Letter to Lexington

By Jordan O’Hare Gibson

 

Author’s Note:

This piece contains language and ideas that may be offensive to some. I have made the conscious effort to remain as unequivocal in my language as possible. This means that there is no sugarcoating of any kind. This is an, authentic account of the Teenage Black Experience in Lexington, Massachusetts. While reading, I hope you will embrace the discomfort that allows you to open your eyes and heart to new information and perspectives. If the flame of social justice burns within you, Dear Reader, I implore you: read on.

 

Ah, Lexington, who among us can properly laud your excellences? Lexington, a town of such historical significance in America’s “fight for independence,” and a modern-day tower of financial strength, a home to activist groups aplenty, and a force of light in many a time of darkness. And the diversity! With organizations such as the Korean Organization of Lexington, (KOLEX), the Chinese-American Association of Lexington (CAAL), and the Indian Association of Lexington (IAL) being so prominent and well known, any claim that our town is in fact not as diverse as we believe would be instantly dismissed as nonsense. Pure, unsubstantiated hogwash. All one has to do is walk into any one of the town’s schools or the town center on a half-day of school, and you will see dozens, if not scores, of minority faces in all different shades!

Except you won’t.

Sure, there are many minorities living in Lexington, but one particular group of people is noticeably and woefully absent. While it is likely that you’ve heard of the aforementioned groups, what is less likely is that you’ve heard of the Association of Black Citizens of Lexington (ABCL). The ABCL is small — not out of a lack of interest among the town’s black population but because of the low percentage of blacks in town. According to Data USA, the percentage of Lexingtonians identifying as white is 68.8 percent. The next largest group is those who identify as Asian, coming in at 25.4 percent. Can you guess the bottom demographic? That’s right, the percentage of us who identify as black comes in at 0.97 percent. Is this low percentage the fault of the citizens of Lexington? Not entirely. Lexington is an extremely, almost embarrassingly affluent town, and the systems of segregation and institutionalized racism that persist in every corner of our nation try their damnedest to keep black and brown people as far away as possible from towns like ours. My concern is not just the lack of black people in Lexington, however. My concern is that, hand in hand with this lack of representation, is something even more dangerous: a severe lack of information, along with a healthy dose of misinformation, racial bias, and racial stereotyping. 

Racism is alive and well in America. This is a well-known and largely accepted fact. All one has to do is look at Charlottesville and the “Unite the Right” rally in 2017. Ask Tracy Martin what happened to his son Trayvon on February 26, 2012. Take a good look at current immigration policies, especially those which involve what our president has described as “shithole countries.” While this kind of overt, malicious racism exists, and is on the rise, it is condemned by the rational citizens of our nation. I have not heard of any incident of violent racism in our town. What exists, rather, is a more troubling brand of racism, an insidious ignorance bubbling below the surface of our collective subconscious — a brand of racism that is instilled in the hearts and minds of young people in such a sneaky way that one must be especially vigilant in order to notice. This is a brand of racism that teaches that black minds are inferior, that black students are less capable than their white and Asian counterparts, that black feelings are unimportant, and that black bodies do not deserve respect. It’s a kind of racism I have seen displayed too often among many of the politically progressive and supposedly socially minded citizens of Lexington and surrounding towns.

It’s the kind of racism that enables educated white people to look me in the eye and say, “Wow, you’re so well-spoken!”

While writing this article, I asked a few friends of mine if they’ve shared my experience or racism and racial bias in Lexington. One friend, a black senior who has lived and studied in Lexington since he was in fourth grade, wrote, “So recently I was called the N word with a hard ‘R’ over social media…. It didn’t physically hurt me but emotionally, it struck me the wrong way.... I saw this girl [who said it] as a friend, [and] I realized after she said that, her ignorance outweighed our friendship. She said her intention wasn’t to hurt me, but rather [to make] a stupid joke. That’s the part that hurt because I didn’t quite understand what made her think that was OK to say or how her saying such a derogatory word could be funny for anyone, especially an African American.”

I was appalled when I saw the message: “You’re such a nigger.” What does that even mean? “You’re such a black person” would be bad enough, but to use such an offensive and disparaging term boggles my mind. To employ a term that was specifically created to subjugate, oppress, divide, and dehumanize others in any context is unforgivable, but the fact that she didn’t realize the effects and implications of her language makes it even worse. With the rise of black music artists and their use of an adapted form of the word, “nigga,” many non-black people have begun to believe that it’s no big deal to say these things. I’ve heard the “but I used a soft ‘A’!” excuse countless times. “But it was in a song!” is another common response, as well as “But you guys [read, ‘you people’] use it with each other all the time!” The persistence of the colonizer mindset — the idea that “these dark-skinned people have something I want but can’t have, so I’m going to take it and then justify my actions later” — is toxic and bewildering. 

