The literal baggage of racism

I want to take this opportunity to thank a couple of Black people, but first, let me start back a ways…

The problem with person-to-person racism is that it’s stupid. I know that’s obvious, but it still gets to me. Like, it’s people just not thinking their shit through. Then systemic racism allows the stupid people to just run the fuck amok and then it’s up to us to tell them they’re stupid. But, you know, they’re stupid, so they don’t believe us.

And what’s so gaht-dam infuriating about all of it, is that they don’t even have to be stupid! You can Google literally, any information about race in America but since it’s slightly easier not to, they don’t. So they’re lazy, too.

Here, let me give you an example.

Since the election of our…ugh…“president”…ugh…I have been on an airplane 15 times. Out of those 15 flights, I have been “randomly selected” 16 times. That’s right. I have been singled out to have my belongings searched on every single flight, and on one of them it happened twice.

In case you don’t know what I look like, I’m bearded, bald, just barely fail the paper bag test and get mistaken for Common (by white people) so often, I should honestly consider changing careers.

But not in airports. Not at all. In airports, I am overwhelmingly middle eastern, and that is my best example of how fucking dumb and lazy racism is. The systemic and individual racism directed at me in an airport is so stupid it can’t even get my race right.

These fools.

An aside, to all y’all who look so relieved when I get pulled out of line, who look on approvingly as my bags are searched, I see you. Also, you should know that TSA doesn’t do shit.

But let me get to those thank-yous.

The last time I flew out, it went a little differently. I mean, it started the same: A white TSA agent looked at me and pulled my bag out to be searched, but he didn’t do the actual searching. Nope. Instead he waved over a different agent to do the dirty work. He also walked away before the other agent even got there. The other agent arrived. He was Black. And from the look of it, he gets asked to search non-white bags a lot. I say this because he just stared in the other agent’s direction, slowly looked over to me and without breaking eye contact, put both hands on my bag, pushed it toward me, gave me the nod and exhaustedly said, “You’re all set.”

Wherever you are, brother, thank you. I feel for you. We both know that, aside from outrageous racism, the TSA seriously doesn’t do shit. You’re doing the Lord’s work. And rest assured, you’re not the only one.

On my flight home, the dum-dum searching my bag was especially thorough. Thorough in such a way she—a white woman—seemed certain she was going to find me out. She was on the case and she was gonna crack it! In fact, she was such a remarkable detective that she drew the attention of her supervisor—a Black woman—who came over to join the investigation.

Unfortunately for her, it turns out that her supervisor didn’t share her investigative spirit. The supervisor asked her pointedly about every single action she had taken and then, one by one, told her that she was wrong for doing each and every thing she had done.

“Why are you testing that? It’s a plastic bottle of aspirin and you can just open it and look inside. Do you know how to open a bottle of aspirin? And this right here? You know that’s a false-positive. Can’t you see this X-ray right here in front of you? Why are you wasting this man’s time?”…and on and on it went. It was amongst the most brutal and joyous things I have ever witnessed and I wish my every future TSA stop to be just like that. Even better, I just wish not to be stopped anymore, but I’ll take what I can get.

Anyway, thank you TSA supervisor. Not only did you save me from yet another invasion and whatever unknown potential danger that can come from the wrath of TSA (an organization that doesn’t do sheeeeeeeit!), but you have perhaps also saved the next few people of color behind me.

All in all, thank you, Black TSA.

I see you and I love you.

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Accidental experiment: Getting the “white” treatment from police as a Black man

Whenever I see a police officer I get a feeling of dread. It’s happened to me as far back as I can remember. Most of my white friends are completely unfamiliar with this feeling. Some of them even feel safe around police. I never understood that, until last week.

But now I get it.

Let me explain…

Last April I bought a brand new vehicle. While there are a lot of choices to consider in making such a purchase, I had the hardest time deciding whether or not to have my windows tinted. While I’d only ever received one traffic ticket, at that point in my life I’d been stopped by the police 38 times. I wasn’t sure if tinting my windows would help or hurt, but in the end, I did it. I figured a cop isn’t going to pull me over for being Black if he can’t even see my face.

