It was a bone-rattling cold night in NYC, me and some friends had just left a lounge in the Meat Packing district of Manhattan. It was time to grab a cab and head back home. A male friend of mine was the chivalrous type and went out to seek our yellow chariot. Cab after cab after cab passed us up. Ten to be exact. He became increasingly frustrated, he hit one cab’s trunk and screamed, “I’m an effing doctor! We’re not going to the damn ghetto!” It was one of many nights reminding us that although we were all professional folks, we are all still black folks.
Once safely ensconced in a taxi, my friend went into a familiar tirade. He hates getting lumped in with “hood” black folks “who don’t know how to act right.” I cringed. It was nothing new from him. He often brags about how few black people live in his city and apartment building. He loves to call working-class black people lazy and he distances himself from any behavior that could be termed, “ghetto.” Always one to get a conversation going, I challenged my friend. I asked him why it should matter if he was a doctor. Doesn’t he believe that everyone deserves a cab home on cold night including someone from the hood? He answered that he understands why cabbies wouldn’t want to deal with ghetto people, but they should assume every black person is from the hood. I pointed out that unless he finds a way to staple his MD to his head, a racist has no way to know that he’s a doctor. That’s why EVERYONE deserves to be treated with respect regardless of educational background, income, or what neighborhood they come from. My friend and I just had to agree to disagree.
His perspective is not uncommon and it comes from a place of frustration. He’s not a bad person. He just lives in a world where he is forced to prove his worth before he gets respect due to the color of his skin. A white person dressed in jeans and a T-shirt can walk into anywhere and get respect. We can’t. A lot of black folks who work in corporate America feel pressure to be on their best behavior and not to “show their color.” So when a small minority of black people from “the hood” are loud and unruly, some bourgeois black people get angry at them for confirming stereotypes. However, racism is in the bones of America and no matter if black people all woke up tomorrow and were model citizens, it would still exist. Look at all the racism directed at our President and First Lady who have lived accomplished, principled lives. Racism is directed at all of us. And if racists lump us all together, that is the problem of the racist not the people who conform to their stereotypes.
The prejudice between bougie black people and folks from the hood runs both ways. There are working-class black people who think that bougie blacks who speak English and not Ebonics are “talking white.” This is also a messed up attitude. I had a friend who was the first person in her family to go to college. She became a successful lawyer. However, whenever she went home to visit her family, they tore her down. They said she had “changed” and “thought she was better.” Instead of celebrating her success they would say she was trying to “act white” Just because someone is trying to climb the corporate ladder, doesn’t mean that they are not proud that they’re black. While there are bougie people like my friend who look down on people from the hood, most don’t. Sometimes, they are glad to get away from their schools and jobs and let their guard down around other black people.
So, whether you’re a Harvard alumna or from around the way, we’re in this together. Let’s act like it.