By Ibrahim Arsalan
In my life, I've been asked numerous times what it is to be "Black" in
America and over the years the answer has changed considerably. If
someone asked me today, and a few have in various ways, I'd say it's a
ceaseless paradox of heightened expectations. I can take a plane ride
to any place on the globe and upon arrival see the youth of that
country acting as much like their image of "Blackness" as possible, but
in that same trip I will have to field a barrage of negative
stereotypes and prejudices. Other people may experience this in their
own way but none experience it to such an extreme degree as We.
I picked up the LA Times today and read an article written from two separate perceptions. One was a reporter who'd followed Barack Obama's
campaign and the other a reporter covering McCain's. What struck me was
the focus of both on the personality, or I should say the
personableness, of the two.
McCain was reported as being personable and
approachable but prone to stumbles and misstatements, while Barack was
seen as restrained and always on his game. The reporter for Obama was
impressed by his extreme sense of self-restraint in the most
frustrating of situations but was disheartened that after months of
being near him he didn't know the man; this made me laugh slightly. My
first thought being, "Were this reporter Black, this wouldn't seem at
all strange to him." In fact, he might not have thought to even report
on it; and the overtone would have been drastically different had he.
He was witnessing the Black professional reality in it's most extreme
expression. Then I thought of Paul Dunbar when he wrote "We wear the
mask that grins and lies." When I first heard then later read those
words in my youth they struck me deeply. By that time I'd already moved
from Oakland to
Sacramento with my family and we all of us were faced with towering
uncertainty; and the reception by this all white neighborhood was far
from welcoming. In my first few years my brother and I were gripped by
loneliness and despaired at the thought of the battles each new school
day would bring. Spurned on by students and faculty, we began to
believe that we were somehow victims of some insurmountable conspiracy
to destroy or at least break our spirits. Fortunately we had each
other, and my family pulled together and our home became our sanctuary.
No friends, no neighbors from whom to borrow sugar, no family within 10
miles in any direction as it had been in Oakland; just our own little
island where we laughed, cried, argued, embraced, plotted and schemed.
Like so many before us we'd resolved ourselves to enduring the
American nightmare in order to capture the American dream. Our parents
taught us how to play "this here game" and make the most of a reality
that had always been grim and from which our ancestors had always found
the means to garner some light. Even now the lessons are in my ears
ringing as soundly as when they were uttered, "Always look a white man
in his eyes.", "Never tell your business but listen when they tell
theirs, because they love to tell it.", "Never get comfortable with
your situation.", "Once you learn how to play the game they change the
rules.", and my personal favorite "You must be twice as good to gain
half as much."
Home was where the heart lived, where you were never anything other
than yourself, but once you opened that front door you were on; walking
the pavement to school then work fully aware of the war that raged long
before you and your part to play in its drama.
Then came the day when while in a professional setting I was asked
by a supervisor my honest opinion on affirmative action, which was in
the news at the time. I gave the calculated response, "I don't think
about it much because it's never helped or hurt me." Which was true.
But so persistent was the inquiry that I finally and fully spoke my
mind. I pointed out that in all the departments of that division there
were five Black people working there; one per department and never more
than one. Then we went through the list of what each of us was capable
of doing. I was apart of the online education department at the time so
I was surrounded by writers. Each of them had degrees in English or
related disciplines, the typical hyper-specialized model that America
had been pushing through education since the engineering mentality took
hold in the Industrial Revolution.
But I was the only person with a number of disciplines and skills in
his repertoire, what's more this was true only of the African-American
workers, even the Indian programmers lived and died by one skill alone.
I explained to them that for We, that reality is disastrous, never
could we afford to rely on a single skill or resource, and those of us
who have, met with calamity. Furthermore, we seldom "do as we do" when
amongst others; our face before them was not the face of our reality.
In fact each of them knew little to nothing about other people and
cultures, especially ours, even those of them married to people from
other cultures; like the man who was married to a Chinese American,
had Chinese children, and knew nothing of Chinese culture or history.
"Because", as I told them, "you don't have to know. You can afford to
be ignorant and mediocre if you wish to be. So the problem isn't that
certain people want affirmative action or social welfare programs, it's
that you fail to recognize your own unwritten social welfare that is
support by all those 'others' of whom you remain ignorant. We, on the
other hand, are not afforded the luxury and my abilities, celebrate
though they may be, are necessary, expected." Needless to say I didn't
work there much longer, but neither did they it seems. Because at the
time Corporate America was just beginning to teach White America that ignorance was no longer bliss (the Indian programmers should've been their first clue).
Which brings me back to Barack, who like so many others before him
learned the game which has evolved over four generations from keeping
yourself from hanging from the poplar tree, to climbing the popular
tree to see the glass ceiling for yourself. I may not agree with his
politics or what he states as a solution to the problems that we face.
But I can not deny that he is among the most striking examples I've
seen of a Black Professional navigating these turbulent waters. His
impersonal approach to media and constituents, his carefully worded
answers that reveal enough to say he's not like the establishment but
not enough for you to paint him in any particular camp, and his
determined focus on an objective that isn't fully revealed in anything
that he says outright but is always presented in a way that will not
offend. If any of these things faltered, America would see him as
human, flawed, and most of all Black. We avail ourselves of this dark
reality through our ability to seem to float above it all as if
superhuman, thus transcending our human form and with it our multi-hued
skin and all that comes with it. Were we to lose that transcendence,
would we lose our battles. So I remind myself, He wears the mask, I
wear the mask, We wear the mask, and he wears it well.