RACIAL REALITIES

My perspective on being Black in Silicon Valley

My name is Richard Smith, and I am fortunate enough to live and work in San Francisco. The following words are mine, and mine alone.

I am typically classified by others as a “big, black guy.” I’m 6’2″ (188 cm), and I weigh around 240 pounds (109 kg). I have often been asked by strangers what position I played, or where I played college ball (I didn’t). I am a 29-year-old Jamaican male living in San Francisco, working as a software engineer. The words to follow are some thoughts I have had for a while, that I have only recently found the courage to pen.

For a long time, I felt it normal to feel out of place, or like I don’t belong in “White spaces,” because I’m Black. I thought it was normal to feel apologetic that I may have looked or seemed “threatening” to passersby, if I thought I invoked any feelings of fear or discomfort in my presence. I would say things like, “oh, well I understand that I’m a big, Black guy, and that if I don’t shave for a few weeks and walked down the street at night, I’d probably be afraid of me, too.”

…what?

It’s crazy to think of how hard I have tried to mind my manners, mind my presence, mind my appearance, how I walk, how my clothes fit, how long I glance at strangers for, how different I look in a hoodie vs. in a collared shirt, or even not speak in slang (even jokingly) for fear that people would expect it from me, and not actually see the humor, or the sarcasm.

It’s equally crazy how much more comfortable I feel around other Black people, or in other countries. I took a trip to Cuba for 2 weeks, and everyone there actually thought I was Cuban—which was surprising, but kind of awesome at the same time. I’ve never felt so accepted in my life. Even in Canada, I felt more comfortable than I do in Silicon Valley.

Here are a few things I have grown accustomed to experiencing:

  • Being the last person sat next to on the bus/train (sometimes, nobody takes the risk)
  • Being followed around stores by security
  • Being told by cab drivers that I’m the first Black person they’ve ever had a positive encounter with
  • Walking down the street and having someone step off of the sidewalk, and around a car (or cross the street) to avoid walking past me
  • Seeing and hearing people lock their car doors or clutch their purses/bags as I walk by
  • Being asked things like, “So, what’s it like being a black guy in Silicon Valley?”
  • Being mistaken for another Black person at work
  • Surprising people when they initially discover I’m a programmer
  • Surprising people when they find out I actually hate watermelon (and shattering other Black stereotypes in the process)
  • Feeling relieved when people don’t verbally address the fact that I’m Black
  • Feeling out of place when I can’t identify with certain pop culture references or cultural norms (like being able to swim, liking baseball, listening to rock/country or playing golf), because I grew up differently
  • Feeling like I have something to prove because I’m Black
  • Feeling like I was chosen for certain photo/video opportunities at work and during other activities to feign diversity and acceptance
  • Being the most athletic person in a particular group, and having people say things like, “…of course it would be the Black guy”

The ones in bold are the ones that have affected me the most.

I usually don’t like talking about the topic of race, because I know everyone has something they are struggling with. I know that it may not seem like a good reason to you, but it’s been my reason. Everyone has a cause that’s dear to them, everyone knows someone or is someone that is going through some serious shit. You know what I mean.

But, in light of the sheer amount of nonsensical shootings, beatings, and stories of racially-charged vandalism, I felt like I had to say something. Anything.

Two of my younger brothers are coming to visit me next month, and I’m mentally preparing to discuss with them the realities of being a young, Black man living in America. I will tell them if they feel anything I’ve mentioned above, that it is normal for them to feel that way, but that doesn’t mean it should be. I will tell them that I have worked so hard to teach myself how to write code so I can make a better future for myself, and to be a role model for them.

At a certain point in my life, I realized that I had no positive role models (let alone ones I could relate to), so I set out to become a positive role model for my siblings. I didn’t want them to have to resort to gangs, violence, or go looking for love to find ways to identify with others and gain acceptance. I wanted them to learn to love themselves, and learn to love & empathize with others. To always be open-minded, seeking growth and understanding over judgment and contempt. To learn the value of hard work, and to truly believe that they can have, and achieve anything they can dream of.

I’m not trying to say that Black lives are more important than anyone else’s.

The amount of senseless shootings and beatings by the police towards other people of color is alarming. The fact that this can happen to me anywhere, at any time, for any reason makes me not even want to go outside at times, and makes me fear for the lives of my family since it can happen to any of them, too.

Nowadays, the fact that I’m terrified of being pulled over (thankfully, I don’t own a car, but I still rent one on occasion), and sometimes feel out of place simply walking down the street makes me feel like an intruder in my own home.

I’m not saying I have it worse than anyone, and I’m not trying to garner any sympathy. I’m not trying to say that Black lives are more important than anyone else’s, but there is a deep-rooted, systemic problem of racism, judgment, and hate-mongering in America that seriously needs to be addressed.

I just wanted to get some thoughts off of my chest. Feel free to do what you’d like with that.

Thanks for reading. ❤️✊🏾

This post originally appeared at Bold. You can contact the author @RichCSmith on Twitter.

This post has been updated.

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