What do you do for a living? On the surface, that seems like an innocuous question. However, as it pertains to me, it really isn’t. This isn’t to say no one asks me that question earnestly, of course they do. People ask that when they genuinely want to get to know you, or are simply having friendly chatter. I navigate through a lot of spaces where people like me (young black men) aren’t in abundance, so that question isn’t always as innocuous as it may appear. Sometimes, it is a form of interrogation.
When people inquire about what I do in places where faces like mine are usually relegated to nothing more than servitude or “the help”, the questioning is rarely because they are making friendly conversation. They are asking because they think I do not belong in their space. Certainly not as an equal, or even a superior.
Now if I left this post where it is without elaborating, I’m certain that many people would come to the conclusion that I’m reading too much into things, letting my imagination run wild, or that I’m making mountains out of molehills. The vast majority of the people who will think that way will be white. When a black person speaks without a filter about their experiences, there always seems to be a contingent hellbent on dismissing the black person speaking out.
When a black person talks about their experiences with racism, it is rarely taken at face value. It’s met with derision, denial, disbelief and even hostility. When I told a white friend about the white cop who harassed me, she told me that we live in a new age and that Barack Obama is president. How is that relevant to anything? It’s as if Obama is the antidote for anything racist done to black people. We’re just supposed to suck it up since someone with high levels of melanin is in the white house. Talking about race as it pertains to the black experience with many white people is like talking to a toddler about calculus. It’s not an indictment (or maybe it is), but this is how it usually plays out. No matter what happens to you as a black person, there is a good chance that Obama’s name will be invoked to counter whatever trauma you just endured.
When I notice experiences that are recurring with me and people like me and I speak out against it or even point it out, I quickly get shouted down or will be accused of “playing the race card”. I know one thing, there will be push back, even when all I’m saying is that I don’t want to be debased. Sadly, this is nothing new. These are the constant microaggressions I get to deal with just by virtue of existing. I’m either spoken down to, shouted down, harangued constantly, questioned about everything, or in the case of the NYPD, literally stopped and frisked for walking home.
I won’t forget an incident a few years ago when I flew first class. A woman at the other seat looked at me like I was lost and took it upon herself to ask if I was in the right place and called out for a flight attendant to make sure I was where I was supposed to be. Less aware people would have taken her gesture for kindness. She wasn’t being kind. I told her I was in the right place, then carried on and ignored her. The flight attendant confirmed it for her, but just the idea that an uptight white woman can beckon for aid to double check and make sure I’m in the right place is problematic. Why does she need confirmation of whether I’m in the right seat? What business is it of hers? The fact that she was accommodated speaks volumes, but I just wanted to sit down and relax on the flight I paid for.
Later on, her curiosity got the best of her, and she wanted to talk. “Lovely day to fly isn’t it?” she quipped. She carried on with with mundane chatter for a few minutes, until she got to the nitty gritty of what I knew was coming. I’ve been able to sense this type of thing for quite some time. You can say it’s a gift that many worn out black people have. She asked me “So what do you do for a living?” I worked in Finance back then, but I didn’t feel the need to explain what I do or where I worked to a complete stranger. I just replied “A bit of this and that”. I’ve found that being vague annoys invasive people, so for that reason, I get really vague when intrusive strangers question me. She then said “Well, it must pay well for you to be sitting here.” Then she asked me if I was a boxer. She just couldn’t fathom that a young black man can buy a plane ticket and hop on a plane, the same way I assume she did. There had to be a reason why I could afford it and being gainfully employed didn’t even register for her. I had to be a boxer or some type of athlete, otherwise I would have no business being there. People like me aren’t supposed to in her space, unless they are entertainers or athletes.
I’m also an audiophile, and most audiophiles I know are on the level and are cool, but even in audiophile circles, I get questioned and harangued. This is an expensive hobby, so you need a modicum of disposable income. Sometimes when talking about hifi with other enthusiasts, and I get around to discussing my stereo, I’m met with “How did you get this?” questions. Of course, I got it the same way everyone else did, I paid for it with my money. Here’s the rub though, they aren’t really asking about how I bought anything. When you’re face to face with someone, it’s a bit harder to come out with it and say “What’s a nigger like you doing with all this nice stuff?”. This is what they are implying, but they are in polite company, and the mask of civility prevents that kind of outburst.
