Like almost every other black person in the world, I was obsessed with the Black Panther movie when it came out. I was especially interested in seeing how it would be received by other races and ethnic groups. It is human nature, I believe, to want others to see the things you are proud of through your eyes.
I was intrigued by a YouTube video of a review of the film by South Korean media company Asian Boss. One of the questions asked of viewers was, “Can you tell me how you perceived black people before watching the movie?” Two of the responses were as follows:
“Before, the average Korean’s perception of black people was not very good, because we learned from history books that they were slaves. Now, we perceive them as cool and hip. You know, very free-spirited and expressive, which is great.”
“For most Koreans, the main exposure they had to foreigners was through movies, but there weren’t many black people in mainstream cinema. I think that’s why Korean people don’t have a very good perception of black people.”
As a black person, these responses made me sad, but the acknowledgement that their perceptions resulted from lack of exposure also gave me hope. After seeing how black people are portrayed in the media, if I were not black, I’d probably be scared of me too. The perception of black people has been managed and directed for so long that it has been ingrained in the minds of generations of families of all races.
Our histories have so much to answer for in terms of the way we act today, whether good or bad. Many of us don’t even realize that many of our attitudes and beliefs aren’t even ours; they are our mothers’ and fathers’, our grandparents’ and even our great-grandparents’. They are attitudes and beliefs that have been passed down through generations. Some thoughts linger in our minds without our knowledge, and they affect our interactions with each other, perhaps not on a big scale, but they’re there all the same. We need to identify what beliefs are inherited, not really ours, and to revise them according to our own experiences. It’s hard enough carrying the weight of our own experiences, much less the weight of generations before us.
Of course, black people aren’t the only ones who suffer from misperceptions. If I hadn’t grown up around wonderful white people, I might think that — based on what I read on social media — the majority of them are racist. If I didn’t see the hurt and suffering of Muslims caused by our rejection and distrust of them, I’d probably think that they are all terrorists. If I only had the word of the President of the United States, I might also think that all Mexicans are criminals and rapists.
Have you ever wondered why racehorses wear blinders? According to an article by W. Banks Anderson Jr., MD, it’s because “trainers and handlers have a widespread belief that you can modify a horse’s behavior by limiting its visual field.” In other words, you can control a horse’s behavior by taking away its ability to see the larger picture.
We may not know it, but we also wear blinders — cultural blinders, racial blinders, political blinders, and religious blinders, to name a few. We have been trained by parents, churches, schools, media, and our singular experiences. Our behaviors have been modified by the limits placed on our ability to see the larger picture, and therefore, most of our thoughts are limited, which creates prejudices.
I was born in the Caribbean on a small island called St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and even though I’ve lived in the United States for over 30 years, I’ve always considered myself lucky to have been born there. Why? Because St. Vincent is a link to my history, my culture, and especially my identity. There, I’ve never had to describe myself as a black Vincentian. There, I’ve never had anyone tell me to go back to where I came from. And there, I’ve never had to look at myself through racists eyes.
Until I came to live in America, I was blissfully unaware of racial issues. That innocence disappeared in high school, however, while waitressing part-time at a local restaurant in Virginia. Not being the most adept waitress, I accidentally dropped a customer’s plate of food and was immediately verbally slapped with “you f***ing nig**r.” That was my introduction to life as an African American.
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.”
James Baldwin from “The Negro in American Culture,”
My experience while waitressing hurt and confused me, but I soon got over it, because as a Vincentian, this wasn’t an experience I had grown up with. As a singular event, it was easier for me to compartmentalize these people as jerks rather than all white people as racists. Although the experience made me more aware of racism, I didn’t look for it in every white person I met.
Unfortunately, I can’t now say the same in 2018, in the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. Unfortunately, as I transitioned to the African American way of life, I realized that our experiences with racism are not singular. My second experience was harder to ignore, as were my third, fourth, and so on. Unfortunately, I have seen myself through the lens of prejudice, and I was found lacking. Fortunately, I had already measured myself and found myself to be six feet tall.
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications.