“You’re the Whitest Black Person I Know.” How Hearing That Phrase Impacted My Life

Photo by Wylly Suhendra on Unsplash

Remote, rural south provides little to no opportunities for personal growth and creativity for children who aren’t in to agriculture or labor. When you are a person of color, someone who thinks differently, or just someone who goes against the majority mono-cultural world that shapes most remote rural towns in the south then you are considered out casts.

Growing up being some of the “only ones” in your community, I never realized how that mono-culture shaped my upbringing. I was so immersed in it that I didn’t understand when an insult to the color of my skin was disguised as a joke. I couldn’t process microaggression. I could not process how some of the black people were negatively labeled; largely due to me not being a part of that label.

Growing up, I was labeled a “white” black person. I greatly remember hearing “you’re one of the whitest black people we know Jeff” or “you’re one of the cool black people.” See, I didn’t fit the negative assumption most white individuals around me viewed people of color in my area. Growing up, there were several events going on in our community and many of them involved my black peers in a negative view. I was never one to be involved in any issues. Throughout elementary, I was involved in activities such as Gifted and Talented, quiz bowl, and Spelling Bees, activities that were primarily dominated by my white peers. I hung out with with mostly white people by default. Areas where my black peers did dominate? In School Suspension, the principals office, and detention. Despite being a small minority percentage of students at the school , black students made up a huge percentage of students going to ISS, the office, or detention. I was not a part of that statistic: I had no idea what the inside of the ISS building looked like, I rarely went to detention and the only time I was in the office was to greet everyone. Combine that with the fact that I also made fairly decent grades in school, dressed a non stereotypical way, and didn’t speak aggressively (whatever the hell those last two mean) I was considered a non threatening black person. My peers associated most of the black community with negativity so those that did not fit that negative mold were jokingly labeled white.

As I got older and more aware of those negative assumptions I wanted to stay away from them. Hearing “you’re white” didn’t sit right with me but I never spoke up about those things. So instead I started “acting black.” I created this assumption about the color of my skin based on my surroundings, and the influence of mainstream hip-hop. Early 2000’s was a weird time for all of us. Clothes became extra baggy and durags became an accessory. I even attempted to start smoking. My grades started to drop and by the time I was in 9th grade I was out of GT and I did not do quiz bowl anymore. Despite that, I was still not a bad teenager. The teenage years were years of confusion and acceptance. As hip hop was going through an identity crises, the way I dressed followed suit. I’ll never forget my skulls and crossbones phase I had Jr. and Sr. year largely due to popular hip hop songs at the time like “Party like a Rockstar” by Shop Boyz and my fascination with stores like Hot Topic and Rue 21. Other influences such as Soulja Boy and Kanye West’s College Dropout phase shaped how I dressed. The problem here was that once again I was being molded by what white society thought being a “cool black” was. So no matter how far I thought I was running a way from the “white/black person” label the more I was still being labeled “white.”

On one hand I thought I was cool because of how I dressed and that it would have me being accepted by the black community but on the other hand I still wanted to be accepted by my other peers. I was stuck in the middle. I thought acting black were those things because that’s all I was surrounded by and saw in the media. My ignorance was shaped by a mono-cultural world that viewed anything other than their route to success abnormal. But also, my lack of understanding myself and being proud of myself hindered me from speaking up on certain injustices and media driven stories discussing race. I cannot place blame on where I am from for not teaching me about my blackness as opposed to the predominant white culture of saviorism that we learned from our textbooks. But as I was surrounded by a majority mono-cultural world that I disagreed with, speaking out against it felt like a weight that only I was bearing.