Luckily, I was right.

Since its purchase, I’ve driven a lot. Multiple trips to Boston and New York, a tour to West Virginia and back, and not once did I get pulled over! I almost made it a year.

Then, last week I was picking up a friend from work. The plan was to go out for dinner, but first he needed to drop something off at another building. He’s a University of Southern Maine professor and so this errand involved driving around the campus.

Even though I’ve had a lot of involvement with USM over the years, I’ve never really driven around the campus, which, as it turns out, like most colleges, is a goddamned maze.

So, we’re driving all around these little roads and paths until we got as close to the building as possible, at which point my friend hopped out and ran in.

Then a cop car pulled up next to me.

This is the point where I freeze.

I don’t freeze out of fear. I freeze to take everything into account. I try to take all of my environment in. I try to remember the previous five minutes in as much detail as I can. I do this because I need to be as knowledgeable, focused and unflappable as possible in this one moment. And the reason I need such clarity of thought is to follow the one and only rule in dealing with police: Do not scare them. This can be difficult because many are already scared just by the color of my skin, so some are just gonna do what they’re gonna do. But if I can de-escalate a situation before it begins, you bet your ass that’s what I’m gonna do. And no, campus cops are not an exception.

Anyway, so I look over at the cop and he’s still in his car, but he’s motioning for me to roll down my window.

Now, since I have tinted windows and this is all happening at night, I’m certain that he can’t see that I’m Black. The problems could come once I roll down my window. Luckily, with the positioning of the streetlights and the amount of winter gear I was wearing, as long as I took the bass out of my voice and didn’t stick my head out the window, the officer will probably assume I’m white and should be able to remain calm.

So, with the goal of keeping him in his car, I rolled down my tinted window, remained in the shadows and let out a friendly, positive, nasally, “Hi there!”

It worked.

He quickly responded with a very surprising, “Did you just drive down that walking path?”

Now, look. I’m going to be honest with you. My new vehicle? The one with the tinted windows that I was sitting in at that very moment? It’s a Jeep Wrangler and ever since I got it, the line between what is and isn’t a road has blurred a little. There were no pedestrians or street signs, so anything with pavement seemed perfectly drivable. So, I said, “I don’t know. I’ve never driven around here before.”

“Well, you did,” he answered.

“Sorry about that, officer.”

“Don’t do it again.”


“You’re welcome.”

He drove away, I rolled up my window and smiled, basking in my privilege disguise and the knowledge of how fun it can be to get pulled over while not Black!

In all seriousness, was that cop racist? I mean, yes, but was he going to kill me out of fear once he saw the color of my skin? I don’t know, but I do know this: Thirty-eight of the times I’ve been stopped by police it’s felt like playing some kind of negative lottery I can only hope to never win.

But that last time didn’t entirely feel like that. Aside from keeping him thinking I was default-white, it felt kind of good. I kind of liked feeling like this cop was protecting the campus from reckless drivers. It almost made me feel safe. In fact, if it wasn’t for the other 38 times in which it felt like the police were trying to protect white people from me, it probably would have made me feel safe.

But now I get it. I mean, I don’t care; it’s myopically destructive and selfish and xenophobic and racist as a motherfucker, but, you know, now I get it.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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The reality of Blackness in the fiction of Black Panther

The release of Marvel’s Black Panther really spoke to the Black writers here at Black Girl in Maine Media, and this week, we are offering our reflections on the film. Today Samuel James shares his thoughts. 

This is not a review of Black Panther. It started off that way, but then I kept hearing white people talk about how they don’t get why this movie is so important to Black people. So, if one of those white people is you, let me tell you why this movie is so important to this particular Black person.

My father raised me to understand that I was born into a place designed to deny me everything it possibly could. From the smallest pleasure to my actual life, if this world could take it from me, it would. And the reason this place would deny me is because it doesn’t like the color of my skin.

My father also raised me to believe I could be anything, do anything and get anything I wanted in this life. These things seemed contradictory when I was a child, but as I grew older, I realized that they weren’t.

