Sunday, October 24, 2010

What I Should Have Said

I often find myself having imaginary conversations with people days (OK sometimes months) after an encounter that upset me. I never seem to be able to compose myself enough in the moment to say what I really want to say when someone says something ignorant. I think I'm just so shocked at the things that people do and say that I'm at a loss for words.

Q: Are you the first person in your family to go to college?
A: No.

I used to get this question a lot more in my 20's. I am happy to say that I only get asked every once in a while these days but it still aggravates me. It is either a demonstration of how ignorant people are about the history of black people in this country or that they are racist and assume that black people aren't educated.

What I Should Have Said: How old do you think I am? Do you know that some northern colleges were admitting black people in the 1700's and shortly after that historically black colleges were established all over the US? By the time slavery was abolished in the late 1800's black people had been going to college for more than 100 years. The Civil War ended in 1865. It's almost 2011.

Yes, black people's rights and opportunities were still very limited in some geographic regions until the 1960's and 1970's when the Civil Rights Movement worked to change that but that doesn't mean they lacked the desire to become educated and strive for a better life. A person's
ability to go to college is generally driven by their socioeconomic status more than anything else. Yes, by percentages, there are more poor black people than any other race but that doesn't mean that all poor people are black or that all black people are poor.

Depending on what study you believe 50-60% of Americans have attended college but only 27% leave college with a degree. According to the federal government, 57% of white students who enter college earn their degrees compared to 44% and 39% of Hispanic and black students, respectively. Not great odds when you compare us to other countries.

So 1/4-1/3 of all people that you meet don't have a college degree, regardless of race. Are you asking everyone you meet if they are the first one in their family to attend college? If you are, I'm sorry I was offended by your comment. I thought you were asking me because you're one of those people who watched shows like The Cosby Show and thought they were the exception and that few, if any, successful black people exist in the world.

You're the guy who asks me for more towels when you see me walking down the hall in a nice hotel or the lady who asks me to find a shoe in her size while I'm shopping at a fancy department store because you can't fathom me being able to afford these things. You're the mother of several of my friends growing up who were surprised that I was black the first time they met me in person because "I sounded white on the phone". You're tiny, ignorant little brain can't imagine that a black person could have the same, or gasp, a higher level of success and income that you.

I wish that I could say that all the people who ask me these questions are very old but they are usually late 30's to early 50's. I struggle to tell someone that they've got snot hanging out of their nose. I can't imagine walking up to a complete stranger and asking them anything like that. As I've gotten older, I've tried to let these comments go but I am rarely successful. I'd be lying if I didn't say that every moment of ignorance against me is burned into my memory with no hope of being erased.

No comments:

Post a Comment