In college, I met brilliant individuals that was not only afraid to speak out on injustices but also being proud of their blackness in a way that was so foreign to me. Although I attended a PWI (look it up) I enjoyed my years there because for the first time, the stereotype I was subliminally told would not succeed in society, was out here thriving, achieving and doing it all while being unapologetic. We were BBQ’n on the yard, playing loud music during class hours, actively pissing off the majority mono-cultural world we lived in because they needed to recognize that you can come from whatever background and still succeed in this world. I was there during the 2012 Presidential Re-Election of Obama, the George Zimmerman trial and other historical moments that felt as if racial lines were being drawn. It felt empowering being around individuals who had a similar mindset but the difference was that they weren’t afraid to speak out. We eventually got our degrees and went out in the world to start our careers. Once I started my career I quickly realized that the strength in numbers that empowered me in college didn’t translate into my career when I was out on my own……..

I spent four years teaching in the community I grew up in where I was once again immersed in that mono-cultural world and being “the only.” Being the only black male educator in an area that hasn’t seen a black male educator since the 1990’s, mixed in with the huge impact social media has in our society’s perception of the black male, I knew there was going to be a time where I was going to be tested where race was going to play factor.

I Regret….

I taught elementary PE where I was able to see every student k-6. Just like how I grew up, each class had its token person of color. I could see myself in each of those students. I could have used my platform to help not only empower those students but help the majority culture see things from a different angles, but I didn’t.

If you’re on the outside looking in, there are two things that will shape your view of my community: Low-income families and being an all white/southern conservative community. Thankfully, a political preference does not shape how I view people. This has allowed me to socialize and occupy spaces with people that has different views than I do. If you feel certain preferences is what's best for you and your family then hey that’s your right. My issue is when there are occasions where it involves looking at things from a different perspective and your so called patriotism and political preference is disguised as racism, prejudice and out right fear. That’s an issue with me. No matter how long I will be in education the next few moments I will forever regret.

Black Face

In the fall of 2016, I was in entering my second year as teacher. My first year of teaching was magical as I did not have those first year horror stories you normally hear about. I loved helping out other teachers and I loved being around all the students regardless of their race. November of 2016 changed a lot of things for me. Our school made national attention when pictures surfaced of a board member wearing black face at a Halloween party. Some of the major online networks covered the story. I as well as the extremely small black community we had was outraged because I know the history of blackface and how black actors were being portrayed in theater. White actors would paint themselves black with extreme body features such as big lips and butts. We were depicted as being uneducated, wearing overalls, eating watermelon and having no teeth. Also around this time, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement was in full force. Considered a joke and hate group by majority culture, I knew that the phrase meant something completely different.

In the picture, the board member was wearing the stereotypical overalls and even took the time to paint his teeth to make them look crooked and not kept. The kicker is that he held up a sign saying ‘Blak Lives Mattrs’ as a way to not only mock the movement but mock the historical mis-education of people of color here in America. The following weeks introduced me to a side of my community that although I was already aware of, I never truly witnessed first hand. The amount of support this man had was disgusting. The social media post downplaying the incident, literally seeing posts stating how it was just a Halloween costume and that *WE* needed to let go of it. I was hearing this from adults in the community, people I went school with and kids that was currently in the community. People working in the actual damn school co signing posts on social media (Yea I saw you click the like button). The outrage led to the NAACP actually coming during a board meeting asking that he would remove himself. That’s another thing that was so messed up. His arrogance really would not allow him to immediately step down in his position despite the rift he was creating in the community. In his eyes he felt he did no wrong and when you are in a community that strongly supports that, then how can you possibly see your wrong doing? How can you sit there, mock a whole race of which has been well documented of its demoralization and marginalized communities? To sit in a position of power where you’re going to have to make school wide decisions that impact everyone in the community, including the community in which you mocked? Dude even had a weak ass apology assembly that he thought would help smooth things over. To this day, I believe the only reason he did that because the one black member of the school board sat down and asked him to do so. Hell , even still his supporters came out high and mighty with their supporter T-shirts.