See, my father never told me the problem was the color of my skin. He told me that the problem was how the color of my skin was perceived. This meant that the problem was not and never could be mine. The early lesson in life’s unfairness was that I’d have to figure out ways deal with this problem (a lot), even though it was not my own.

Since then, every single day, in one way or another, I have been told that my problem is my Blackness. That it is on me to fix this problem. I know that is not true. I know I cannot be wrong simply for existing even though the world around me is convinced otherwise. I am often thought of and treated as arrogant and stubborn and stupid for not agreeing. I am often made to answer for other people’s ignorance, their words and actions. The navigation of these things is the common Black American experience.

I grew up watching my father listen to Duke Ellington and Sade, read Langston Hughes and Octavia Butler, watch Sidney Poitier and Phylicia Rashad. Black excellence existed all around me as far back as I can remember, and so it was reality—not Black reality. Just reality.

But, whenever the idea of “race” was brought up around or by white people, it was usually negative. It was a view only through a white lens. I saw that white people were naturally adversarial in their appreciation of Black art. Nothing done by Black people was good on its own. Duke, Sade, Langston, Octavia, Sidney and Phylicia were good at what they did, you know, for those people.

This meant all discussions of race we were forced to start from a point of competition. Once I realized this, I discovered that the rules were established, the teams were made and the fix was in a long time before I even knew I was playing.

Now, you should also know, even though this is my reality and I write about it the way I do, in no way do I live my life as though I am burdened. I am a legitimately happy, optimistic and joyous person. I celebrate and fully enjoy what I have every single day and I laugh a whole hell of a lot more than I cry.

I tell you all of this to give you a sense of my reality as I walked into the theatre last week to see Black Panther.

So, Black Panther

It’s easily the Blackest blockbuster ever. And it’s such a work of genius, I consider myself incredibly lucky to live in a time in which it could be made. I’m not gonna lie to you, I’ve seen it twice and cried like a baby throughout both viewings. The thing is, it celebrates Blackness on a scale that I’ve never seen.

First off, the women. There are no weak Black women in this movie. There are no sexualized Black women in this movie. There are no stereotypical Black women in this movie. All of the Black women in this movie are fully developed characters with their own power and intentions and individuality independent of the male characters. In other words, Black Panther celebrates Black women as people!

Secondly, Wakanda. If you’re not familiar, the fictional land of Wakanda is an African country that has such advanced technology that it can actually hide itself and its wealth from the rest of the colonizing/colonized world. What Wakanda shows itself to be is a fantastic and futuristic microcosm of Africa itself: a vast land of immense diversity not only in people, but in ideas and cultures as well.

And thirdly, the characters. Because the story is being told by a Black person, the characters reflect a Black person’s understanding of Black people. Art imitates life, and more specifically, the artist’s particular view of life. For example, since whiteness isn’t so much a race or culture as it is a designation of power, white art often allows white people to be the center of everything, even things that couldn’t possibly involve them.

This being the norm, Black Panther shows Black characters in an unusual way. In the movie, not only are we not drug dealers and pimps and rapists, we are intellectuals and leaders and heroes—but not only are we intellectuals and leaders and heroes, we multifaceted and complicated. We are human. Black Panther celebrates the humanity of Blackness. And while this movie is certainly about Blackness, in no way is it about “race.”

Even in the best of cinematic scenarios, Blackness is usually about race. Of course, there are wonderful exceptions, but usually a lead Black character means there is either a racist person or system or both that takes up the entirety of the Black hero’s journey. Now, that is not a bad story, but it’s not the only story. Obviously, a Black protagonist overcoming racism is a story that needs to be told until it’s irrelevant, but our struggle is not all that we are. We are beautiful and strong and complete all on our own. It is not necessary to compare or victimize us, fictionally or otherwise, in order to see us, and that’s why this movie is so important.

Until now, there hasn’t been a movie of this scale to show Black people on our own, in all of our diversity and beauty and strength and humanity. And this movie is important to me because there hasn’t been a movie of this scale that has shown everyone what I saw in my home as a child:

Black excellence is reality—not Black reality. Just reality.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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