FINDING BALANCE BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
As I write, I contemplate my own experience as a biracial black man. Growing up, I never fully understood or agreed with White America, but I also didn’t fully understand Black culture—these two worlds often being diametrically opposed. One would assume that someone who is both Black and White would understand all the cultural references, inside jokes, and shorthand that comes with each. However, this is not the case for everyone. For instance, when my white friends chat about music, I’m left with no clue as to what they are referencing.
One day, I asked my father if we could go to the Barbershop and bond. He looked at me like I was crazy, and replied: “I’ve been bonded to you since you were born.” As I reflect on the complexities of being biracial, I realize that I may not have the privilege to fully connect with both of my cultures, but I do have the best of both worlds, yet I belong to neither.
The more I lived, the more I realized that the way we process the world can be vastly different. One day when I was younger, I was discouraged and I referred to myself as a “Mutt” my father looked at me with complete disappointment but love and admiration and said: “Son, in my eyes you are a thoroughbred,” He did not teach me as a black son or as a white son, but as a beloved son who was second to none. My father loved my mother and me thoroughly, and he (as my mother) will always be a part of me. But for all his love and devotion, he could never teach me how to move in this world as a Black man. My mother died days after my sixteenth birthday, so much was not discussed. Over time, I started to realize that the business advice he gave me was more suited for a young white man, than for me, and far different than the advice others in the black community gave me, and then still, far different than the advice white people gave me.
Though I neither understood this or fully recognized it in my twenties, the advice young white men with even a modicum of talent was more practical in nature. Outside of my father’s guidance, I received both a complete lack of support and the detriment of the doubt at every turn, and this cut across color lines. Would you believe I had the idea for a social media network years before Facebook? Yes. It’s true, but I was laughed out of town by black “leadership” so fast it made my head spin. Young black men, are told to tough it out, work that 9-5 until they make it, rely on self, to hustle, teach yourself and go it alone if need be. But white men, especially young white men, are given exactly the opposite advice, they are taught to get the training first, have their elevator pitches ready, share their ideas, understand the competition, to get financing, to go public with their IPO. And on those rare occasions, I did get the right advice. Follow-through was non-existent. There was no knowledge on my part and no will to see me through. To be sure, I was self-taught in computers from the age of 12, when my parents invested in one, long before most people knew what a personal computer was. I did well in life because of their nurturing, and I was hired by some of the top universities and institutions in the world, from MIT to the World Bank, but I would have gone much further with the right support system.
White men, as a matter of course are told to have their business plan done with all the projections. Too often in the black community (and other communities of color) we are told to “move in silence and keep your plans secret”, “don’t brag”, and so on. Only now can I reflect on how messed up and dysfunctional that is; advise that would never be given in a million years to young white men with even an ounce of talent. Cognitive dissonance much? Yes, I was given many advantages my siblings were not, but I was still at a deficit, and to tell others with even greater deficits to just clam up and work hard it antithetical to success. It is a damn shame that in 2023 I have to write these words or speak in these terms, but Black America’s contribution to our economy is approaching $1.5 trillion a year, and our participation in the ownership of Black owned tech and entertainment companies is south of 5%, probably far less in the Web 3 space. I’m not saying that there are no successes, there are many, and I admire them, but on the whole we have to recognize that something is amiss.
When it comes to business, Black entreprenuers are not given our props. From TikTok to ARPA, we are consistently pilfered for our talent, our creative works copied, watered down and the profits funneled into White pockets. We are told to “stay humble”, “be quiet” less we lose what little we amass. It’s clear we are first in line to get punished by society and last in line to get rewarded. To often we are told to not brag, and I feel this is completely at odds with our Black culture passed down in a thousand countless ways because (generally speaking) bragging is a form of storytelling, one that is deeply rooted in African-American tradition. It’s believed that bragging is a way of validating oneself and showing off skills, accomplishments and wealth, something that was often denied to African-Americans due to systemic racism. It’s also believed that bragging is a way of creating a sense of community and solidarity, as the shared stories of success and triumph help to build a sense of collective pride and identity. In sports, hip-hop and traditions like “the dozens”, bragging has become a way to show off one’s skills and talents, as well as to entertain and connect with others. But in “white culture”, or more specifically in the Polish Roman Catholic culture of my father, bragging is just bragging and is looked down upon as unkind, uncouth or in some cases, a sin.
