By Joseph Jordan Johnson
Content warning: racial slurs
I moved to Oak Park from Hammond, Indiana (by way of Chicago) in the summer of 2003, where my single mother and I resided on the second floor of an apartment on Austin Boulevard—the border between the Austin neighborhood of Chicago and Oak Park. As of 2010, 67.7% of its citizens were White, compared to 21.7% Black, and the disparity is unavoidable. Oak Park rests on its laurels for being an incredibly diverse and accepting village, one where people of all races can thrive together. Which, for white northern progressives, isn’t a particularly unique or radical statement anymore. It is, however, a lie.
I was pretty young at the time, so I wasn’t able to give the scathing critique of its reliance on white neoliberalism I can today, but the disconnect between message and action was still clear to me. Throughout elementary school, there were subtle processes at work that showed me how valuable and how dispensable my body, mind, and labor were to white peers and faculty.
Many times over, I could be found in the principal’s office after getting in fights with other kids, white and black, over things big and small. The first two years or so, the fights I was getting into were with white students over sly racist comments and violations of physical boundaries I had set. Like nearly every black child can attest to, my mom taught me that if anyone puts their hands on me when I don’t want it, I beat the shit out of them—flat out.
I thought the conversation would be light. I felt I responded to a grave violence with equal measure, therefore warranting no consequences for me. I was wrong.
Specifically, there was a moment where a white kid, who I considered a friend, called me a nigger during recess simply because I got him out during a game of wall ball. I, rightfully pissed, then pegged him in the face with the racquetball.
Of course, this brought on a meeting with the principal (not my first and definitely not the last). Going into it, I thought the conversation would be light. I felt I responded to a grave violence with equal measure, therefore warranting no consequences for me. I was wrong.
I remember the irony in how brown the office was for an old white woman. The table was round, made of faux wood that would strip away and reveal the lighter pulp underneath when I picked at the rubber edge seal. The windowsills, the cabinets, even the carpet were dark brown. These are all of the things I paid attention to while she grilled me on how I needed to learn how to act, that the school had a zero tolerance policy for violence and that she was so disappointed because I used to behave like one of the good ones. I tried standing up to her, but I was shut down.
This wasn’t the first time I had been personally yelled at by a white faculty member, but it was by far the most aggressive and most traumatizing for me. It wouldn’t be the last time I received this speech from a teacher, or some variation of it. She responded to the white student in a far calmer tone; he got off with a warning and I got to spend an afternoon recess with the behavioral health teacher (who, later on, developed a close enough relationship with me that she felt it was okay to tell me about all the “bad black kids” she had a hard time with).
The only reason I wasn’t suspended, or worse, was because of the “promise” I showed as a student (and a black mom who made it clear she would pull up to the school at a moment’s notice). I am incredibly lucky, knowing full well that other black students whose contributions carried less worth to white people were suspended and expelled much faster for much less.
[White liberals’] compassion is not selfless—it is for power; they will look black people in the eye and tell us enduring racial violence is what’s best for us.
From then on, I saw what constituted violence for white people. I bit my tongue more. I was less antagonistic towards my peers. The process was slow, but eventually I endured more abuse without objection, and projected it onto other black students instead. The fights I got into were less with white students and more with black students over things like my “white voice” or being a teacher’s pet, both of which gave me access to spaces that were denied to them. To be clear, being made fun of for the behavior I adopted in order to assimilate is incomparable to the violence that I and other “acceptable” black kids enacted on them.
The function of white neoliberalism on black children is ultimately one that demands total obedience—often by way of pacification or pitting black students against one another. It would be easy to pin the blame on individual white people, but it’s more an issue of whiteness / white supremacy, and the simple fact that political leanings don’t negate white privilege. White liberals’ entire politic rests on a false superiority over the Whites they view as uneducated, uncompassionate, and abjectly racist—when there is no actual difference between them, and this makes them far more dangerous to me. Their compassion is not selfless—it is for power; they will look black people in the eye and tell us enduring racial violence is what’s best for us.
I, and other “good” black students in my classes were replicating the same anti-black (and classist, ableist, misogynoirist, etc.) messages that white liberals were feeding to us. We were, essentially, doing the job of white supremacy as black children, thinking it was best, and there is not a day that passes when I am not furious and utterly defeated by that.
It is taking time to cope with the years of trauma, unlearn the idea that assimilation is the path to liberation, and come to a healthier version of myself and understanding of my community. I use the present tense because that work is never truly over, and the idea that there will come a day when it is finally over—is a fallacy.