I’m Tired of Having to Be an ‘Asset’ to My Race

A lifetime of being a ‘good Black’ is wearing me down

Photo: Yoshiyoshi Hirokawa/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, my husband and I moved from New York City to Kingston, New York. As relocations upstate from Manhattan go, ours was a relatively smooth one, but it was still riddled with hiccups.

It was smooth in the sense that loading up, driving two hours, and unpacking was fairly easy. We hired movers to do all the heavy lifting, and we bought a used SUV the day before to get us from the Lower East Side to the Hudson Valley and around our new town.

The hiccups were mostly set in motion by a bit of negligence on my part. For example, I wouldn’t recommend losing your wallet less than a week before a big move. It makes paying for services and a car rather tricky. Zelle’s strict $2,000-a-day limit on money transfers did us no favors either.

My husband says we did well, and in hindsight, I somewhat agree. Still, I wish the payment processes had gone more smoothly, if only in my head. As we haggled with number crunchers, coming up with creative ways to pay without the benefit of credit or debit cards, one thought ran through my mind on a continuous loop. Please, dear God, don’t let them think they’re dealing with a Black person who can’t — or won’t — pay.

I’m not sure if anyone saw me as that Black person, even for a moment. But considering the default impression so many White people have of Black people, it’s sometimes hard to keep the mind from going there. I’ve spent my entire life fielding wary looks from White people and being told by some — both directly and in not so many words — that I’m a “good Black,” as if the rest of us are expected not to be good.

I recognize it as relief, mostly because, my writing aside, I don’t serve as a constant reminder of all the ways the system has failed Black people. I’m one of the lucky ones who, in many ways, beat the system. I managed to get a good education and become a financially secure adult with no prison record to stand in my way. Perhaps most importantly to the ones with whom I do business, I don’t stiff White people.

Suddenly, in a post-George Floyd world where all the racial shit is out in the open, I find myself wondering what White people are thinking during almost every interaction and transaction with them.

The other day we almost forgot to pay our bill at the Kingston diner where we’ve had at least one meal most of the days we’ve been here. It was an honest mistake; as we turned back from the parking lot to settle our bill, I said to my husband, “I hope nobody noticed that. I don’t want anyone to think I’m that Black person who doesn’t pay.”

It’s bad enough many already think we don’t tip. I know this for a fact. I worked at the Kissimmee, Florida, Red Lobster in high school, and I heard some of the things waiters said when they thought neither customers nor I were listening. The words of a White patron who ignored my offer to help him when he entered the restaurant (“I don’t want that fagg*t n****r seating me”) still ring in my ears, even though I never actually heard him say them. Apparently, he told the waitress who seated him.

I do make assumptions about what White people think about me. And whether they’re accurate or not, the stereotypes and presumptions I’ve had to live with often lead me to overthink the impression I’m making. When I explained this to my husband, who is White, I realized something: This is my Black privilege. I get to represent all Black people for many White people, and in turn, all Black people get to represent me — lucky us.

It’s the sort of collective thinking that makes Black people their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers — or at the very least, in the minds of too many White people I have encountered, one talent or shortcoming fits us all.

Several years ago, I went on a Grindr date in Sydney with a White Australian guy who said he couldn’t believe my command of the English language. I knew exactly why he was shocked.

Two years ago, another White person told me I was the first Black person he’d ever met who couldn’t sing. His observation crushed me, partly because I wish I were a better singer, but mostly because that’s the kind of B.S. I constantly have to listen to that most straight, cisgender White people never have to hear.

They get to be judged on their own merits, not their race. Black people, Latinos, Asian Americans, and other ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities don’t have this option. That is yet another form of straight White privilege, one I wouldn’t mind being able to experience before I die.

I wonder how it would affect my current dealings with the real estate woman who acted as an initial liaison for the agency that rented us our new apartment. She couldn’t have spent more than an hour delivering the bare minimum, yet she expects half a month’s rent for services rendered. That adds up to $850, and I won’t bore you with how she didn’t earn it.

When I told her I was disappointed with the level of service we’d received, she thanked me for my candor, made myriad excuses for her failings — some of which she blamed on me — and passive-aggressively offered to let me pay her what I think her service was worth. In a perfect world, I’d throw her a couple hundred dollars for her time and be done with it. But the $850 check was as good as already in the mail.

I don’t want to be part of the reason why a Black person after me gets side-eyed, denied housing, or withheld service with a smile.

My insistence on paying the full amount didn’t have anything to do with the quality of her work. In my mind, this is more than a customer vs. client issue. It’s a Black man vs. a White woman issue, and all the messiness that entails.

I can deal with being the difficult Black guy, but I have a harder time being the difficult Black guy who won’t pay. My hand-wringing might sound irrational to anyone who has never had to deal with being prejudged, but racism and its attendant neuroses don’t always inspire linear rationale.

I don’t know if my race is even an issue for the real estate middlewoman, but my past experiences don’t give me the luxury of race not being an issue for me. Consciously or subconsciously, it’s always a consideration during any tense interaction with a White person.

Being a “good Black” — the one who speaks non-threatening English, tips well, and doesn’t run out on the bill — is a system of survival. It’s not because I care what White people think of me, but what they think of me and Black people in general can determine whether we get jobs, places to live, or service. I don’t want to be part of the reason why a Black person after me gets side-eyed, denied housing, or withheld service with a smile.

I’ll continue to be an asset to my race, self-defeating as it may sometimes feel. Being anything else feels like a much higher price to pay than $850.

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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