by Larry Smith
All three were wearing medical masks. By all appearances, they were what some Black folks refer to as “hood rats.” Their attire. Their speech patterns. Their walk and mannerisms. Their overall “look.” Subconsciously, I made every assumption associated with that phrase. In an instant, I decided that I knew pretty much everything about them. In other words, I profiled them.
As is the case with the so-called “N-word,” the phrase “hood rat” is sometimes used as a term of endearment — depending on the context in which it is used. And who is using it. (I won’t get into the politics of “reclaiming” certain pejorative words.) Black people — including me — will always use certain words and phrases that we probably shouldn’t. And while White people would use those same words and phrases irrespective of what we do, they take comfort in the fact that they have a built-in excuse: “They use those words, so we should be able to.”
I should note that my ingrained stereotypes about those young strangers does not mean that I wouldn’t enjoy getting to know them, wouldn’t hire them or wouldn’t want them in my family. (Do I protest too much?) Whatever else it may or may not mean, it does mean that I judged them based on superficial criteria.
I immediately thought about this seemingly innocuous incident after health experts reversed their earlier guidance and began to recommend that everyone wear masks to avoid contracting the coronavirus. This introspection forced me to confront my arrogance. (“Don’t they know that wearing a mask is useless? They need to listen to NPR!”) Of course, I don’t know how they get their news. All I know is that they were right — which inherently means that I was wrong — in more ways than one.
In thinking about this column, my mind drifted back to 30 years ago. I had been invited to a summer camp for “gifted” high school students. It will come as no surprise that there were only a handful of Black kids in attendance. Black kids are disproportionately tracked into remedial classes, even “special education,” often without regard to their abilities. Not so for me. I was “special,” but in the “good” way. (Or so I thought at the time.)
In high school I was often kidded (or “clowned”) for “acting like a white boy,” despite the fact that I grew up in “the hood” (i.e., 34th Street and Emerson Avenue). In any case, I remember being at the camp and joking with some of the other attendees. I was being goofy. Unexpectedly, one of the Black girls upbraided me for “acting ghetto,” which caught me off guard. Oddly, though, I wasn’t offended; I was merely amused. So, to her utter disgust, I proceeded to “Blacken things up” a bit more. She just glared at me and stormed off. Every so often it occurs to me that, at various points in my life, I have been a “victim” of the very stereotyping about Black folks in which I too frequently engage.
Ironically, I have often been “that” Black person. The “good Negro.” The one who spoke with perfect diction and elocution. The one who was afraid that, in mixed-raced gatherings, some uncouth “N-word” would ruin things for the rest of “us.” Would embarrass “us.” Would remind “us” that we were Black. Being a Black person in America so often means being performative and inauthentic. It means code-switching. It means self-abnegation. It means shame. In our zeal to separate ourselves from “those Blacks,” we inadvertently — but inevitably — affirm how much we are them.
At other times, I have been the “Blacker-than-thou” brother. The one who questions the “authenticity” of other Blacks. The one who proudly volunteers that “I majored in Afro-American history.” The one who tries to outdo everyone else with displays of ebonic virtuosity. The one who quotes esoteric historical figures — and then acts superior because others aren’t “down like that.” The one who proudly proclaims “I’m more Du Bois than Booker” — purposely depriving Mr. Washington of the respect of using his last name. (I’m reminded that Jay-Z once admitted to Terri Gross of NPR that rappers hold their groins and boast about their sexual prowess in an attempt to cover up their self-doubt.)
The psycho-social schizophrenia of being Black in America is a direct result of the trauma that is endemic to us. All of us. One effect is that we insist that white folks (especially police officers) undergo implicit bias training. We do so because we understand better than anyone else what it means to fear and even to hate Black people. If we can admit that, white people should as well.
Every now and then I need a little reminder that those “hood rats” are guilty of nothing more than being Black. Like me.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.