Corrigan’s Editorial Note: Tenielle Mounts-Williams wrote this essay in my English Composition I course at Southeastern University in spring 2019. I found her writing moving, her message pressing, and her drawing striking. I am delighted to share her work with you.
Don’t Touch, I’m Not Yours
Imagine me washing my hair to start the day off. I go to work as usual and I’m on my phone waiting for the shift to start. I’m invested in a YouTube video and just then that girl I talked to once before, maybe twice, puts both of her hands into my scalp. Generally someone’s initial thoughts would be, “OK . . . weird.” She then asks if we are friends and if she can touch my hair, after she’s already helped herself to it. A hesitant answer of “I guess” is what I uttered. In that moment she compares the texture to an animal’s. What do you say to that? How are you supposed to feel? I try just laughing off the situation, until she then proceeds to tell her peers, “It’s like petting an animal,” right in my vicinity. I feel embarrassed, uneasy. I know deep down that this interaction has already crossed boundaries and has become more of a downward spiral than one would like to admit. I am a person, I am not something to pet, I am me.
Why do Caucasian Americans know so little about people of color? We African Americans been here in America for 500 years amongst Caucasians. Native Americans have been here for far longer. White people know of our culture, they know what they see in the media, but they know so little about us. How our hair works. How we similarly love our family. How we similarly make our mistakes. We love and live like everyone else but our own experiences aren’t believed in the slightest. We are all seemingly thieves and liars with no moral or work ethic. Why I ask? Why do many people think of us in this way? Just looking at my skin stirs a feeling of fear and unknowingness. Ignorance knows no color but prejudice does.
Deflections and Defamation of a Color and Character
The common phrases I often receive when having conversations about this topic with White Americans show the unnoticed and unchecked indifference and ignorance that keep racism alive. The well-known phrase “I don’t see color” is an example. That’s the underlying problem, they don’t see color, therefore they don’t see me. A wise person once told me, “It’s how you treat color is what’s important.” See me! By all means see my color, hair and all. Accept differences and treat me as if you would any other person, with respect, dignity, and a regard for what went on in American history. Knowing something of me won’t cause the world to deteriorate before you. Although both African Americans and any other race for that matter can have indifference, prejudice, and flaws, we all must be open to change for bettering ourselves.
The second most telling piece of dialogue is “I have a Black (insert person of relation here).” There’s nothing wrong with having association or being close to a Black person, although it should be no excuse to justify a behavior of disrespect with the association of people you’re insulting. I know for a fact that some African Americans who hold internalized racism from generations of self-hatred, a symptom of slavery and American society as we know it, allow racist ideals to be displayed in their presence without protest. Some even perpetuate it. If a person is not willing to respect themselves, then they will probably never be able to respect anyone else, let alone the Black community. But you can call out the racism of the situation and stand to do your part. Yet sometimes you can’t aid some people that don’t want to be aided, and that can be a sad truth in today’s generation.
Third is gaslighting, a form of manipulation to make someone put their own sanity in check, a coercive tactic to make out a certain narrative. People of other backgrounds have pre-painted images and narratives of what Black and brown people should be, what we are and do. We are often considered animalistic, “savages,” and, in a more modern usage of words, “thugs.” In 1989, a group of five African American children were treated as they were seen by White media. Despite their innocence, they were gaslighted out of their truth to fit a White person’s narrative of Black people. These boys were ripped viciously from their childhood and tortured into unforgettable trauma for 13 years, locked up in juvenile and adult state prisons for a crime they never committed. Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer randomly and falsely prosecuted Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Raymond Santana for allegedly raping and beating a White women jogger in Central Park, New York, without forensic evidence tying these boys to the crime. Explanations given by Black people are often devalued in many situations. Many Black people simply feel as if there’d be no difference in White people’s perception of us if we were to explain ourselves and what we are about. Representation in media and education and other places gives us a voice and narrative of our own. Slowly but surely I believe the perception of Black has gotten better, although biases still linger.
