When Being Educated, Rich, and Privileged Doesn’t Stop You From Being Black
I often joke with people that I didn’t know I was poor until I got to college. The reason I say this (we weren’t really poor) is because I remember, way back yonder in 1997 when I graced God’s land of Morehouse College, encountering Black folks who came from means. Not that my family was wanting for much, but we weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, and its quite possible there were times when we were just scraping by no matter how “big” the house we lived in was. Living in the South has definite real estate perks, especially back in the early 90s.
Well, when I got to Morehouse, I remember seeing not one, but two cats driving Hummers. I remember seeing dudes with Benzes. There was even a guy who had both a Lincoln Navigator AND a Lincoln Town Car (when Navis first became the thing) and only wore Coogi sweaters. I remember seeing dudes driving Range Rovers. Real talk, its entirely possible that I’d never actually seen a Range Rover until I got to college. It was also in college, sitting in front of Hugh M. Gloster Hall, our administrative building, on a bench right in front of the famous statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, that I remember reading Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham.
If seeing 19 year old college students driving Hummers informed me I wasn’t rich, this book informed me I didn’t even know what rich and well-to-do were. This book taught me about Jack & Jill, The Boule, Links, Martha’s Vineyard, etc. In essence, I discovered that there was an entire world of Black opulence out there I wasn’t even remotely aware of. Not that I didn’t think that Black folks could have money, I just didnt get the society aspect of it. My parents both went to HBCUs (my father was retired military so he graduated from Alabama A&M University around the time I graduated from college) and my mother went to Albany State University in Georgia. Neither were part of Greek letter organizations or any other organizations of note. They were and are hard-working middle class Southerners.
But that book and going to Morehouse changed a lot for me. It showed me what Black folks with money looked like. While my immediate crew and I were trying to make our refund checks last all semester (amazing to think you could live off $1,000 for 4 months; college was great), I knew people who were living a privileged life. They were the proverbial Carlton/Carltonita Bankses of the world: rich, entitled, and despite their color, felt shielded from the struggle that many of the rest of us knew too well. This isn’t an indictment at all. In fact, I felt very envious of many of them. In a strange twist of irony, many of those privileged kids spent A LOT of time attempting to prove how down they were. I remember meeting people who grew up in gated-communities in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, or rich enclaves in Atlanta, Georgia, going out of their way to remind everybody that they lived for a year in SE DC or on the West side of Atlanta. Authenticity is still a Black community struggle no matter how far we’ve made it.
But like Carlton Banks ultimately discovered, that privilege and all of the care their parents took to give them the high society access, that false-sense of security can all come crashing down in one fell swoop. As Kanye West said so eloquently on “All Falls Down”: “…even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe…”
That line has been echoed for eons by many trying to remind those who have “made it” that no matter how far they think they’ve come, society still views you one way: as a nigger. And unfortunately, society is always too willing to remind us of this fact. This is a hard pill to swallow for some. It’s even harder for those who truly believed that they could stack the deck and/or do everything POSSIBLE via privilege and prosperity to shield their families from this fact. To that end, its not lost on me that this is the story of Lawrence Otis Graham.
In a recent piece for the Princeton Alumni Weekly, he recounts what happened to his son (the son of wealthy, Black people with all of the right degrees and associations and access) who, while at a summer program for the well-to-do, was called a nigger by some men in a car who got close enough to scare him into a bit of a racialized seclusion for the rest of his stay there that summer. His concern wasn’t as much for his own safety (though that was an issue), but concern that if people knew, he’d be “the Black guy.” Oh what a tangled web we weave.
Full disclosure: I’ve been called a nigger before. Openly. In the middle of the day. By folks in a car. In a manner very similar to what happend to Mr. Graham’s son. I, however, am from the South and was made aware of race at a very young age almost as a default. Being called a nigger didn’t scare the shit out of me. It made me angry. We threw rocks at said car. Mr. Graham’s son exhibited the opposite reaction. Why? Because of how he was raised.
Even though the idea wasn’t fully formed, I somehow assumed that privilege would insulate a person from discrimination. This was years before I would learn of the research by Peggy McIntosh, the Wellesley College professor who coined the phrase “white male privilege,” to describe the inherent advantages one group in our society has over others in terms of freedom from discriminatory stops, profiling and arrests. As a teenager, I didn’t have such a sophisticated view, other than to wish I were privileged enough to escape the bias I encountered.
