“You don’t know the real struggle” actually sounds a lot like “you’re not like us Black people.”
It sounds a lot like allowing others to create an in-group and an out-group.
When I first embarked on my own journey of activism, I was 15. Enraged by the brutal murder of Trayvon Martin, I began to see my world through a lens I hadn't yet envisioned for myself. It’s not that I didn’t know racism existed, the reality is that I didn’t know I’d have to live in it for so long. At 15, I found myself overwhelmed with rage and sadness. Trayvon seemingly died over a bag of skittles, but Black America knew long before Geroge Floyd that Trayvon died because he was Black. Suspicion is too often ascribed by skin tone, and somehow you don't have to be a cop to weaponize that — and somehow, that's still legal.
When Trayvon died, I changed the way I exist in this world. He felt like the Rodney King of my generation and in many ways the symbolism of his death catalyzed a movement that still lives on today. Countless names live on in hashtags and songs of our freedom, but how do we mourn those who were taken as martyrs of a cause with no clear solution?
After Tryavon died, discussion of race, racism and class — systemic oppression — weren't so foreign to my vocabulary. Suddenly, calling out my high school for having an almost entirely white staff teaching almost entirely Black students didn't feel so outrageous. We were angry, generations of people were angry. Mothers grieved for Trayvon in the same way they would for their sons. No one should ever know the loss of a child, but too many Black mothers know this grief of mourning the loss of life gone too soon — and I’m not just talking about police brutality.
Even in the wake of Trayvon's death, when so many came together in unity and solidarity, there stood a very bold line of division. White America didn’t see Trayvon for the boy, the human being, he was. They allowed the media to narrate Trayvon's story, and thus make him into a “thug” far after his death.
Here I was, straight, an A student, avid reader, big vocabulary — a nerd by most people's standards, but I was different. To white folk, I was different. To Black people, I was different. I was different because I was going somewhere, I was college bound. That small fact somehow made me different to everyone but me. It made me an “oreo” to my peers, and unlike “those black people” to my non-Black teachers, advisors and mentors.
“You don’t know the struggle” is what my cousins said to me the first time I stood in protest for Black lives.
“You’re a fake activist” were the words my family used to describe my use of poetry and literature to enhance this movement.
“You don’t even know what they are feeling out there” is what too many of my family and friends uttered as I invited them to the next protest, the next march, the next forum.
For too many cultural groups, there is a fine line between us and them. There is a space in many cultures, a small box of space barely noticeable to the naked eye, but within it lies a very strong belief: “We are not like the Black Americans. We are different.”
To a young child growing up, this belief doesn't feel wrong. Honestly, I am almost certain none of us Caribbean kids ever thought about that difference. We still hung out with the Black kids at school, listened to the same music and crushed on Chris Brown just the same. We were the same. However, as we grow up, more and more people see this difference in your face. As society begins to socialize you to believe in the “good Black” and the “bad Black,” you too subconsciously begin to believe you are the good.
My mom raised me and my brother to believe if you behaved, went to school, got your education, kept your head up and hands out of your pockets, and did not dress like a “bum,” then you would be perceived as good. You could make it through this life. But Trayvon Martin was minding his business, getting an education and being “good.” Tamir Rice was just 12 years old, playing with a toy gun just like we all used to.
But Mom, they were still murdered.
The terrible part of my new realization was as more Black lives were lost, the better I understood — there is no "us" and "them" to white people, there is just Black. My little box, not visible to the naked eye, faded away as I began to see myself the way society did. I’m Black first, period.
Although I often find myself battling to be seen for my individuality and my cultural eccentricity, the Black Lives Matter movement has taught me the importance of feeling the power of the collective, of sharing a common goal — even if in reality we are as diverse as the legacy of the African diaspora. Although we may walk different paths and celebrate different legacies, collectively we stand to defend and celebrate Black excellence. We need to come together, united, to defend the rights of all Black lives.
If more of us understood that, and more of us believed in our sameness rather than our differences, perhaps our collective strength could speak louder than the ignorance of white supremacy and privilege. The Black community needs to stop playing into the notion of “us” and “them,” in the same way that Black people of other ethnicities need to stop stereotyping Black American culture. Our community has a cultural miscommunication that although seems small, in reality manifests itself in the business we support, the people we surround ourselves with and the partners we love, thus crafting the children we reproduce and the families we create. That “black box” isn't so small after decades of living with it inside of you.
So as the next generation of ethnic Black people make our way to the front lines, let us unlearn what generations of cultural miscommunication has unintentionally taken away from us: Our sense of belonging.
To those of us who seem to be defining the parameters for Blackness, instead of always saying “you don't know struggle,” assume we do and let's work together to birth our collective next generations of leaders, activists, business men and women, educators, artists and change agents. The next generation won't let a small box get in the way of the collective strength of our shared legacies.