The types of messages I sometimes receive
The internet however removes that mask of civility. People let their hair down and let their racism flag fly high. Above is a screen capture of a private message I received on the Head-Fi forums. The guy was surprised I was black, then told me and I quote “It’s good to see a nigger making his way up in life especially in these perilous times.” He thought he was being complimentary. He then told me to keep up the good work and of course followed it up by asking me what I did for a living, and then hoped I didn’t sell ‘coke’. He hoped that I didn’t sell cocaine because being a drug dealer was the only way he assumed a black man could acquire the funds necessary to own an audiophile system. I responded back to him that I indeed did not sell cocaine. Incredulously, he responded back by saying it is rare for someone like me (a nigger) to earn an honest buck.
It reminded me of when Bill O’Reilly said Marc Lamont Hill looked like a cocaine dealer. Hill holds a Ph.D from Columbia. If someone who is an ivy league educated professor, an academic scholar and an author is sitting across from you and is wearing a suit, and you say he looks like a cocaine dealer, then what are you saying about your thought process? At the crux of the matter is that no matter how accomplished or “respectable” you are as a black person, it won’t matter to the many who still view blackness as inherently sinister. Even when you’ve earned a Ph.D from Columbia and are dressed in the finest suits. You still have to deal with this. My sister is an attorney and workers whom she hired over the phone have questioned her about living in her own house upon arrival, demanding to speak to the real owners of the house.
Like Hill, my father also has a Ph.D from Columbia and he could write a novel about his encounters with the NYPD. Sometimes when you tell the people who harangue you about what it is you do, and you happen to be in a position loftier than their station in life, they get even more upset and will try to diminish or belittle your accomplishments. They will start talking about affirmative action, as if affirmative action gets one on the Dean’s List. I don’t roll out credentials because that is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. My worth as a human being should stand on the merit that I am a person. This is why I think it’s foolhardy for highly educated and/or accomplished black people to start rattling off their credentials when faced with racism. It posits that they shouldn’t be treated unfairly because of their credentials. Where then does that leave black people who aren’t highly educated, well-heeled or accomplished in whatever barometer we use to gauge success in our society? It implies that treating people poorly is reserved for the “lower class”. That is textbook classism. The “respectability” of who you are doesn’t come into play when the opponent is racism. As stated earlier, Marc Lamont Hill is a Ph.D from Columbia and Bill O’Reilly said he looks like a cocaine dealer. It’s never about accomplishments or respectability. Hill has far more impressive credentials than O’Reilly by the way.
When I sold my McIntosh MC-252 amplifier on Audiogon, I opted for a pick up option instead of going through the hassle of shipping it. Having the buyer come pick it up and pay in person was a headache free solution. When the man who bought it came to pick it up, he saw my turntable and dynavector cartridge combo. He said it was a nice and complemented me on my stereo. He then asked me if I was a rapper and if that was how I was able to afford a McIntosh amp and the turntable and cartridge combo.
I told him I was not a rapper. He then asked if I played sports. I told him I haven’t played sports since high school. He went on to name a few other stereotypical things his mind could conjure as to how I could have such an expensive stereo system. None of them involved me working to earn money. I’m surprised he didn’t ask if I was a pimp. I was actually taking it all in, and I purposely did not tell him what I did, nor did I feel the need to. He was merely purchasing an amplifier from me, and this somehow made him feel entitled to grill me. He paid and left. I wonder whether he kept guessing how I was able to afford the things I own. If so, I also wonder whether the concept of a black man paying for the things he owns himself with his own earned money crossed his mind. By that, I mean earned without rapping, singing, dancing, playing sports or selling drugs. If he went to a white man’s home to buy an expensive amplifier, would he inquire about whether the white seller was a rapper or an athlete? Would that even come up? I very much doubt it, yet this is a recurring theme for me and people just like me.
Even the knowledge about my heritage isn’t safe from questioning. I once had a middle-aged white man attempt to lecture me about the politics of Nigeria and Cameroon like he knew about it more intimately than I did. He then cited a book for reference. The problem? He didn’t know that the book he was referencing was written by my father. Rest assured, this man doesn’t know the contents of that book better than I do. I didn’t tell him the author was my father. I let him ramble on. He then told me that he knew a lot about Nigeria and that he has spoken to many lecturers, educators and academics about Nigerian politics. He didn’t know that he was speaking with the son of the educator who authored the text he cited. I didn’t feel the need to tell him. I found his hubris and the situation humorous. After he was done boasting about the people he speaks with, he then asked me “What do you do for a living?”.