And that was the goal we had in mind as my wife and I raised our kids. We both had careers in white firms that represented the best in law, banking and consulting; we attended schools and shared dorm rooms with white friends and had strong ties to our community (including my service, for the last 12 years, as chairman of the county police board). I was certain that my Princeton and Harvard Law degrees and economic privilege not only would empower me to navigate the mostly white neighborhoods and institutions that my kids inhabited, but would provide a cocoon to protect them from the bias I had encountered growing up. My wife and I used our knowledge of white upper-class life to envelop our sons and daughter in a social armor that we felt would repel discriminatory attacks. We outfitted them in uniforms that we hoped would help them escape profiling in stores and public areas: pastel-colored, non-hooded sweatshirts; cleanly pressed, belted, non-baggy khaki pants; tightly-laced white tennis sneakers; Top-Sider shoes; conservative blazers; rep ties; closely cropped hair; and no sunglasses. Never any sunglasses.
No overzealous police officer or store owner was going to profile our child as a neighborhood shoplifter. With our son’s flawless diction and deferential demeanor, no neighbor or play date parent would ever worry that he was casing their home or yard. Seeing the unwillingness of taxis to stop for him in our East Side Manhattan neighborhood, and noting how some white women clutched their purses when he walked by or entered an elevator, we came up with even more rules for our three children:
1. Never run while in the view of a police officer or security person unless it is apparent that you are jogging for exercise, because a cynical observer might think you are fleeing a crime or about to assault someone.
2. Carry a small tape recorder in the car, and when you are the driver or passenger (even in the back seat) and the vehicle has been stopped by the police, keep your hands high where they can be seen, and maintain a friendly and nonquestioning demeanor.
3. Always zip your backpack firmly closed or leave it in the car or with the cashier so that you will not be suspected of shoplifting.
4. Never leave a shop without a receipt, no matter how small the purchase, so that you can’t be accused unfairly of theft.
5. If going separate ways after a get-together with friends and you are using taxis, ask your white friend to hail your cab first, so that you will not be left stranded without transportation.
6. When unsure about the proper attire for a play date or party, err on the side of being more formal in your clothing selection.
7. Do not go for pleasure walks in any residential neighborhood after sundown, and never carry any dark-colored or metallic object that could be mistaken as a weapon, even a non-illuminated flashlight.
8. If you must wear a T-shirt to an outdoor play event or on a public street, it should have the name of a respected and recognizable school emblazoned on its front.
9. When entering a small store of any type, immediately make friendly eye contact with the shopkeeper or cashier, smile, and say “good morning” or “good afternoon.”
These are just a few of the humbling rules that my wife and I have enforced to keep our children safer while living integrated lives.
When I first read this article, I felt a profound sense of disbelief that a well-educated Black man could actually think he was able to rise above and cocoon his family from the troubles of this racialized America we live in. Then I just felt sadness that a well-educated Black man would want to. I understand wanting to live in a post-racial world. I understand wishing that race wasn’t a driving force in many of our lives. But race is there and pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away. And also, what saddened me most about this list and their rules and this mentality is that it requires a mindstate of going out of your way to make everybody else comfortable at the expense of your own personhood. What kind of way is that to live?
To be fair, I do think their heart was in the right place. I truly do. Everybody wants their kids to live the most wonderful, peaceful, innocent life possible. I can’t fault the man for his intentions. But at some point, its necessary to align your intentions with reality and question if you’re doing more damage than good by trying to avoid the unavoidable.
Taken individually, all of those rules make sense (except for only wearing t-shirts with respected schools on them, that shit is just stupid). But when putting them all together, they are entirely geared towards being as non-threatening as possible in hopes of not being stereotyped or treated like “others.” Or, in other words, being palatable to white people. Hell, without even intending to do so, Graham overly racialized his family by trying to stop everybody from seeing his kids as Black. “My kids aren’t threatening. Don’t view them like other Black people.” How is this helpful?
One of the points of his article was to discuss white male privilege and how all of these actors in this story truly didn’t understand how their privilege allowed them to ruin the lives of others. The men in the car who called his son a nigger. The school’s response to it (not much). But what I got out of it more than anything was that folks of privilege who are super-educated and have lived the life they don’t want for their kids ultimately think they can ascend a plane higher than others just by virtue of their docile and deferential lifestyle. No sunglasses? Word? The sun is bright sometimes. Only problem is, no matter how many degrees, fancy jobs, clothes, societies, organizations, awards, or Benzes you have…
…until they know who you are, you’re still just a nigger in a coupe. And sometimes you’ll need to wear those sunglasses to drive. Seems like that’s a better lesson to teach your kids AND THEN teach them how to navigate their world.
But I’ve never been rich. And I’ve never been “privileged” in this sense. And I’m also cynical. It’s entirely possibly that you should raise your kids for the world you want, and not the one in which you live.
Then again, you’ll never catch me writing an article about how sad I am that my money didn’t stop somebody from calling my kid a nigger either.