critical discussion, but prior to that – we live in a world of media-based microaggressions that are constant reminders of “our place”. This is why, and you can ask people who know me about this, I’m not a fan of any big Hollywood movies about slavery, or of putting Harriet Tubman on U.S. currency.
I don’t think we should “move on” from slavery. It happened, it was wrong, and there has never been any reparation given for that (sorry, my freedom and treating me as a human don’t count — those are like base-level requirements). But I think there’s something happening psychologically with continuing that narrative and glorifying it through constant memorial on film. There is so much more to Black Culture that I refuse to believe that other aspects can’t be shown to the world.
In that same regard, there have been so many Black contributors throughout history who advanced the rights of Black People in America that I refuse to believe they can’t commemorate someone, who doesn’t project anything having to do with the imagery of slavery, on U.S. currency. What Harriet Tubman did was amazing, but we have other heroes who won’t subconsciously exude “Black Slave” (as a constant reminder) and then ironically be passed around through the hands of men and women who “own it” (think about that). Sorry… I really do have feelings about that one. Pick someone else.
There it is (again, put lightly). On the negative end of the spectrum – we are constantly Black in White Spaces. That is one way that we actually see ourselves out in the world.
There is a good side to this coin for most Black People, though.
If you are fortunate enough to have a pretty solid base of Black friends (some Black people aren’t — they just didn’t grow up that way) and be on Social Media, chances are you’re bombarded day in and day out with images of Black success. You see imagery of friends starting businesses. You see beautiful Black families (going against any narrative you may have grown up hearing about Black fatherly abandonment). So many memes related to fun, but socially relevant, Black moments in pop culture. You will see leaders raised up and supported from across the country by everyone (believe me – I don’t live in Georgia – but Stacey Abrams is a hero to me here in D.C.). You will see people fall, but you’ll also see how a community can come around them and uplift them in their moments of need.
In short – if you know where to look, you’ll see Black People being there for each other.
Art, Writing, Politics, Education, Civics, the list goes on. The list goes on, and it’s far beyond Sports and Music (which I applaud – I’m just saying we’re MORE than that).
Another thing you’ll see is a younger generation of Black People actively training the minds of their children for success based on the lessons their parents taught them (good or bad). There is a sense of opportunity that I think we’re yearning to pass down through generations (rather than a sense of “Survival in America”).
You see people striving for a social acceptance that comes a little more naturally for others, but at the same time not allowing that to make or break their identity. We have collectively learned that we have to rely on ourselves for a lot, and we’re altering our behavior accordingly. We see images of ourselves in moments of beauty and scandal because we know where to look.
In summary of the two sections above: Black People see our full-selves. There is a balance there that has to be maintained because you can choose which narrative to reinforce. If you believe that you’re a second-class citizen, you’re probably right. If you believe that you are the master of your own destiny, you’re probably right.
How America Views Black People
I can’t address this particular in an unbiased way, so I’ll read lightly and just encourage people to look at stories they see online and other forms of media to answer that question.
I once attended a very White university for a year – and I remember being told by an advisor that, for a lot of the students there, I might be the first Black person they’ve regularly interacted with and that many of them may have their perception of Black People from TV. It wasn’t said as a bragging point on behalf of the school, it was more like a warning and a plea for patience. Both the advisor and I knew that such perceptions might prove problematic for my stay there – haha!
And he wasn’t wrong. I experienced so many moments of social faux pas at that school in a year that I eventually left. The VERY substantial scholarship wasn’t worth sticking around for.
But, I also learned a lot about White People in that year, and I learned to forgive and to try to teach rather than push away.
For every moment I was asked what sport I played (I was one of 24 Black students there at the time)… For every moment a server in the cafeteria thought that I automatically wanted chicken on the days it was served (and verbally said this to me in line very comfortably in front of everyone)… For every assumption about my family’s income, social standing, and lack of resources… For every assumption that I knew more about crime or drugs in an open forum…
(And the list goes on)
I learned to calmly let the indignation wash over me, and to verbally correct when I could – or show a more accurate reality by example. This is because I realized that White People, for the most part, just don’t KNOW Black People. They think they do. They’ve read articles and seen movies and listened to music, but many don’t really KNOW Black People.
They might come into our interactions viewing me a certain way based on how they view Black People, and I feel like it’s on me to either accept that profile or allow them to learn a new expanded definition. I can either let them think they’re right based on whatever perception they might bring, or I can be open to helping them see they might be wrong.
I have learned to survive in a White world, and they haven’t really had to see the world in any other way.
I can’t be any more mad at them for that position in life than I can be at a baby for not knowing how to speak. But, in the same way that I can teach that child letters, words, and how to construct sentences and formulate thoughts – I can help non-Black People better understand me.
Not who they think I am. But who I ACTUALLY am.
I think I’ll wrap this one there and just reiterate to people to watch what you think, because you’ll often prove yourself right (whether you’re actually right or not).