When I was growing up, I lived in a predominately Black & Latino neighborhood. Most of my childhood memories, I remember being surrounded by a sea of black and only seeing white people on occasion. These were the good days. The only times I came into contact with white people was when I interacted with school faculty, saw strangers in cars, my mother’s coworkers, or in the nearby coffee shops that signified the inception of gentrification in my neighborhood. To be honest, these were easier times. Being surrounded by people who looked like me allowed me to only see myself in one light, I always saw myself as the individual, Shaquille.

Middle school is when I had my first encounter being racially profiled. I was meeting up with some friends at a local bus station. My friend and I were waiting on another friend, who was perpetually late, and on this day he was 3 hours late. While we were waiting outside a pizza shop with our bikes laughing and joking, cops approached us. They mentioned that they had been watching us for a while and asked what we were doing on the corner. Not thinking much of it, we told them we were waiting for our friend. They began questioning where we had come from, asked our names and frisked us; all while asserting that they were sure we had drugs. We were pushed against the wall, searched aggressively, and had our names run through the system. Our backpacks and bikes were searched in every nook and cranny and then they went on their way. When we asked why we were searched we were told that based off of our attire “we looked like thugs.” We were 12. Our friend arrived shortly after and we pushed on. I never saw the police the same again.

In high school, I was very aware of the multitude of ways that the people I saw on the day-to-day saw me. I was reading novels such as Native Son, The Women of Brewster Place, and Black Boy, which allowed me to see the world in a new light, which was eye-opening, yet exhausting. So many things began to click. The bigotry, stereotypes, and oppression described in these novels coincided with the issues in my life that I deemed, prior to becoming privy to this information downright confusing. My now fully gentrified neighborhood was whiter and richer than it had ever been in my lifetime. Being 17, I had more freedom over what I did and how I did it, thus most mornings I would walk to school, rather than take the bus. On the road to school, I would often catch glimpses of the way people looked at me on the street. In the ten-block radius from where I lived, very few people of color lived near me, but I was en route to a school that was 97% black/brown. People looked and judged. I was a young, black male dressed in a fitted cap, Air Jordan’s, baggy Dickies and a belt that was on its last leg. I would often try to fix my clothes (to the best of my ability) so that the white people passing by wouldn’t judge me. They'd often clutch their bags or cross the street if I was near them. I found myself trying to fix my clothes more with them than I did when I was around my mother and grandmother. I couldn’t understand why they looked at me with such angst, but I wanted it to end. I didn’t want them to look at me like I was “just another n*gga.”

Around the same time, I was stopped by the police yet again. While on the way home from a night out with friends, a police cruiser pulled up next me to abruptly. As I was approaching the door to my apartment building, a cop got out of the car and questioned why I was in the neighborhood. As I began to describe that I lived at this address, he got out of the vehicle, came to my side, and tussled with me to put handcuffs on me. He ran my name through the system, as I lay handcuffed on my front steps for the next 35 minutes. When I belted out for the 1000th time that I lived here, he said, “it’s too nice for you to live here.” Shortly after he unhandcuffed me, and watched as I opened the doors to go into my apartment building. The next day I was happy to have a class presentation to dress up for, as I would have one less thing to worry about on my way home.

In college, going to school with predominately white upper-class individuals, I felt the pressures pushed on me by my counterparts was tenfold in comparison to my experiences in Boston. There were a variety of individuals in university who were vocal about being from towns where they’d never seen a black person, in person. A large portion of kids I met in college only saw black people on television and had never been to the inner city. In this environment, I felt myself under the scrutiny of many eyes as I walked through campus from professors and students alike; only about 3% of the campus was black. The environment was different, but the social structures were similar. I would often see people wear certain designer brands that were regarded with a lot of respect, but people would scoff at any brands they deemed lower in their social hierarchy. People at this school spoke of brands that were regarded in the hood with high regard with very little care, yet it still meant a lot to them. I would hear some of the stereotypes people heard about black people, under the assumption that if I tried to counteract them, I could change their perceptions. I began to try and dress different, which to my detriment, made me stick out more. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Trying hard to be someone I was not burned out for me quickly because I was miserable. I wore Ray-Bans with croakies, pastel colors, and Sperry’s, all of which are horrible fashion choices and not worth the money whatsoever. These perceptions that people had of black people weren’t things that I could change, they were prejudices that they needed to deal with, and that was not my responsibility. Towards the start of my sophomore year, I told myself that no matter what I wore or how I carried myself for the rest of my college career, it would be whatever, whenever, and however, I wanted to, regardless of what people thought.

While this mentality was liberating it restrained me, as I was not always able to be this way 100% of the time. The duality of living carefree and not being aware of how people perceive you as a black person in America, or even this world, is impossible. On one hand, we can dress however, wherever, and whenever we want but are forever reminded that we are limited because the structures within the society in which we live were built by us, but not for us. White people only have to worry about being seen as “professional vs. “unprofessional” at most, while black people are constantly fighting negative stereotypes and prejudices that are put into the world daily. Attempting to be carefree works in theory, but we are forced to leave that unapologetically black bubble when it comes to sounding white on a phone to get a job, dressing a certain way at all white establishments, and controlling the influx of ebonics, or lack thereof, in conversations with White people. 

This complex issue is deeply rooted in America. Black people are judged, demonized, and scolded for being ourselves, yet encouraged to be ourselves daily. We are told to be individualistic as long as those individuals we choose to be fit the mold White America has set out for us. We are told to go against the status quo but encouraged to be the status quo in order to change the system. In a country built by us but not for us, we are succumbing to the judgment of others for being different from them. We often talk different, walk different, and act to different to not be judged. The theory of double consciousness amongst minority Americans controls us from an early age until we die. We are forced to stare at ourselves through a lens of our own experiences whilst also psychoanalyzing ourselves through the lens of the white world. The everlasting struggle between what it means to be black and what it means to be American is vastly different, and until we all can push those disparaging feelings aside for the sake of blackness and be unapologetically Black, regardless of the negativity that comes with it, we can never truly be free.