My oldest baby brother and I have endured a lot together. It is entirely too much and too personal to get into here, but suffice it to say we have held one another up during times in our lives we simply weren’t sure we would see our way through.
When he was born, I really feel like a piece of me awakened. He was such magic in my arms. At 2 1/2, I thought he was just the most beautiful little doll I had ever seen. I thought that forever would be like that.
And honestly, it was. We stayed close despite lots of tumult in our young lives. I read to him every night. I fought boys for him on the streets of our neighborhood (yes, that’s true). We supported one another. We stood up for one another. And we were honest with one another.
I remember the first time I realized we were “different.” We were on a playground and a little boy pushed him to the ground at the bottom of the slide. I ran over and screamed something along the 5 year old lines of “don’t push my little brother, you prick.” He looked at me deadpan and said, “you’re a liar.” I was confused. A liar about what? I had just SEEN the pushing with my own eyes. But no, thats not what he meant. “He’s black. He’s not your brother.” I was so confused. I had been called “white” once before that, which had sent small me running home to my grandmother crying about the “lies” people were using to make fun of me on the bus. She laughed and said “Oh, dear… we need to talk about something…”
But this was different. This blonde little asshole had just shoved my baby brother to the ground and then told me that because my brother was black, there was no way we were actually related. So, like any reasonable 5 year old, I burst into tears and began scream-singing Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.”
As we got older, I found myself having to have these fights more often. I had to explain to people at the mall that no, he was not my boyfriend and yes, it is weird for them to ask me that. I had boys tell me they couldn’t date me because they knew I was mixed. I once punched a kid at a Starbucks for using the n-word (I’m not necessarily proud of that but I am also not NOT proud…).
Through all of our years growing up hand in hand, I realized: there is a reality that my brother lives that I will only ever understand second-hand. My white privilege creates a deep and dark divide between us that neither of us asked for. To deny its existence would be foolish. It doesn’t make us distant from one another as brother and sister, but it does in every other way. However, we work hard to make sure we both lean on each other to learn from it and tear it apart, him from one side and me from the other.
Today, I share with all of you the words that my oldest baby brother shared with me last night. His voice is raw and laced with the pain of experience. It is the experience of a young, black man growing up in a country stolen from and built by people who look like him, but certainly not built for him. This is part 2 of the series where I share the voices of the people I love most. Enjoy.
In my early childhood, I didn’t really grasp the idea of “race”. What was it? or why was it even a reality? I just knew one thing: I was one color and other people were another, but I really didn’t think anything of it. My sister was the opposite color of me. It wasn’t until I got older that I understood the looks we received when we were out and about in public places by older adults. The two questions I got asked most growing up were:
1. How are you and Off White Related?
People couldn’t understand how we had he same last name. My mother and father were darker skinned, my sister was white, and they genuinely thought she was adopted. I never really knew how to explain it.
2. What are you?
Growing up, black kids thought I was hispanic and everybody else thought I was from the Middle East or Ethiopia. I was constantly called names like ‘Rico’ in college due to the fact I went to an HBCU …. but that didn’t bother me as much as my nickname in high school. The one I hated most was Gandhi. I wanted to literally knock out everyone who called me this. To me it was disrespectful and actually kind of hurtful. I really just wanted to stop and ask everyone who’d call me that if they actually knew what my background was, or if they even knew where Guyana was (many didn’t). I wanted them to care who I was and where I was from instead of just making shit up.
So down to the nitty gritty: growing up as a black man. Yes, I said black man. Before everyone reading this says “well you’re Native American and Guyanese. That’s not black,” know this:
1. Native Americans, Guyanese people… we all have a dark complexion.
2. Because of catastrophic events like slavery…. people don’t realize the amount of forced reproduction that took place during that time. From the Caribbean all the way up to the US, we all have African blood in us.
