#AliveWhileBlack: My Personal Reality Of Racism In America

If you grew up black in America like I did, you know all of the ways your parents try to help you stay out of trouble and avoid racist encounters. As we have seen all too well recently, said encounters could get you killed. Then again, those of us who have to live this reality, day in and day out, from birth until death, knew this long before social media and the 24-hour news cycle made people who don’t actually experience it hyper aware of it. However, thanks to Twitter, blogs, and other forms of social media, white America is finally learning just how scary and dehumanizing — and sometimes even deadly — being #AliveWhileBlack can be in this country, even in 2014. Here is a personal anecdote from me.

Image Credit: African Goddess Magazine

Image Credit: African Goddess Magazine

My parents and other authority figures always hammered home the usual lessons about navigating a racist society. Don’t go to certain neighborhoods at night. Don’t call the police unless there is no other option. If you get stopped by the police on foot, and especially in a car, make the interaction polite and brief. Don’t go to environments, particularly if there is drinking, with bunches of unknown white folks. You get the drill. While, of course, I’ve understood the concept of racism for as long as I can remember, because, like every other black person in America, I’ve had to, it wouldn’t really become real to me until my 9th birthday party in March of 1990.

My mother had planned a pizza party for me, my cousins, and a few friends for my birthday, at Godfather’s Pizza. They were very kid-oriented, with a clown and a buffet, and you could reserve a back room for you and your party if there would be more than 10 people attending. At this particular time, there was a deal where you could pre-plan the party and get a certain number of free kids’ meals if there were more than three adults attending, so that is what she did. It was a big deal for me to even be out of the house at the time, because I had been laid up for weeks in a thigh cast. Finally, just in time for my birthday, my orthopedist had cut the cast off and put a brace/splint type device on instead. I could finally bend my leg, so I was allowed out of the house for the first time in weeks.

We finally get to the pizza joint, and are seated in our party room. The server takes our order and tells us to help ourselves to the buffet. The hired clown is walking around talking to us kids, and some of my friends and cousins start to play on a couple of arcade-style games. Then everything changed. Our seemingly friendly server returned with the manager, who appeared livid. First, he accused us of trying to use the deal they were running for kids’ parties to get over, and started using phrases like “you people.” Then he started ranting about how this wasn’t the welfare office, and that you didn’t get anything for free there. My mom and one of my aunts tried desperately to calm the situation, because they didn’t want the party ruined. However, one of the more outspoken parents there called him on his racist assumptions. Of course, that made matters worse, and before we knew it, the situation had escalated and the manager was throwing around racist slurs and stereotypes. Finally, he told the server:

“Make sure they pay up. No trips to the car or bathroom before the bill is paid.”

He said this right in front of us. At this point, we all knew what was going on (like we didn’t before). Needless to say, nobody was hungry or in the mood for a party at that point. We paid and left without further incident. So, my 9th birthday party was ruined by realizing what it means to be #AliveWhileBlack in America.

My mother and aunts contacted lawyer after lawyer, but even people from the NAACP said that stuff like this happens all the time, and we’d probably just spend money we didn’t have just to lose a lawsuit.

Of course, I’ve had countless racist encounters since then. Some with police, some with random white people in authority, some with just random white people period. That’s the one that has stuck with me, though. It was the one that took my innocence, the one that painted the reality in black and white (pun intended). These days, I am just glad I drive an old model SUV, so no police officer will ask how I can afford it, or assume it is stolen, and run my plates just to make sure it isn’t.

So, folks, this sort of thing is just one example of being #AlivewhileBlack. We all know, especially in the case of the police killings of unarmed black men, that things get a lot more serious than just discrimination in a restaurant. But, it all stems from the same place: racism — systemic racism that somehow became acceptable. Some of it is minor. Some of it is major. Some of it is even deadly. All of it is wrong.