Today, we have an essay from a Sam McClenney about growing up as an intelligent black male in a system that didn’t anticipate his success.
This is a story about the expectations placed on people of color.
More importantly, this is a story about a loss of innocence: about seeing in color.
Here’s what Sam has to say about it:
All of us reach a point when we are no longer color blind. As kids, we see people as people and nothing else. The idea of appearance is lost on us. A hijab has no religious affiliation. An accent has no geographical significance. And maybe more interesting than either of those, skin color carries no importance. Eventually though, all of that changes. Maybe it’s watching as the media responds to acts of violence by plastering images of brown people over our TVs. Perhaps it’s the most recent terrorist attack that makes you question whether it’s right to group billions of peaceful people in with an extremist minority. It could be any number of things. All I know for sure though is that it happens. Many of us aren’t able to pin point exactly when that is.
Unfortunately I can.
In the 5th grade, my parents switched me from the public school system to an Episcopal private school. It was a transition that I didn’t understand in the moment. I had plenty of friends and had been doing well. My parents cited administrative failures, but as a ten-year-old, I couldn’t comprehend that. I ended up getting the real reason much later, but we will save that for the end. I made the change smoothly and was able to find success immediately. Most would think that making the switch from a “colorful” public school to a private school that was 99% white would be the moment of truth for me. And it wasn’t. Let’s jump to the end of middle school.
My class was going on the 8th grade field trip to DC. A rite of passage for many students that are about to take the next step into high school. It was the last day of the trip, and we were on the bus headed back to school, when a friend behind me asked me made a request.
“Hey Sam, rap for us.”
It was a weird question that I had never been asked before. I quietly declined the offer. That didn’t fly with the bus. I proceeded to receive cat calls for a performance that I was never going to give. Finally my friends realized that I wouldn’t cave and stopped. However, not before someone made a fatal final comment.
“Sam, you are the worst black person ever.”
I was mortified. What did that even mean? Worst black person ever? It was then for the first time that I realized that I was a black kid surrounded by white kids. What made it even worse was that they all knew it. That day was horrible. When we got back to school, I jumped into my mom’s car and cried. I didn’t understand. I had never felt so different. I had never felt so out of place. I had never felt so wrong about everything. That was the day I stopped being color blind.
Later on, after I graduated high school, I asked my parents why they took me out of public school when I was younger. They told me the truth. My success as a black male provided a problem for teachers. They could not prioritize my education. I was past the benchmark that defined their success as educators. They had to focus on those who were struggling. I was a working cog in an otherwise broken system. There was no way to win. Succeed and you are ignored. Fail and you are just another statistic. The sad part was that I just brushed off the truth as being part of life.
Most people who know me at this point would think I’m color blind. Most of my friends are white. The only significant relationship in my life was with a young white woman (from Norway no less). I’m not though. I see the failing system that oppresses minorities. I notice the jokes my friends make about being black, even if they think I just brush it off. I recognize the failures of this nation and realize the changes that need to be made. I just don’t believe that they will be made.
And maybe that’s the punchline. To see the problem, but to not believe in those that can fix it.
The day I stopped being color blind was a terrible day.
The feeling of not believing in a world that can solve the issues that it creates?
That is even worse.