Imagine, if you will, that like Professor Henry Louis Gates, you were born of a looked-down upon race. In addition, you were always shorter than the other kids, needed a cane to walk, and were not exactly the best looking of all your peers.
But you were smart, and this was a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing, because it earned you the favour of some teachers in school, as well as scholarships and awards.
It was also a curse, however. Your co-racial peers, out of jealousy, may have thought you were a snob who thought yourself superior because of your brains. So they bullied you and misinterpreted your geeky idiosyncrasies and desire to improve yourself as a wish to separate yourself from the riffraff.
Kids of other races envied you, too. They wanted to have your grades and your awards, but didn’t have your intelligence and your dedication. So they bullied you, too. They used your skin colour to insult you, said you were ugly, stole your lunch money, and kicked you around at pleasure.
But you endured everything. With the support of your parents and some teachers you came to believe that if you silently took the abuse and single-mindedly moved ahead, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. You would conquer. You would make it. You would prove everybody that regardless of your height, your looks, and your skin colour, you would make the major leagues. So you worked hard and kept at it.
Never forgetting who you were, you grew up watching others of your race wrongly profiled as “all criminals.” Sometimes when you went to the mall, you noticed that, in certain stores, security guards followed you around thinking that surely you were going to shoplift. Also, when you went out for dinner with your parents you consistently noticed that the best seats in the house were given to folks of another skin colour—never your family. You grew up quite aware that in this world, if you were going to be recognized as a decent, intelligent, law-abiding, worthy of respect individual, you had to outperform all those other folks with pale faces.
And you did it. After years of silent suffering, after years and years of put-downs, you made it. Just to find out that those other people respected you only in public and as a professional. You heard in the office that someone was having a house warming party or a Super Bowl gathering, but you weren’t invited. They were nice to you, but in their heart of hearts they didn’t want you in their inner circle of friends. But if anyone called them racists, they said, “Oh, no, I have friends of all races,” and they name-dropped you.
Knowing that a person of your race needs to keep a clean rap sheet to be respected, you were always law-abiding and did everything by the book. But one day, after a tiresome business trip, you come back home hoping for your bed, thinking you’ll make yourself a cup of coffee and sit on your favourite chair to catch up with the local news.
But there is a problem with the door locks and you can’t get in. You’re tired and thinking, “Oh, for crying out loud. I never thought this day could get any worse.”
When you finally manage to get in via the backdoor, you see a white policeman making demands of you, in your own home. And you don’t really see the man in front of you. You see the bullies from high school, the security guards from the malls, the admissions officer from the schools that rejected you, the country club directors who told you there was no room for new members. And you over-react.
The police officer arrests you in your own home and you spend the night in jail. For having misbehaved ONCE in your entire life.
The police officer says he isn’t a racist—maybe he isn’t. But he can’t understand that when people of certain races and walks of life make it to the top, they get there wounded and scarred. Their sensitivity level is so high after so much crap taking that they have no room for even a minor misunderstanding. It just hurts too much.