A particularly colossal culprit of cultural appropriation is the music industry. Besides the plethora of Hispanic and otherwise non-black artists using the N-word in their lyrics, their style, diction, and appearance are all co-opted directly from black culture. Artists like Teka$hi 6ix9ine, and Lil Pump have no significant black heritage. As a result, their prolific use of the N-word has led many listeners to believe that it’s “no big deal.” As I mentioned before, this is an erroneous conclusion. It is, and always will be, a big deal.

Yet cultural appropriation stretches beyond the use of a certain slur. A perfect example of an appropriative non-black artist: Ariana Grande. This prolific pop singer has skyrocketed to stardom, but not without the help of black influences and mannerisms. Her turning “it’s a” into “issa” at every opportunity, chopping off “r’s” at the ends of her words, and surrounding herself almost exclusively with people of color would be evidence enough to label her as a “culture vulture,” but the final nail in the coffin, as far as I’m concerned, comes from the way she has chosen to present herself of late. Her hair extensions (weaves), massively large hoop earrings and ridiculously dark spray tan are all a part of the costume and persona she has donned in order to become a more effective entertainer. Grande’s once inoffensive and lovable image has been tainted with minstrel-show-undertones and insensitivity with the advent of her lack of understanding and ultimate disregard of and for black bodies and experiences.

This lack of respect for the black body is in no way unique to notable celebrities. My hair has always been an integral part of my identity, and has always been a subject of fascination to numerous white people in my life. When I had a large Afro in middle school and freshman year of high school, white kids were constantly running up to me and touching or grabbing it. When I had a flat top, white classmates would push it down and watch in either amazement when it sprang back or disappointment when it didn’t. Students would make constant analogies to birds’ nests. They inquired as to whether or not a handprint could be indented. I’ve witnessed expressions of surprise when white students learned that my head is in fact a normal shape, and there wasn’t much space between the top of my hair and the top of my head. This has all been replaced now with “Wave Check!” jokes about my nonexistent AirPods (since waves and AirPods have recently become memes, yet another way black bodies are commodified and used for entertainment) and unsolicited running of hands across my head, wanting to feel the ridges I’d curated through careful brushing and treatment. Why do I need to tell them that my body is not theirs, that they do not own it or me? I am not an animal in your anyone’s petting zoo, and you will keep your hands to yourself.

I asked my friend (quoted above) what he wished people understood about being black in America. He said “I wish people understood how difficult it is being black in this country. We’re looked at differently and I feel like a lot of us are very cautious with how we carry ourselves because any wrong move and people automatically see us as below them.” I couldn’t agree more. Black people, especially black professionals, must be extremely cautious with how it is that they present themselves. What they say, how they say it, the music they listen to in public, the clothes they wear, the inflections in their voices — the list goes on and on.

One clear sign of racism in this country is how the dominant white culture is intimidated by smart, professional black people. The dominant white culture is looking for one slip-up, one single excuse to fit black people into their neat little stereotype. The virulently racist part of the white culture will want to see blacks as a stupid, angry, gangbanging, liquor-store-robbing, jive-talking, fried-chicken-and-watermelon-eating, shit stain on their “great country.” But even the liberal, supposedly inclusive side of the white culture is looking, if only subconsciously, for some kind of proof of white superiority. This is the part of the culture that fears black men walking down the street, holds low expectations for black students in schools, acts more or less indifferently to the continuing racial inequities in all aspects of society, and does nothing — absolutely nothing — to stop the steady incarceration of blacks in America. 

I’ve been writing here broadly about racism in the culture and how it plays out in liberal communities. But I also want to look more directly at schools. It’s here where the nation is supposed to offer equal opportunity for a quality education regardless of race. However, that hasn’t been my experience, or the experience of my black friends.

My brother, for one, has been experiencing racism from as early as kindergarten. He can recall being told by other kids that he couldn’t read certain books because “they weren’t for black people,” or being told he was a “helpless, brown-skinned person.” The adults in the room did not come to his rescue. Now he is in middle school, and has had racial slurs hurled at him numerous times. Here. In Lexington. Is this the life we want for the children growing up here? Are these the messages we want to send?

The only way to understand and unpack racism is through enlightenment and information. To white peers I want say that listening to mostly hip-hop doesn’t make you racist, but supporting Obama doesn’t exonerate you, either. Close Instagram, and open a book. Stop watching Snapchat stories and start reading news stories for reliable sources.

To white adults in the community and schools, I want you to have a much better understanding of how wealthy, predominantly white communities like ours can be complicit in the larger system of racism in the country. Supporting Obama — or any of the current candidates for president — doesn’t exonerate you, either. At the very least, you need to learn to not contribute to the racism. Even better, you should consciously work to help dismantle the systems of racism that have persisted for far too long.

As Elie Wiesel, writer, activist, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Indifference is fueled by ignorance. Ignorance is fueled by inaction. Stand with love. Combat racism. Educate yourself. And for all the black children and teenagers growing up in the suburbs, say it with me: I am here, I am strong, I am proud, I am smart, I am unapologetically black — and I am damn worthy of respect.