Do you see how this can lead to deep internal conflict? My father, the very man I modeled my life after, my primary role model who has been supporting me and my mother in love, the man who wrote my mother love letters since I was in my mother’s womb, is by circumstance, antithetical to my deepest social programming. This is only a theory to some, but for me it is my truth. I am both black and white, but I am also neither, and in a strange way, it would have been helpful to not have been so close to one…or either of my parents.
This is why I have come to refer to myself as a “Thoroughbred”. A Thoroughbred is a horse, a symbol of power, strength, and endurance, but also a symbol of beauty, grace, and style. I have the strength and endurance of my father, but also the beauty, grace and style of my mother. I have something that no one can deny me, and that is my authenticity. It is through my authenticity that I have been able to blend both worlds and create something that is my own. I have the swag and style of my mother and the business acumen of my father. I am a Thoroughbred. Some may recoil that I compare myself to a horse, but I’ve lived 52 years on Earth and I know this for sure. Animals are often far nobler and kinder than people.
At War With Myself: Conflicting Internal and External Pressures
It‘s true – the war has waged since before I was born. I like an Asimov robot, melting down because it is conflicted over its prime directive and latest instructions. This war is partly internal and partly external, too – I didn‘t choose it. After watching the horror film “Get Out“, I felt that dread – of having a friend and an enemy living within my own head. If I‘m being honest, I‘ve been immobilized by society‘s signals, even signals from those closest to me. As an artist and writer, I must be honest with you, the reader. I must look into places I may not want to look – my deepest dreams, failings, nightmares, and insecurities – to bring you a truth worth reading. I can‘t afford to be a passive participant in my dreams and nightmares; I must be an observer, reporter, and scribe.
The Dozens: A Game We Played
Try “the dozens” on white folks and they’ll never get over it. Basketball, don’t understand it, never played it. When I watched “You People” on Netflix, I reflected that I wouldn’t have been able to pass zero tests Eddie Murphy subjected his soon-to-be son-in-law too, and I’m very much Black. And even as I thought about the spaces in which I move and share my opinions, I am not accepted as a “black man” for whatever the reasoning. It’s true. But I am, truly a black man. So I stop getting angry when I’m ignored (or even deleted, by friends no less) when discussing issues surrounding, “the culture”.
I reckon with myself, I think: “Yeah, I do move differently in Black culture.” Societal norms, age, my beliefs, my being queer. And there is no clear and easy answer. Life is sometimes undefinable. I live and move within a white controlled society, but I live within a black community, by choice. My friends are of every age, color, race, gender, orientation and creed, again…by choice. I love my people, but often don’t feel at home, like I did when I was a child. I could not have been more loved and protected by my black family and culture, but things change.
So, that’s when I remember: “The Dozens,” a game my people played. That’s when I know I’m a part of something bigger than myself, something that’s made me a better person. I’m a part of something that’s taught me to be brave, to be resilient and to be real. To recognize my place in the world and to appreciate the beauty around me. It’s taught me to be mindful of my actions and words, and never to be afraid to speak up. It’s taught me to stand up for what I believe in, no matter what. That’s “the dozens,” a game we used to play.
I have never felt a part of “white” culture either, and truth be told that’s not really a thing. Whiteness is the absence of culture. While Europe is comprised of many different ethnicities and cultures, there is no Whiteland. Whiteness in America means the absense of culture. At some point in recent history, my father who is a mix of European ancestry was considered Polish, and not white. In Tom Reiss’s book, The Black Count, over the past 200 years or so, even Americans were considered “colored” by western Europeans. So you the color line has moved to include Europeans who were not traditionally “white”. It’s a power, control and money game. But that doesn’t change the reality of the situation. My father was born a “white” man and was part of the power structure. But if any privileges were conferred upon him, they were revoked when he lived to become old. All power is returned back to the state at the end.
