Taylor Thomas won first prize for this essay called “Black Tigers” in the High School Prose category of the 2016 Carnegie Mellon University Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards. She is in 11th grade at Winchester Thurston.
When I was seven, my friend and I invented a game. We called it “Tigers,” an activity that mostly involved a lot of crawling around and fake growling. “Ah! A black tiger! I don’t like black tigers!” my friend shouted, as I backed him into the corner of our classroom, growling and swiping with imaginary claws. I don’t remember getting angry or upset with him, but what I do remember is my teacher holding me tight for a long time afterwards, as if trying to protect me from something, and telling me that it would never happen again. I’m not sure how severely my friend was punished, if at all, but I don’t think that we played “Tigers” again after that. We were quite young at the time, but already we had established that there was a difference between the two of us: My friend was a tiger. I was a black tiger.
I didn’t see the significance of this event until much later, when I heard someone claiming to be colorblind. Not the kind that makes it hard to tell red from green, but the kind that supposedly stops one from seeing race. It’s silly to pretend that true “colorblindness” can ever truly be achieved. To ask someone to enter a room without noticing the differences between the people around them is completely unreasonable. Back in prehistoric times, when we were constantly threatened by the natural world around us, noticing environmental differences is what kept us alive. Today, we continue to notice differences—whether consciously or unconsciously—not necessarily for survival, but rather so that we can assess and safely navigate through different social situations. We all do it, so why all of the fuss when it comes to race?
The colorblind perspective attempts to simplify a very complicated topic, and often comes from people who don’t have to think about color. Because skin color has never been an issue for them, they decide it’s not a real issue for anyone. They can simply bury their heads in the sand like ostriches and hope that maybe if we stop talking about the problem, it will go away. But this is not the case. My childhood friend saw the difference between our skin colors. But then he went a step further and declared that he didn’t like “tigers” like me. So the problem isn’t acknowledging differences; the problem is valuing or treating people differently because of those differences. Those who label themselves as colorblind are attempting to not see color, but in reality, it is what allows them to avoid seeing injustices.
I can’t really blame these ostriches for burying their heads in the sand. Talking about race is difficult for all parties involved. But I have also seen the alternative—complete and utter silence on both ends—and it isn’t much better. I have attended a predominately white school for most of my life. And although silence around racial issues is not uncommon I will admit that I have been lucky. Many black kids (especially black girls) struggle socially when they attend predominantly white private schools. Fortunately, I have been able to thrive socially at my school, aside from a few bumps on the road here and there.
There was a time during my sophomore year when racial tensions were particularly high, and a few of my black sisters and I decided that we needed a day for us. Dressed in black, hair picks in our afros, we entered school the next day, a single unit, together in solidarity. It wasn’t long before we were called into a meeting with our dean and the faculty advisor of our Black Student Union (BSU) on the grounds that several white classmates had felt “threatened” by our wearing black. The blatant racial stereotyping that had brought us into this meeting was only a small part of the problem.
We tried to explain what had brought us to this point, why we were dressed in black, and “scaring” the other students: the racially charged arguments in the school hallways, the white students’ determination to ignore our concerns about their behavior, the angry Tweets when the in-school conflicts continued online. But the dean and BSU faculty advisor (who is black) were not convinced that our protest had merit, even when we described in detail the kinds of things we faced as black students amongst mostly white peers: the students’ use of racial slurs in casual conversation; the boys who decided that white girls would always be better than black girls; the insistence by both staff and students that our issues weren’t valid.
Once we had finished our stories, I clearly remember the BSU advisor making the following assertion: If we had not called attention to ourselves, none of this would have happened. And although this statement angered me to no end, to some extent, she was right. If we hadn’t formed a black student union, this would not have happened. If we hadn’t forced our classmates to give a damn about race, this would not have happened. If we hadn’t dressed in black, none of this would have happened.
But we did dress in black that day, and we did talk about race, and we did start a black student union, and I’m glad we did. If we hadn’t done those things, ostriches could stay ostriches, and our school’s problems concerning race would never even get close to being resolved. Where our advisor was oh-so-very-wrong, however, was in believing that without our actions, the racial tension in our school would simply disappear. Perhaps, in the eyes of someone who does not come face to face with the injustices a black student can face, this is the case. But the absence of action does not eliminate conflict. It only masks it.
I don’t blame the administration (at least not anymore), because I know that their job is to keep the peace. But the kind of attitude that our BSU advisor had—that we should avoid calling attention to ourselves—is a dangerous one. This attitude brings the peace that the administration wants so badly, but this kind of peace, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would describe it, is a “negative peace.” It is a peace that allows white students to keep their heads in the sand and to condemn those of us who dare threaten the security of their willful ignorance. It is a peace that allows those in charge to only do what is necessary to calm rough waters without targeting the source of the problem. It is a peace that silences the voices of those who want to educate their peers but are afraid of creating conflict. It is a peace that values white feelings over the importance of black voices.
The shocking truth is that I am—whether people like it or not—a black tiger. No amount of willful ignorance or head-burying sand can change that. When it comes to the fight for social justice, accepting this is only the first step, and it is the only easy one. After that, the hard part is acknowledging that because we aren’t colorblind and because we do see race, sometimes people are going to be treated differently and unfairly because of how they look. Confronting this unfair treatment is at the heart of the fight for social justice. To deny that differences and injustices exist is bad; to blame these injustices on those who speak out against them is even worse. Colorblindness seeks to keep the voices of the oppressed quiet, and increase the volume of those who are comfortable with the racial status quo.
Joining the Black Student Union at my school has been a liberating experience for me because I did not have to pretend to be colorblind, and neither did the other club members. For the first time, I was surrounded by peers who supported me and who told me that it is okay to talk about being black in school and in America. Of course, as our BSU advisor had already pointed out for us, when we have these conversations we are going to call attention to ourselves. We are going to make waves. But I would rather be at the center of attention, at the heart of the battle, than be a spectator to a negative peace.