This fourth and last phrase is what I like to call the scapegoat method, “It’s just the Black communities fault for being (insert assumption of defamation without applying history response here).” Blacks do sometimes admittedly perpetuate and self-sabotage themselves with racist rhetoric from self-hatred, but we haven’t caused the setbacks that have lead us to these symptoms of poverty, and several other issues. The Black community can be messy, living in a society that’s predominantly controlled by European ideals and standards. Black America has managed to persevere and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps without having the actual boots.
One’s own experiences and adaptations to the world around them is all we really know. So having negative encounters with a few out of 37 million Blacks in America and harboring persistent grudges towards an entire race is easy to do, although it’s illogical. If such hatred was taught and encouraged in the home for generations, it can be even harder for one to break from those ideologies and values instilled by one’s parents. Your upbringing can have an effect on the way you move through the world, but it doesn’t have to define you as a person. There will come a time where your upbringing can no longer be an excuse of why you may harbor such racist ideals, especially when you know its implications and the impact it causes, and that goes for any race of people.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the author Michelle Alexander states: “There is no truth to the notion that the war on drugs was launched purely in response to the rise of cocaine. President Ronald Reagan officially announced the current drug war in 1982 before it was even an issue in the media or a crisis in poor black neighborhoods” (p. 5). In 1985 the Reagan administration orchestrated and publicized the relevance of the crack cocaine epidemic in an effort to obtain support for the drug war. This media campaign proved successful and the news stations were flooded with images of “Black crack whores,” “Black crack dealers” and “Black crack babies.” These images reaffirmed several of the worst negative stereotypes about impoverished inner city civilians.
I believe this particular time in recent history was a horrible turning point on racial perceptions and is one of the many examples of how media emphasizes the worst moments of the African American community. Everything has been presented from White people’s perspective for hundreds of years, with Black Americans’ worst moments emphasized and exaggerated to confirm the negative stereotypes of preconceived prejudices and ideologies of the “Inferior Black person.” The media’s influence over people and individual interactions can be the most determining factors of why White people are so uncomfortable with people of color. Black people’s worst is always exposed constantly and with consistency. With the majority of news outlets being owned by white corporations, these portrayals of dangerous black people in movies, novels, news, television and the internet are mostly told by the perspectives of White ideologies.
Of course, you may also be thinking, “Why do I need to know about people of color or African Americans?” Minorities often ask this very question about White people when receiving our basic elementary, middle and high school education. White founders, innovators, mathematicians, scientists, psychologists, and entrepreneurs are constantly talked about in the public-school systems. White faces are seen every time a television is turned on or an advertisement pops up, with the occasional person of color. An exception is given during the shortest month of the year to express the contributions Blacks have given to America, even though African American built the foundations of this country. And yet Black history month is still very widely hated by the growing anger of racists and violated by assaults of hatred. There is an undeniable stigma with Blackness and an imbalance in positive representation for Black people, although I can admit representation has progressed for us in some instances. Contributions African Americans have made to this country are often forgotten, overlooked, or squeezed into these 28 days of February. If White people want to know us better, then meeting us halfway by researching and making a conscious effort to understand and represent our perspective can make all the difference.
In all actuality no one can really make you care about African American affairs, but the reality is African Americans must know Caucasians on a deeper and more significant level in order to survive in society. Only one race holds 90% of the wealth in the world, most of the resources, and constantly keeps most places in government. Caucasians have the assets and means to fix any past destruction done to other communities. Knowing how to interact with Caucasians can be a situation of life or death for many African Americans in traffic stops by authorities, or walking down the street, or even being visited at your own home. It’s not mandatory for you to care about African Americans, but if this country is built on Christian foundations, then God says to love thy neighbor, which means gay, Hispanic, Black, White, Asian, Indigenous, and any other color of the rainbow because people are made in a particular way with no mistakes. The fact of the matter is African Americans aren’t going anywhere, so it all comes down to Caucasians wanting to take the first step in knowing minorities. Seeing color and accepting differences will help us to move forward in our nation. White people willingly learning about minorities will lead to true equality.