But unlike too many of my fellow Europeans in America, not speaking out against racial profiling and police brutality is unthinkable, yet most of my white male friends of the past never spoke out against it. I’m still waiting on Elon Musk, Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos to speak publicly against the extrajudicial killings of my brothers and sisters at the hands of those sworn to serve and protect. As a Black man, I refuse to be silent on this matter and I feel it’s my duty to speak out for those with less, white culture tends to not have any such conviction, even among the “righteous”.
My cultural blind Spots
They manifest in strange ways, and I guess it’s the result of age, exposure, socio-economic conditions…a variety of things. Suppose we have a group of white folks and they are out enjoying lunch and one starts talking about the intricacies of playing polo, most of the group would go on a little mental vacation and zone out as the person goes on-and-on…that’s what it’s like for me a solid 20% of the time when I hear white folks talk. Another example, Tyler Perry’s Madea. I played a Madea movie for my father and he laughed at it, but I play the stage play and he didn’t understand a word of it. A solid 90% of it. Then, as I’m watching it, I’m not getting about 15-20% of the cultural references and I start to wonder. Do I have these cultural blind spots? We both dug Empire because it was a visual experience and was musically oriented, now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these are black cultural traits that represent “being black” no, they are part of the diaspora which is as broad and diverse as the continent of Africa, so humor me a little. They are just things in our culture, not our culture. My father could beat anyone in Black Trivial Pursuit, that didn’t make him Black, it just made the party more interesting. So take this all I say with a grain of salt.
Yes, some things in our culture, black culture may seem rude to an outsider, if you fall down, generally black folks (at least where I’m from) are gonna laugh if you’re not hurt, got a stump leg?…”OK, Stumpy”…Put a foot up, snaps and the dozens. Word play, intentional mispronunciations, food jokes…it’s all in good fun, my white friends look at me and take me literally. “You are mispronouncing that word!” Yes, there are boojie-ass black folks who do that too, but they know.
My experience with Polish relatives and friends likewise leave me dumbfounded. For them, bringing up whether or not someone’s parents are married is standard. When I asked how acquaintances are doing after a car crash and not seeing them for a week, by writing them a get-well note to ask how they’re doing, it’s looked upon as a gauche overstep of boundaries. Their culture is more insular. How to navigate that?
Safe Enough to Hear the Truth
Despite this, I have my own perspective that neither culture fully grasps. I think one advantage to being more racially ambiguous is that I’ve been present for MANY conversations that weren’t intended for me. I also, without realizing it, got away with a lot of moves that would have been limited had I been more black presenting. Upon hearing these sometimes horrific things, I challenged them, usually directly to their face, and at other times through appropriate channels. But ultimately I would “put a foot up” and would get extreme backlash. You would be amazed what people are willing to tell you when they feel you are light and bright enough to not pose a “threat” to their white fragility.
Within the black community, when I try to share my truth, I am often met with disbelief. Even yesterday, I dared to share my experiences with my two blood half-sisters and they talked over, around and through me, because they choose to believe I couldn’t possibly have my own thoughts, beliefs, and lived life experiences. To them, I am “just a…black man”. When did we become so rigid in our worldview? It was not always this way.
Safe Enough to be told Directly
I’ve learned that life can be complex and the truth is infrequently black or white, pardon the pun. For example, I’ve been objectified by white P.A.’s (Physicians Assistants) along racial lines, even told to exit through the back door. Few would believe that happened to me. Why? Because I resisted medical gaslighting (the same gaslighting that killed my father) and was ordered to leave a building through the back door. The P.A.’s way of saying: “You know what…N****?” Yes it happened in 2018. A not-to-subtle reminder that for as white appearing as I may be, in the eyes of white folks, all I am is black and a threat when it comes down to money, power and control. Racism and all its poisonous fruit has always been a proxy for money, power and control. They got us hating each other for the shades of our skin, the texture of our hair, our features and which zip codes we can live in. What pointless degrees and jobs we can wear like badges of honor. We remain divided and fighting among each other, whilst they do the important work of developing, refining and cultivating their businesses. We accomplish along side them, competing at the highest levels, but we do not get our full credit, the full bounty of citizenship, safety, protection opportunity which they enjoy without a thought. This hardly seems like a fair exchange, and it’s time to make a few adjustments.
