The interaction goes somewhat like this:
He’s usually accompanied with a friend and approaches a complete stranger, but instead of introducing himself, he shakes that person’s hand and acts as if they are longtime friends. Sam then proceeds to converse with the stranger, who usually guiltily obliges.
As soon as the person finds out that this is their first time meeting, the person laughs at the ridiculousness of the situation. Sam and the stranger eventually part ways, the stranger having experienced a conversation that he or she had never thought would have happened on the way to class.
I had wanted to experience this in person. But, alas, I am too awkward to try this out on my own. So I asked Sam as we were walking back after a late shift at work if he could show me how it was done.
Sam let out a nervous laugh. He told me no, not right now.
I wondered why, so I asked him. His reason was that he is an African American man and the sun has already set.
It’ll scare people, he said.
Albeit, being approached by a random person on my way back from class would also creep me out. I think the part of this conversation that bothered me was that first I agreed with him and stopped bothering him about it.
“Yes, it would probably scare people,” I said.
The unsettling thing is that I agreed more so that he would scare people because he is an African American man rather than the fact that approaching complete strangers at this particular time would be the more bothersome aspect of this scenario.
But why shouldn’t it have been left at just because it was nighttime? Why was it mostly because of the way that he looks? Why was it because of the shade of his skin?
My friend is one of the most outgoing and friendly people that I know. When I transferred to this school, he was one of the first people to introduce himself and try to make conversation with me. And I’m a strange combination of awkward, standoff, semi-intimidating kind of person. So that’s saying a lot.
There is something deeply wrong within the social construction that we allow to continue to exist every day. Some will argue that racism is long gone, that racism ended when slavery was abolished, or when the Civil Rights Movement saw visible results.
Some will say that the subject of racism is tired and worn out. As if it has gone out of style until the next young black and unarmed man is shot.
Let me say something different. I wonder if perhaps the only events and experiences that we notice are those that are written in bold letters, when they make the headlines—even then we tend to treat them as if they are the latest gossip. These personal experiences and the families that have been changed forever become fleeting and sensational news.
In the heat of the moment, we cling to the people who come out and relate. We share our newfound revelation and opinions. We like the pictures, we share the statuses, we indulge ourselves in supporting those who are seeking justice because they are tired of experiencing microaggressions on a daily basis.
A few days pass by and their stories are treated like the last week’s episode. The hype fades and we look for gossip or another headline piece. We treat victims of racism and continual discrimination
as if their personal accounts are only relevant when relevant headlines are taking up space on our television screens and newspapers.
Everyday we are guilty of giving power to these unwritten rules of our society. These racist remarks that our parents told us while we were growing. The way that we shift our bodies when we see a person who looks dangerous because of the best selling stereotypes that we allow ourselves to buy into as reality.
These acts: the way that we suspiciously look at an African American boy, the way that we clutch our purses close to us when we’re alone with an African American man in an elevator.
I am guilty of buying into these stereotypes as well. I will catch myself assuming that every black man who walks past me at 9pm in Minneapolis is inherently violent and carries around a gun like you’d assume a women carries a purse. I am guilty of having a disproportionate fear when an African American man walks past me while I am walking alone than when a Caucasian man walks past me.
I admit that I do not know what it feels like to be treated like a convict to the point where I would have a smaller chance of getting hired for a job if I were an African American man without a conviction than if I were a Caucasian man with a conviction.
I am sick of unjustly profiling people. I might have thought in the past that the way that I acted in nonverbal ways would not have mattered, but these reactions are noticeable. Much like if I walked into a room and every one became quiet, or someone commented in passing, “You’re like, a nice kind of black. You don’t talk like the others.” Which, believe me, has happened—I can only imagine how African American men feel when they are treated as if they are criminals by complete strangers.
I had trouble dealing with this topic because I feel like I am not doing it enough justice. I have experienced what it feels like to be part of the minority. I know a little bit about how it feels when you’re the only Black student in your AP classes and everyone looks to you to represent your entire race—regardless of how diverse it is in history and in culture.
Whether they are verbal or nonverbal— social interactions influence the way in which we see one another. When we collectively ostracize a person, we build learned deviance.
If we tell a young boy that he is a criminal and we treat him like an outcast, then he’ll probably begin to identify as one.
We are all unique individuals who have something bright and beautiful to offer to the world. All of our experiences give us personal perspective. When we share these experiences, we begin a revolutionary change to the perspective of others around us and it helps us combats against preconceived notions and stereotypes believed by those who are outside of our race, culture, religion, or ethnicity.
My conversation with Sam left me feeling unsettled about the parts of society that I did not question. It left me feeling hopeless and wondering if there was anything that I could do to battle an unwritten rule of systemic racism that was so deeply ingrained into the way that we interacted with one another that it was like beating the Matrix.
I eventually realized that there was something that I could do. Just like how social interactions can affect an individual in negative ways, I could also try my absolute best to try to affect an individual in a positive way.
Social interactions are powerful. We can use these interactions to either perpetuate the detrimental unwritten rules in society or we can actively work to reshape these roles. It’s our choice.
I know that this is a long uphill battle, but I also know that conversation helps. Being open to listening and trying to understand a person’s perspective that is completely different than yours.
When I engage in genuine conversation, I am able to truly seek out the perspective of those who I normally wouldn’t. That is how I connect to logic and to the irrational beliefs that try to sell themselves to me on a regular basis.
These interactions and situations change the way that an individual sees him or herself. I don’t want to be part of this anymore. I don’t want my friend Sam to constantly worry about the Stereotype threat.
I don’t want Sam to consistently try to prove to the world that he is not part of the negative stereotypes that are constantly perpetuated by our media, our interactions, and our willingness to buy into these ideologies and not question them.
I am going to connect my irrational feelings to logic.
I am going to strike up conversation with people whose experiences I am not familiar with.
I am going to try my absolute best to listen to them without pushing my own perspective or trying to push my own ideologies and preconceived notions.
I want to learn about the individuals around me and understand that each individual is uniquely talented in his or her own way.
I want to live in the truth that stereotypes are complete fiction and that they will no longer have affect on me.
I want to be part of the movement that works to demolish these stereotypes and boxes that people around me have been forced to call themselves a part of.
The next time I am feeling wary of an African American male, or if I tense up and walk faster, I will ask myself why. I will ask myself if I would do the same if the male was socially categorized into any other race.
I will try my best to be conscious of my actions that reveal my deepest thoughts. I will actively recall the personal accounts of real people, like Sam, when my irrational and unconscious beliefs of stereotypes make their appearances.
As individuals, we have unique upbringings and experiences that shape us into the people that we are now. Each day, you and I have the opportunity to learn more, to expand our perspectives, and take a step closer to the kind of person that we have always wanted to be.