By: Hakeem Hopkins-Kotb
As I slowly learn how to navigate this turbulent and changing world that we’re in, there are still many things that I haven’t fully learned how to do yet. To be frank, being black is one of them.
Growing up overseas I’ve always felt that I’ve been afforded certain privileges when it comes to race. Many of those privileges are intertwined with the diplomatic status I hold in the foreign countries I’ve lived in. For example, I’ve never truly feared any encounters I’ve had with the police because I’ve always known that the diplomatic immunity I hold will protect me regardless of any possible wrongdoing. I also never felt like my race ever had any implications on my treatment. My dark skin never made a conversation turn into an interrogation or a routine security check turn into my last moments of life. My diplomacy allowed me to live freely, without racially-motivated suspicion from the police. I also never truly experienced the full force of racist microagressions, and when they did happen they were almost always out of curiosity and a lack of understanding. Often, my blackness even came as a surprise to many and the stares and glares of hatred and bigotry that I anticipated were actually stares and glares born out of ignorance and curiosity.
Of course, I always felt like an outsider but I was never really treated like one. Naturally over time, it became very easy to take the security and ease of mind that diplomacy gave me for granted. It began to feel almost as if I was reaping the benefits of white privilege and I began to learn what it was like to live as a white person in America. But, in reality racism was still happening. It remained an inescapable reality that would follow me internationally. Through the lack of education on black history and the discriminatory practices that have happened and continue to happen came racial insensitivity and unconscious racism. I had many experiences that grounded me and reminded me that I’m still a black man. Too often, me and the handful of black students at whichever school I’d be at would constantly be put in situations where we’d have to choose between being included and confronting racism. The N-word always seemed to be a point of contention. The “my nigga’s” always seemed to be followed by an “oh by the way you don’t care if I say it right?” or a “I was using it to greet you anyways and I said it with an a not an er” to which I’d usually respond with an “I don’t care” or a “It doesn’t bother me”. Initially, it did bother me but as a young boy growing up in a foreign environment with little to no people who looked like me I was always predestined to choose inclusivity over speaking up.
Here’s the thing though, inclusivity can’t exist without justice, and justice cannot exist without learning, listening and understanding. The biggest misconception about inclusivity is that it’s about all of us being the “same,” but that’s the exact opposite of what it means to be inclusive. Inclusivity at its core is about seeing that we’re all different, acknowledging that we have different experiences, and fully accepting each person, with their differences and unique experiences. The whole “I don’t see color” mindset is nothing but toxic, which is exactly why we cannot have inclusivity without learning, and also why understanding black history is extremely important. Growing up around the world, black history was history that was hard to come by. The curriculum I underwent hardly touched on black history and barely glazed over some of the horrific stories I had to learn for myself. For the schools, it was all about censorship. The majority of my knowledge on black history came through conversations with my family and self-education. It was disappointing to know that schools worldwide valued censorship and correctness over a valuable and all-inclusive education. As disappointing as this is, it makes it all the more important for all of us to put in the effort to understand the experiences of Black people during Black History Month as well as during the rest of the year.
In the end, learning about black history is not something that you should applaud yourself for doing solely during the month of February then going back to life as it is. Learning about black history is a mindset, it’s the ability to listen when black people share their experiences, it’s about making a life-long commitment to acknowledge your own prejudices and actively combat them within yourself and the world around you. Black History is year-round.
Over time, I slowly conditioned myself to tolerate racism and I always justified it by telling myself that their racism was never intentful. The monkey ears and dances that they would do trying to imitate black people were never hateful but rather ignorant. The racist assumptions they made about me were never rooted out of resentment for me or for black people so I kept telling myself that it was okay. As I got used to it I slowly became numb to the N-word and their other racist practices, and consequently I also became numb to the struggles of other black people being persecuted everyday. I told myself that it was normal. Eventually, it led to me being racist towards other races and insensitive towards other cultures. After all, hurt people hurt people. But now, living in a time where racism is actively fought against I see that one's intentions are unimportant while the impact of one's actions can change everything. I still am an imperfect person, with racist practices deeply rooted within me. But, I also acknowledge that I’m constantly growing and changing. I now see that if I want to demand to be treated with dignity and respect I must also give the same dignity and respect to the world. With dedication and time I know that I’ll learn to not tolerate racism in myself and with others. I’ll learn to be the Voice of Change.