Nonfiction Societal The Word 6 minute read

The Rules & the Wake Up


Middle class Black folks have a formula: get the best education, get the best job, move into the best neighborhoods and be the most “acceptable Black” possible while you are doing these things, so that you can realize the American Dream (house ownership, nice cars, 2-3 kids, and vacations that we can brag about on FaceBook).


By the time our parents are done raising us, we know the rules: speak proper English, dress conservatively, no braids, no beards, don’t be too loud, “work twice as hard to get half as much”, etc.


Once, we’ve “made it”, many of us join these exclusive, bougie, African American clubs so that we can still celebrate our Blackness; while simultaneously looking down on the less accomplished Black folks who just can’t seem “to get it right”.  Or we informally group ourselves with “like-minded” individuals.  We sit around tables adorned with silk tablecloths, drinking wine and eating dry, hotel chicken, and  wonder “why these Negroes can’t pull their pants up; why they have to have so many babies or baby daddies or purple hair weaves or and the like.” From our “beige towers” (we don’t quite have Ivory towers) we pontificate about all the ills of those Blacks.



Most of us have a cousin or somebody that we frequently have to send money to for basic expenses (like a light bill), whom we will complain about to our spouse or bougie Black friends (we would NEVER tell our White friends about them).  We are concerned, yet judgmental.  Tsk Tsk.  We made it!  If only the others would listen.


We act as if we are generationally wealthy—as if we all haven’t sat on some porch in some Southern town (or Ohio—everybody Black has at least some “people” in Ohio) and snapped beans, or stomped on a roach (and looked in amazement when it got back up and crawled away), or taken a bath with multiple cousins (including the one you send money too).


Most Black folks won’t admit it, but there is a feeling of separation caused by economics between Blacks that has replaced colorism in its prevalence and destruction (though we still have to tackle that bear too).  For instance, many of us looked at the Baltimore riots following Eddie Gray’s death and shook our heads with as much disgust for the rioters (if not more) than for the police officers who broke the victim’s neck.  We are afraid that our White counterparts at work or in our neighborhoods will look at Black people, at us, differently.  Their behavior threatens our self-image, our “acceptable Black status.”


I’ve heard a few brave Black people say aloud, “I love Black folks; but I don’t like Niggers.”  Interestingly enough, that’s what White people used to say when they were differentiating between the well-behaved Blacks and the ones who tried to escape.


We feel superior.


And this is why the daily media coverage of police brutality against Blacks is fucking us up.


Yes, we felt outraged at the unjust murders of Black males at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us.  But, for most middle to upper class Black folks, it wasn’t intimately personal.  On some level, we felt protected.  While we felt that the police conducted themselves horribly, we also (even if we didn’t speak it) felt that things would’ve gone much better had the victim followed the rules.


We “acceptable Blacks” have become experts at following rules.  We’ve been doing it since birth to get us where we are.  So, in light of the killings, we ensured that everybody was up-to-date on the rules of dealing with the police while Black.  Facebook and email boxes were flooded with videos and lists of what a Black male should do when stopped by the police.  Some of our “well to-do” clubs held workshops.  I guarantee you, almost every Black mother and father sat down with their sons and had “the talk’ again.


But then there was Martese Johnson.  Martese, when he was beaten by cops, was a a third-year college student double majoring in Italian and media studies at the University of Virginia, one of the most prestigious state schools in the country.  Certainly, his family and he had followed the rules.


The Black Student Alliance at University of Virginia said what many of us were thinking:

“Today, we are reminded of the gruesome reality that we are not immune to injustice; as University students, we are not impervious to the brutality that has reeled on news cycles around the country,” the group said.  In other words, we too are in danger.


So we repeated the lesson to our sons—this time ensuring that we included the frequently uttered statement from Black parents to their kids, “you can’t do what your White friends do.”  We thought that perhaps Martese was attempting to drink underage, like many college students, and had he NOT been doing that, perhaps everything would have been okay. Formulas and rules provided us with a certain comfort.  Our sons will be okay.


But then there was Sandra Bland, who never left her jail cell after being stopped for a minor traffic violation.  Wait, we need to be afraid for our girls too?  So, we sat and talked to our daughters about how they are to NEVER talk back to police officers.  Perhaps if Sandra had just been more cooperative?  Our daughters will be okay.

Father with sad preteen daughter

Then you turn on the news this morning and see that James Blake, formerly ranked the #4 tennis player in the world was attacked by four police officers as he was standing outside of his hotel.  Blake scores an A+ on acceptable Blackness:


  1. He attended Harvard. That’s about the Whitest school possible
  2. He plays tennis for God’s sake. Tennis!
  3. He’s from Connecticut, a state that is too vanilla for some white people


He is a damn valedictorian of “acceptable Blackness.”


So what now?  What’s the new formula?  Perhaps, we need to understand that when it comes to something as ugly as racism, there isn’t a perfect formula.  That’s scary.  But maybe it’s what we need to realize: that we, Black folks, are really all the same.  Perhaps tragedy can bring about unity.


My intention is for Black people to love themselves and each other. It sounds somewhat silly, I guess; but oftentimes my people are overwhelmed with negative images, bad news, and stereotyped characters about us. I’d like to flip that script. I’d like to remind us, as often as I can, how incredible we are. Read more


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