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Racism must be battled on individual level

It was a Thursday evening, and I was on a train coming from New York City heading back to New Brunswick. This Thursday in particular was the 13th anniversary of September 11.

For me, the anniversary of 9/11, Veterans Day and other patriotic days of remembrance always conjure up thoughts of what it really means to be an American. I often think about how American I actually feel amongst a sea of red, white and blue. Both my parents were born and raised in Haiti. Growing up, I struggled with self-identification and deciding whether I completely belonged to one nation or the other. Whenever I think about my sense of nationalism, I come to a different conclusion, but lately I have seen myself as a black American. While I was born and raised in America, I am also black and I hold many ties to the black community that cannot be described by fully characterizing myself as an American.

As I was on the train, looking through the window, I saw something that made me question the latest description of my nationalism. If only for a few seconds, I laid eyes on what appeared to be a backyard. It was basically a cement slab with a chain link fence around it. On the cement were about two-dozen or so black men walking around wearing T-shirts and shorts.

My first thought was, “Is that a jail?”

Realizing the implications of what I had thought, I quickly backtracked. Even though I hadn’t said anything aloud, the fact that “jail” was the first place that my mind went after seeing a group of seemingly idle black men is shameful.

That split-second thought held great implications. Why did I think I saw a jail? Is it because I saw black men standing behind a chain link fence? Why couldn’t it have been a community center or a gym? Maybe someone had a tennis racquet or a basketball, and I just didn’t see it. On a train, from yards away, it was almost impossible to be sure of what I was looking at. It could have been anything, but the problem is that my instinct went to incarceration.

As black female, I scolded myself for having this thought. How could I automatically assume the worst about people of my own race? As a political science and journalism student, I was not surprised by where my mind went. I have been taught time and again to be media literate and analyze each and every situation, so much so that the habit is instinctual. The negative representation of black men across media platforms, coupled with the tangible and high incarceration rate of black males, explain why my mind went where it did.

The problem with my split-second thought and the thought processes of too many Americans is that we expect black males to fail. We expect to see them in jail or on the streets because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to see. When black men succeed, they’re seen as an exception to the rule, or as if they are, “not really black,” another issue entirely.

The only way to combat these stereotypes, especially on an individual level, is to realize the fallacies within them. While the systematic conviction and incarceration of black males is a political issue rooted in decades of hatred and assumptions, there is no institutionalized hold on my thoughts. There is nothing and no one forcing me to think one way or another, a characteristic that many view as essential to the American way.

Had I seen a diverse group of men or a diverse group of women I cannot say where my mind would have went. But what I did see and where my mind did go, is what society has taught me to see. I saw black men, and I assumed the worst. As a college student, sometimes I feel readymade to change the world, as if I can pick a cause and dedicate the rest of my life to making a change. Even if the societal representation of black males is not that cause that I pick, the way I and everyone else thinks about black males and what everyone does to combat or enhance these thoughts is what matters most.

Yvanna Saint-Fort is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies and political science.

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