As for the NAACP, we shut the school down the afternoon they came because there was fear of protesters coming to the community (This was around the time of the Ferguson riot). The school did not want any children in the area if there was “potential violence.” In other words, the community is afraid of black people they did not know so lets shut the school down to keep the majority white people in the community at ease. I remember several community members discussing bringing their guns up to the school board meeting just in case some shit pop off. People from my community right now may be reading this and saying Jeff, you’re full of shit. If that is the case then why did we not take those same precautions when the national Mud bog event came to our town? A Mud bog is similar to off road motor sports. Its a multi-day event filled with drag racing through the mud, drinking, 4 wheeler riding through the mud (more drinking) socializing with friends (oh and more drinking). Country life at its finest, and some great ass memories honestly. I went a few times growing up and enjoyed it.

This particular event was different though. This was a national event meaning thousands of people from all over the US, mostly country white folk, were about to invade our little town of less than 400 people for one weekend. I remember that we tried to have the school closed that Friday during the start of the event but the reasoning for trying to shut down was “potential traffic preventing school buses from dropping off kids.” Your fear of 10 to 20 unfamiliar black people coming to our community to discuss a racially driven incident trumps your fear of literal thousands of drunk country white people from all across America coming into our community for a weekend.

So where was I in all of this?………

Trump 2016

Speaking of Trump. With Obama exiting the white house I knew there was going to be a change of pace in our nation. Right winged crucified Obama from the moment he stepped foot in office. By no means am I going to discuss politics here but I knew in order to cleanse the sense of hope people had for the past 8 years, especially people of color, the Republicans were going to go all out with their presidential candidate. *Enters Donald Trump*

With my school being in an extremely conservative area I heard so much prejudice disguised as patriotism. The slogan “Make America Great Again” meant completely different things to a completely different set of people. On one hand it meant to Start making America’s needs priority again, even if it that meant pissing off other nations, cutting off ties with other nations, building a wall or threat of war. America needed to prove its dominance again. On the other hand others like myself viewed the slogan as a slap in the face. When has America ever been great? Sure we are a strong nation but even during those times we were fighting internal struggles of reconstruction after slavery, Great Depression, Civil Rights, Racism, Mass incarceration. The slogan represented white superiority in the form of patriotism. If you hear the word patriotism and it takes you a while to envision a black person or any person of color in your mind, then you have been misguided. We are a nation of multiple backgrounds, ethnicity and colors but sadly many people, including my community did not see it that way.

“I can’t wait til the wall is built.”

“Coach, does this mean you have to go back to Africa?”

“You’re probably illegal so you’re not going to be here long.”

“I bet your family is here illegally, Trumps gon get em!”

“Protest and march all you want but you know what we did? We marched right up to the polls and voted”

These were phrases I over heard from students the day after Trump was elected. Kids that knew absolutely nothing about the government, or too young to form opinions of other races without influence of family members, were wearing their paraphernalia proudly. That last phrase? Yea, that came from an employee. Once again, racial tensions grew. Along with our small black community, our community also has a small Hispanic community and just like us , their voice felt weakened from being in a community of a large mono-cultural way of thinking.

So where was I in all of this?

Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick was an emerging NFL Quarterback. His efforts lead his team to the 2012–13 Super bowl after replacing then starting QB Alex Smith. The following year, Kaepernick led the team all the way to the NFC championship in which they lost. Since then he went back and forth starting. Before his time in the NFL he was a star QB at Nevada. I was not much of a football fan but something drawn me to this guy. Its pleasing seeing a black quarterback because that position has always been dominated by white QBs. Upon reading more about the guy I realized we had something in common that made me a fan for life: We were members of the same fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, Inc. He proudly wore his letters and represented Kappa even after he left college. After college I never really wore my letters. I do however have a branding on my right arm of my fraternity’s symbol. I remember one student seeing it for the first time and the first thing she asked me was “Coach, is that from a gang?” Being from and teaching in an area that knew nothing of the history of black fraternities, I didn’t really feel like explaining myself all the time.