ANYWAY… In my home town, there was a stigma for people like me and my friends. We all played basketball and the previous players didn’t really have a great reputation. I’ll never forget one of my first encounters with a teacher Mr. J. He told me, he told all of us: as young black men we need to break the mold, break the system and become successful in this society. So that’s what we did. We all went to college. We all graduated and we are all contributing to society. But even so, I never stopped watching. I stayed and stay vigilant.
When it comes to racist encounters, I could be sitting here typing for days and days. But there are two major stories that pop in my head that will give you the perspective of me living in this world as a black man.
The first: When I was a senior in high school I went to a house party with my sister and her boyfriend at the time. While I was at the party, I noticed I was one of maybe three or four people that weren’t caucasian. It was a good night, everybody was having fun. Not too many people knew me. They were all older people from our town… They were all drunk and I got into it with my sister’s boyfriend. He got real disrespectful with her and I didn’t like it. We went back and forth for a very long time arguing. He egged me on the whole time; he wanted me to hit him. I got to the point where I pretty much blacked out and tried to go after him. I never got to him. My sister stopped me and pulled me to the edge of the driveway. She told me that I can’t act like that, even though he was in the wrong. I asked why and she said, “because when something happens and the cops come, they’re going to question you and lock YOU up if anything happens.”
I told her that wasn’t fair. Her boyfriend was the one that started it. He was the one that pushed me. He was the one that egged me on. But she said, “it doesn’t matter. It’s our word against his. You’re a black man in a white neighborhood in a fight with a white guy. We have to let it go.”
That kind of put into perspective what my skin color means for me and a lot of people. And to this day whenever altercations occur or something happens, I think first about that. What will happen if a police officer comes? And it’s me arguing with the white man? What will happen to me?
The second story involves me getting pulled over by cop.
This was not the first and it definitely wasn’t the last, but it was the most life changing in regards to my mindset. I got pulled over and I was maybe a block away from home. It was the same squad car that always drove past me when I was in the front yard hanging out, when I was at the courts, when I was parked at 711. They were always there, but I never really had a conversation with any of them. This cop pulled me over because he said I didn’t stop long enough at the stop sign and because I used my left blinker instead of my right blinker. I said, “My mistake. That’s true.”
But when he stopped me, he was very hostile. He said, “Where are you going? Why are you in a rush to stop at the stop sign?” And I decided to ask him: “How long do you consider long enough, Officer? Because I was at the stop sign for at least three seconds.” Well, he did not like that response.
His partner came to the right side of the car. He tried to look through the window. The officer at the driver side asked if I had any drugs or guns in the car. I told him I wasn’t into any of that. I said, “even though I may look stereotypical, I’ve actually been a successful black man academically.” He asked how he was supposed to know that and followed up with “Did you have a Buick a couple months ago?” I told him that yes, I did. He then asked me where I got the money to buy this car. I explained I had gotten into a car accident and decided to get a new car. With this, I showed him my PBA card. He looks at it and tells me I don’t deserve it. I tried to explain: “Sir, I’m just trying to get home. Am I going to get a ticket? What’s going on?”
He snaps that it is his job to ask the questions and then reaches into my car to take my keys. That’s when he sees my wallet in my lap and grabs it. As all of this is happening, his partner has already opened my front and back doors to illegally search my car. I keep reminding him that he can’t do that. He needs a warrant. He doesn’t stop.
After about 15-20 more minutes of having me sit there and wait, they let me go and say they’re going to keep my PBA card because I obviously do not “deserve” it. They leave and I go to start my car. That’s when I realize that they took my keys with them. I call the precinct and tell them that the cops took my keys… I’m stuck in the side of road and can’t get to work. The person on the phone says OK and says she will have the squad car return with my keys. That squad car took 45 minutes to get back with my keys. The cop then throws the keys at my window, laughs and drives away. So let me ask you: Do you honestly think that that would have happened if I was a white man instead of a black man?
No, baby brother, I don’t. I really don’t. And I will never stop fighting with you to make sure that one day, young black men don’t even have to ask the questions you just did.