Being a Black man is still new to me by Imani Henry © Copyright 2012
In the last 2 months there have been 3 separate incidents where I have been accused of something I didn’t do, lied upon, not listened to or allowed to defend myself and then thrown out, asked to leave or told there would be no further discussion on the matter. Basically accused, convicted & sentenced all in the first 5 minutes of the conflict.
Two of incidents involved white people - both LGBTQ & straight. One of the incidents was among Queer people of color. Two of the incidents were in front of a crowd of people and publicly humiliating. One incident was private leaving me unable to know whom I can or should trust. For me the common thread among all three incidents has been the feeling/assumption/perception that Black men are predatory, dangerous, culprits, and cannot be trusted. Simply put, the overall assumption was that I must have done what whether I am accused of or “ We need to take “preventive measures” because you know how Black men are.”
Or at least that is what I felt while the confrontations was happening. It is what I feel now looking back. That they/she/ is not really yelling at me. I’m just a target for her/them to unleash their fear of Black men upon. We are strong, reliable, deserving targets for your displaced rage. That it truly doesn’t matter how softly I speak, what I am wearing, “have no idea what you are talking about” because my accuser had already decided that the only way to “handle me” is to yell, scream, block my path, or show me the door.
Another common thread about these incidents is that it is assumed that this treatment will not hurt me. Because Black men do not feel or must be immune to pain. I will of course not be emotionally scarred nor could these incidents rip away at my self-esteem. It is almost as if the mis-treatment is to be expected without protest or question. In one of the incidents, I have even wondered if some of the people involved even saw me as human.
For of course I am human, imperfect, and flawed in many ways. I know there are ways I could of handled each situation differently. There are ways I am and am not a victim. When I look back on each of incident, I replay each word; examine the politics and the motivating circumstances behind why it started and what lead to the escalation. One incident blew up, when I unsuccessfully tried to diffuse my accuser with a joke. Another incident started when I stopped to ask someone a simple question that led to someone else swooping in to save “THEIR LGBTQ youth of color” from danger. The most recent incident, the most painful of all, calls into play whether or not people I thought knew me ever really knew me at all. Which might be the point, when people are socialized to not trust Black men.
Being a Black man is still new for me. I was born female. or trans. or a word we do not yet have. What I did know is that I did not want to grow to be/could not handle all the oppression that came with being a Black woman. So I transitioned. I lived happily as a Butch/ Gender Non-conforming female-bodied person as long as I could and just was not that courageous enough to deal with all oppression that identity brings. So I transitioned again, over the course of 13 years this time with hormones & surgeries. Aiming to live and present as male as stealthly as possible. Now I am legally, biologically, presenting in the world as male. A Black male.
In 2010, I grew my out hair, locked it into dreads, stopped shaving off my facial hair in preparation to spend the next 3 years in graduate school for social work and non-profit management. It was my way to affirm myself as I entered into a formal educational process that I knew I would be isolating for me as a Black male, as a Trans and political person. In 2 years, my dreads have grown thick and long and I think rather lovely. I love my beard. I love my look. I am Caribbean man. I look like a Caribbean man. This for me is naturally who I am.
But all this goes deeper than just a cultural expression. In the social service profession, many men of color are clean-shaven, don carefully coiffed haircuts & are tidily dressed. I wanted to show that an outwardly Afrocentric bearded Black man with dreadlocks, is and could be a kind, loving, and helpful man. He could even be your therapist. So for the last 2 years I have thrown on my guayabera shirts over my khakis and pull my hair back & “Voila! Social Worker”.
There is so much more that could be said about being a Black male in a field where the majority of workers are women, now heavily saturated with white women under 30. The sexist, classist, racist charity-based paradigm that are the roots of the social work profession and the all ways it has evolved or not. More could be said about what it means that all three of incidents involved social workers or people who connected to the social service field.
I believe that most of us walk around in the universe with both privileges and oppressions that may or not visible or invisible to others. But I don’t want to intellectualize this or put my cultural competency trainer cap on right now. I could also talk about the roots of oppression stemming from capitalist society that pits people against each other based on race, gender, age, sexuality, ability, class and other forms of oppression. This is the reason that I fight and organize is to one day stomp out all these inequalities. But right now I’ve just been struggling not to allow these incidents to chip away at my dignity and humanity. I have been needing to heal these wounds in order to find the strength to fight all the ills that we endure under capitalism.
I do not pretend to think I have all the answers or know all that needs to be done. It is as I get older, more hairier, more educated by life and formally, that I simply am trying to prepare myself. Accept the fact that it really doesn’t matter how I see myself, the work that I do, my actions, or my academic degrees – because there will always be people who will instantly react towards me with anger and fear. So all I can do is stay grounded and hopeful that I continue to live my life as best as can, expansively as possible, in other words heal and grow. If this piece of writing serves only to release and let go of some of the pain and anger of these last 2 months, then that is a good thing. Since again I am still new at this.
Black man out
Imani Henry is a Caribbean transsexual male living in the Republic of Brooklyn, NY , marching in the streets with the Occupy Movement and doing social media activism for Occupy4Jobs Network.