In a preseason game, 2016, Colin did the unthinkable….He kneeled during the national anthem. Boy did all hell break loose after that. Once again racism disguised as patriotism in full force. Kaepernick’s reasonings for kneeling was to shed light on the police brutality of people of color here in America. But of course, white America don’t see it that way. “We’re going to hide these posters, we don’t want to sell anything of a loser who doesn’t stand for the flag.” That was the phrase a school employee said to me during our week “book fair” in the library where our students have the option of purchasing cool books, gadgets, journals and posters. Colin Kaepernick just so happened to have been one of the posters students could have bought during that book fair but they were put up and hid away so students couldn't buy it. Im sure this was happening all over America. Once again, our little community was divided amongst race. On one hand, a small community supported the movement because they understood the bigger picture of why he kneeled. On the other hand the huge mono-cultural community enforced the will and way of thinking among our students: teachers had short impromptu lessons on the “stupidity” of that athlete and “if its so bad over here, move to another country.” You can tell the lessons were hate driven because there was not one mention of how he was just invoking some of his constitutional rights (regardless of the way he decided to do it). And of course, our little community went in on social media.

So where was I in all of this?

“You’re the Whitest Black Person I know” How Hearing That Phrase Impacted My Whole Life

So where was I in all of this? I felt the need to restate the title of this story because hearing that phrase put me in a tough spot cognitively. Where was I during all of this? I was silent. I did make a few comments here and there about having hope, rising above everything and how *WE* needed to be the change we wanted to see but regrettably I never fully conveyed my stance on the matters that were dividing our nation and our little town.

Being the only black male, I felt pressures of speaking up. On one hand, if I spoke up I would have hopefully been an inspiration to other voiceless individuals of our community. On the other hand, I would have lost several, if not all, of the “friendships” , support and resources I needed to do my job effectively as “the only” in a majority community. I didn’t want to feel like an outcast and I did not want to be labeled as an idiot, or anti American for thinking the way I do. I did not want to come to school everyday KNOWING there’s people talking about you. That is a lonely island. It would be put under a microscope even more because I was the only black male working there. The sad truth is that I was afraid to speak out. I valued the acceptance I thought I needed over me speaking out on the injustices I was witnessing. Not being that stereotypical, aggressive black male society wants to label us (white) made it to where some in the community probably thought that I had the same stance on similar topics that was creating a divide in our community. That could not have been further from the truth. However like the old saying goes “If you don’t stand for something, then you will fall for everything.” I’m I am ashamed to say I fell for acceptance over speaking up and calling people out on certain things. I since recently moved to a more metropolitan/city area. Once word got out of where I was moving to, the comments afterwards let me know I was making the right decision:

“Which school will you be working at, I heard some of them were dangerous”

“Isn’t liberal up there? I wouldn’t feel comfortable living there”

“Any street that had a number , do not drive down”

“Stay away from this particular area”

“Make sure you get home before dark”

“Make sure you and your family are together at all times.”

I just laughed and said “I’ll be ok.” My upbringing really hindered me from speaking up on certain things that I was unaware of growing up and stayed silent about as I got older. It always gave me a close mind. But I can’t use that as an excuse anymore. As I type this on May 27, 2020 there’s currently several incidents across America that are making national headlines that is once again drawing lines between race. If you just so happened to scroll down to the end and read, to make this extremely long post short:

  • That board member will always be an idiot and middle finger to whoever supported his actions.
  • Black Lives Matter
  • I should have went to that board meeting in the aftermath of the black face incident but I cowardly stayed home.
  • Trump being elected revealed true colors of my community.
  • Black Lives Matter
  • My daughter has the blood line of Black and Hispanic culture We will teach her to be proud of both of them and be unapologetic in doing so (something I did not have the courage to be growing up)
  • Speaking of Kaepernick, If you’re ok with that police officer MURDERING George Floyd by kneeling on his neck but not ok with Kaepernick kneeling…..Please understand, THATS WHY HE KNEELED
  • The girl in NY’s Central Park did not get fired for her racists rant, she got fired for the way she treated that dog…. lets be real.
  • When will it be ok for me and other brothers that look like me to go out for a run in peace?
  • When will yall stop being afraid of us?
  • Why is anything negative associated with being “ghetto” or “acting Black?”
  • Black Lives Matter

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Jeffery Burton M.Ed

Jeffery Burton M.Ed

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