As I entered the lift, the little girl stepped behind her mum.
“Why are you scared, honey?” asked the mother.
The terrified little girl pointed her finger at me and said: “Because the man is black.”
“What can I do?”
That’s probably the question I’ve heard the most over the past few weeks as we react to the George Floyd murder.
Many colleagues, friends or strangers would ask black people like me what they can do or how they can be an ally.
By even asking the question, you’re already helping.
It means you care.
It means you’re curious.
It means you actively wonder why somebody that just happens to be born with skin rich with melanin pigments could be treated this way.
You’re already showing a quality that I value beyond any other: empathy.
If you really want to understand more about what it is like to be a black man, let me give you some concrete examples.
As you read on, consider – would this apply to you?
“Sorry, you can’t come in.”
Growing up in France, I remember the many occasions where I would not be allowed into a shop with my friends. Why would the security guard not let my friends and me in when three white boys would casually walk in?
Why would my friends and I always be denied access to nightclubs?
As a teenager, this was one of the earliest examples of discrimination I experienced: some places simply did not welcome us.
Having lived in the UK for the past 14 years, while it is in some ways more tolerant than France, I have experienced similar episodes.
A common one would be the supermarket weekly shop, back when I used to live in London.
I would be tailed by the security guard as I do my shopping (he obviously expected me to shoplift). It would almost become a game of hide-and-seek where I would often see, by the corner of my eye, the security guard pretending to be looking at some broccoli while simply keeping a watchful eye on me.
“My daughter’s boyfriend was blacker than you. Probably the same shade as the piano.”
This innocuous comment from one of my friends’ relatives made us laugh at the time. It wasn’t the first or the last comment about my skin colour. My dark complexion has frequently been a topic of conversation. And you know – most of the time, I didn’t mind comments about my appearance. I even played along.
I gave myself nicknames when I was younger.
“Fat Black Guy”.
My father would always tell me that, if you make yourself the butt of a joke, then no joke can hurt you. Whether he was right or wrong, I don’t know but it built a defence mechanism around myself and enabled me to ignore casual racism.
“Your husband must be coloured!”
My wife and kids are now the ones facing questions about my skin colour. My (white) wife was once out with our youngest child and was asked by an elderly lady: “Who’s this? Are you fostering him?”.
When my wife replied that the child was actually her biological son, the lady concluded with glee: “Your husband must be coloured!”.
It was actually a valid question (and I would admire any white people who would foster or adopt a child with a different skin colour) and the right conclusion.
But think: has anyone looked at your kids and ever asked you: “Are these yours?”
“Should I put my picture on my CV?”
Early in my career, it would be a common concern. Coming out of university, I would hear of hiring managers would be flooded with CVs and had to quickly filter the best out.
Would my brown face be a disadvantage? I don’t think it did (and actually I loved the fact my first two managers in the UK happened to be smart and kind black men) but the thought crossed my mind.
I bet it crosses the mind of many black people.
“Are you the homeowner?”
I once opened the front door of my house to accept a delivery and the question I was asked by the courier was: “Are you the homeowner?”. It was such a bizarre question.
Who else would open the front door of the house? What did he expect me to be? The butler?!
Would the courier have asked the question if the person opening the door was white? I find this unlikely.
I suspect the courier just couldn’t believe that the homeowner of this nice house would be me. Which leads me to…
The black man is dumb. The black man is violent. The black man is lazy.
Most white men never have had to deal with stereotypes, beyond perhaps an accent that gives away where they come from.
These negative stereotypes black men have to deal with are exhausting. It’s as if you’re starting a football (soccer) match already a goal down.
We have to work so hard to dispel the negative stereotypes.
I came across this quote from a black former basketball player on Twitter and it described exactly on I feel:
“Whenever I interact with people, there’s always this pressure on me to represent the black race to the best of my ability.”
That’s exactly how I have tried to behave in my adult life:
If they think I might be dangerous, I will smile to make them feel safe.
If they think I am not intelligent, I will study until I prove them wrong (are my two Master’s Degrees enough?).
If they think I must be lazy, I will work twice as hard.
I’m not better than you
Having read that far, you might start to feel some pity for me. Or you might perhaps think that I’m paranoid and that I attribute all my misfortunes to racist acts.
You might also think I feel superior to you.
It turns out I hold my own stereotypes. I wish I didn’t but I do.
I am one of the lucky ones.
I grew up in a loving family. I come from a prosperous middle-class background.
I don’t live in America where, as a black man, I would have a greater than 25% chance of going to prison.
I am extremely unlikely to be pulled over by a British cop for a suspected forged bill and to choke to death while the cop in question casually kneels on my neck.
So I’m one of the lucky ones and I feel anger and rage… then how should the unlucky one feel?
At least, reading this might have given some insight into their emotions.
So…. what can you do?
Try to put yourself in my shoes. Educate yourself. Read up on Black History. Talk to your kids about race.
While giving money to charities that support black communities is always great, let me recommend something free: mentoring.
Could you find a young black man or woman in your field you could mentor? They would benefit from your expertise and experience. You would benefit from gaining insight into somebody else’s experience.
What about that little girl in the lift?
I remember walking into that lift, in the building in the affluent part of Paris where I used to live, when the little girl (she can’t have been more than five-year-old) hid behind her mother. When she told her mum that the thing scaring her was the black man, I was horrified.
I wonder what her parents did when she got home. Did they try to understand why their precious little girl said that?
It was probably over 15 years ago so the little girl is now probably a woman.
I wonder if she’s still scared of black men.
I wonder what she thinks of George Floyd.