Today is the celebration of Dr. King’s life and work. There have been plenty of posts and articles posted today in remembrance of him. All this made me think about what effect Dr. King has had on my life.
Since I’m a 70’s child, I’ve grown up knowing nothing but “diversity” and “equal opportunity”. At least this is what my parents tried to provide for me. My sister on the other hand, is from a different generation. She’s old enough to actually remember seeing “White Only” signs and she went through integration in high school. As for me, I grew up being the only black in my honors classes, so I can somewhat relate to the seclusion my sister must have felt. But for the most part, to my knowledge, I never encountered racism while growing up. Actually, I was ostracized by the black students more than I was by white students. There was one other black male that started off in the honors classes, but he ended up dropping down to the “college prep” tract. Looking back, I think he was just tired of being picked on by the black kids in his neighborhood.
As for me, my education minded parents encouraged me to stay the course. Because of their influence, I achieved some “firsts” in my life. I was the first Eagle Scout in a mostly white Boy Scout troop. I was also the first Black Eagle Scout in my county. I’m sure this upset a lot of White parents of the boys in my troop. Especially a troop leader or two whose sons were older than me. Anyways, because of always being the only black in my classes, I went to a HBCU for college. My classmates were all shocked by this. Everyone figured I would go to a big White state university. My close friends, however, always knew I’d go to a HBCU. The surprise for them was the fact that I didn’t go to my parents’ alma mater.
I finally started to notice racist attitudes when I got to college. Because I was now hanging out with a “black crowd”, I began to notice how store clerks treated us. It was all good when I was with white friends. Now, I noticed people following us around and immediately “helping” us in the stores. This was a shock to me, but a valuable learning experience. When I went back home, I began to notice things there also.
One day, after I graduated from college, I talked to my mom about my experiences. She sat quietly and listened to me. When I finished, I asked her if I’d unknowingly gone through this when I was growing up. She looked up and told me that she and my dad tried to shield me from as much as they could. At that moment, I had a sudden thought. I asked her, “was all this prejudice the reason I was never in the “gifted” program until I got to high school?” She gave a sad smile and nodded.
Now, I never had high grades in school because I did just enough to get by. However, I always tested in the highest percentile. She told me that it just wasn’t worth the fight to get me in the “gifted” program when I was younger. Since she worked in education, she figured it was just extra work for no reason. Besides, I’d already had more experiences than 98% of the kids I ‘d gone to school with. Not too many black kids could say that they’d been to Europe, Canada, Mexico and all over the US by the age of eighteen unless they had a parent that was in the military. Heck, most white kids in my hometown hadn’t been off the east coast, much less out of the country. My mom said that once I got to the point where I could take high school level classes early, they fought for me. They wanted me to have the option to graduate early. Hearing that was pretty sobering.
Today, I’m out in corporate America. Once again, I’m the only Black in a lot of cases. Since I’m a black male in IT, I tend to stand out. There have been occasions when I’ve sat down with management and I know I’ve been told “no” about something specifically because I’m a black male. They might tell you “it’s lack of funds” or “it’s company policy” or some other reason, but other white co-workers don’t seem to have the same constraints. I’ve seen this happen with other black employees also. Oh, and the favorite excuse seems to be either “you don’t have enough education” or “you don’t have enough experience”. I’ve gotten the experience excuse myself.
All this tends to lead me to the conclusion that I am a token, a statistic that can be reported to the government. But that’s okay, I don’t mind. One day soon, I’ll really be able to use my knowledge and experience to help others come up. This is the reason I volunteer in my community. By constantly seeing a positive black male role model, kids will be inspired to be successful in whatever they want to do in life. Only by opening doors and helping others can we help achieve the dream Dr. King had for all of us. The question I have for you is, will you continue to just be a “token” or will you answer that knock at your door?