Being medically objectified compelled me to to seek out melanated medical providers and legal help, and while true they were more accommodating, they questioned my blackness. “Where are you black at?” He asked smiling. “Where it counts!” I snapped back. But yet they don’t like it when I tell my race-based puns and jokes about their culture. Why is that? Funny how that works. They feel like they can talk “hood” to me because they think because I live in Springfield, we all speak slang or have less access to the worlds knowledge (it’s been at our fingertips and legally accessible for some time now) When in fact I spent more summers vacationing and studying in Europe and speak more French and Polish than I do BEV, It’s tiresome. These are the things people who objectify others because of their perceived race, class and appearance.
It’s Not so Black and White
White supremacy isn’t just practiced by whites, and that’s the complication. I remember I was chilling with someone I liked very much, they happened to be South Korean, and they would suddenly say things like: “Your’e not REALLY Black.” and other racist things that are not fit to print in this post. It sucks to really like people only to discover, often after years of being vulnerable and loving them, that they hate you. And sometimes, it’s half-siblings, and other close relative who need someone convenient to blame for their own mistakes and decisions…someone who stands out. Someone a little different. Let that sink in.
It’s a “Colored Person’s” Burden, But the White Supremicist’s Shame
But the other thing that the so-called learned and cultured among us fail to realize is that while they may be 60 years deep in the “new: notion of living and working side-by-side with people of different cultures (gasp!) and having to (gasp!) “tolerate” others. My mixed black family full of Finnish, African, Inuit, Polish, British/Irish, French has been integrating and living in peace (more or less) with others for over 120 years. Perhaps those in these positions of power who feel like they can explain racism better than those who suffer from it (Thank you Dr. Beatrice Berry) should be listening to us for guidance instead of trying to define our experiences and limit us?
What Cops are to Black Men, Medicine is to Black Women
In the end, I realize there are two types of medical professionals, those who listen and treat you with human decency and those who do not. I was a long-term caregiver. I gave up my careers to do it, by choice. And what I experienced during that time could fill a book. And after being injured on the job, I can safely say that good doctors are the minority and often the women of color who hold low-level healthcare jobs are discounted and objectified by the medical and legal establishment. I fought that for a few years and during that I realized I had another “blind spot” It was by fate that I learned about that, but I realized that people of color, specifically Black women are systematically being discounted by the system, and this must change. Often it is BIPOC individuals giving our parent’s their last human touch and dignity. And their sacrifices and injuries should never be discounted. After years of struggle with subpar doctors in Springfield, MA I’m happy to report I drive 40 miles out of my way, to Worcester to get the best care possible at Umass Memorial, where none of the doctors jump to conclusions and there is a diverse medical staff. Some of my very best doctors have been European, and surprisingly…they understand my journey and they know enough not to objectify me for the sake of expedience and the bottom line. The same cannot be said of Mercy and to a lesser degree, Baystate Medical Center.
The VA nurse who abandoned my father’s medical care and let him bleed out a slow painful death told me, upon hearing of my injury, “That everything happens for a reason”. I used to believe that, before she tainted it. Now I view that expression with skepticism. I think it’s a way for people to absolve themselves of blame and responsibility for the harm they do others. As platitudes go, it’s a poor one. But as much as I don’t like it, there is some truth to it. I will write about what happened, and I will share with you my experiences, in the hopes others will not suffer as my father and I did, and as many veterans, the elderly and disabled do. And to, if at all possible, spare other people of color the pain of medical objectification. I choose to stay true to my beliefs instead of being confined by them, and I’ll speak my truth until I’m gone. This is the only way for change to happen. Perhaps at the end, when all is said and done, we all have these cultural blindspots, and they just happen to be more pronounced with me. Perhaps I’m just more open to understanding them.
- So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
- Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
- Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington
- White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
- The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson