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Being 'That' Guy

I couldn't believe what this lady was saying to me. At the age of seventeen, going through the application process for college - with no help from my parents who had no idea of such an experience - this lady, my mom's boss, a very wealthy Jewish woman, looked at me and said the following:

"Don't worry about it. You won't have issues getting into college. You're black. Kids like you going to college are rare, you'll get in. Schools will accept you. Your grades are what will make you unique." 

I look back on that moment now and laugh out of nervousness and mixed emotion. It still makes me feel a bit uncomfortable when I think about it. Not because I believe my path was emboldened and paved by my appearance, as if my skin's shade served as some college acceptance catalyst. No, not because I prefer my advancement in this life to be because of my work, my abilities, my integrity, my character, and my potential rather than the color of my skin. But because such a statement exists. Because such a statement is real. And because well, there was some truth to what she was saying.

"Is this life?", I wondered back then. More so, is this life for me? Going forward? Living and preparing to accept and be comfortable with the credence of being that guy. The guy who is [fill in compliment here] for a black guy. 

This past week, yours truly received two e-mails that brought this feeling that I've carried and felt before. The first one was from the University in which I work for that would like to spotlight me as one of their rising professionals of color. The other was from a close national vendor who also wanted to highlight my accomplishments, especially as a minority in a field where diversity is still a term being chased, rather than an active element. 

I stared at both of these e-mails which were filled with glowing compliments, positive statements about my work, and a lot of exclamation points. For some reason, I only focused on the negative. I couldn't, for the life of me, NOT focus on the negative.

Words and phrases such as "of color" and "minority" continued to pop out of the screen, coming to life each time my eyeballs crossed them as if they were grabbing me by the collar and holding my chin straight to focus on it's controversial existence. 

That feeling came back. And while I'm usually timely in responding to e-mails, I let both sit in my inbox for a day or two. I can't exactly tell you why. Maybe it was because I was in the middle of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, which is so damn good, and downright remarkable in uncovering memories, stating unspoken truths, and unlocking and connecting with so many feelings and struggles for a born and raised inner city kid of color like myself. 

I simply stared at the two e-mails and let the two voices on either side of my head, residing on opposing ends of my shoulders, go to battle to make their case.  

Well isn't that convenient! They want you to be spotlighted and acknowledged. The calendar turns to February and suddenly you're part of them fulfilling some due diligence, some kind of PC work to be in line with what is accepted at this time, which is shining a light on the selected who they believe meet the requirement for diversity - anyone with a skin tone that might be a shade darker than most. It's that time! The same as pitching the Easter Bunny in Spring, or wearing our nation's colors on Independence Day, or breaking out the Santa Claus character post-Thanksgiving. 

Yup, it's February. You've been "selected". Yada. Yada. Yada. 

Or am I about to become some type of ploy for a marketing/PR strategy? How fitting? Especially during a time when Universities around the nation are under scrutiny for cultural incompetence and inclusion shortcomings? 

I refuse to be that guy. The guy that is pretty accomplished for a "black guy." The guy that is thrown to the masses to say, "hey, look at his skin, he made it!", or "we're diverse!" You've worked too hard for that. Endured a lot. Have seen your parents sacrifice too much. You're more than just skin. So much more than just color. "Black" is what they want to call it, right? Yeah, more than just, "black".

I didn't want to be that guy at seventeen. I don't want to be that guy now. 

Well, wait a second! 

What's wrong with being acknowledged for being a person of color? What's wrong with being thought of and characterized as the world puts it, a "black"? We're talking 400 years of struggle, and suffrage, and slavery, and glass ceilings, and systematic resistance, and continued prejudice, and murder, and poverty, and overwhelming discrimination of anyone that is of your color, your shade, your skin tone.

Wrap your mind around that! 

And it hasn't ended. You've endured it, dealt with four years of cultural incompetence during your time in undergrad. You've made it out of a place not many have. Remember your closest friends of the same skin color growing up? You know exactly where they are, or have ended up.

Yes, you've made it this far. Others haven't. And for those on their way, you represent progress. You represent hope. Your position looks like one more possibility that wasn't there before. And with the struggle, and the suffrage, and the whole ordeal, everything remains an uphill battle. You realize that much hasn't changed along the way since Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln memorial. Today, the hill is a little less inclined. But the truth is, things may never change to an even surface in your lifetime.

It's that feeling you have when in every first personal or professional encounter which always begins with having to break down stereotypes and barriers held up by those who lack self-awareness of their privilege, or that they themselves are just merely a happenstance of hitting life's DNA jackpot. Within those moments and feelings, everything is put into perspective. You, your skin, your current being - all of it - is evidence that the lives of Tubman, Lincoln, King, Parks, Horne, Du Bois, Robinson, Mandela, and so many more, were not in vain. 

In a perfect world, your skin, and your body, wouldn't be labeled, judged, nor would carry assumptions, stigmas, and wild stories based upon appearance or sheer presence. However, our world isn't perfect. Not even close. History proves that. 

Reality is, you carry those things, man. The suffrage. The migration. The slavery. The discrimination. The struggle. The systematic resistance. All of it. You do. Accept it. You. Your face. Your skin. Your body. Own it. Use it. Honor it. Be empowered by it.

I let the voices continue go-back-and-forth over and over again. Feuding points until ultimately I replied to each e-mail with the following thought: 

"Thank you for this honor. I look forward to answering your questions for the spotlight in your publication." 

I may dislike what that lady may have said to me way back when, but she represented and sparked much of the ugly truth in this life for me when it comes to race, cultural competence, and my place within it all. 

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