With the Negro Motorist Green Book guide to navigating Jim Crow America in the news, I thought of how far we have and haven’t yet come in this country. I thought of all the new ways black parents have to protect their children from both legal and emotional issues in the 21st century. There’s still an unwritten Modern Guide to Blackness circulating in our community, compiled from our communal life experience and plain common sense. Here are just a few of the recognizable “guidelines” we’ve all sadly picked up along the way:
How to deal with law enforcement
Always carry valid ID and understand that you may be questioned when walking down the street in a non-black neighborhood or pulled over when driving. Stay calm and remember to carry a cell phone (to record the interaction) and ask for a phone call and lawyer immediately if you are taken into custody. Take note of every name and encounter and write down everything as soon as you can in case a report needs to be filed later.
How to act at school
Actions that come across as assertive and witty for white students may be considered aggressive (boys) and sassy (girls) when we do them. It’s fine; those are just words used by close-minded administrators. Respect your teachers, but don’t ever stop asking questions, inquiring when things seem unfair or competing. Keep your grades up and take advantage of every opportunity, grant, trip, project, and advanced placement you possibly can. You’re just as entitled as everyone else.
How to act at work
Understand that no matter how casual, cool, and loose things seem, the rules for your co-worker — whose mother is sorority sisters with your boss’ mother — are not your rules. You will have to actually work in order to get promoted, and although it may appear that everyone can show up late for work, you’ll come off as unprofessional if you do (a CP tax of sorts), so don’t.
What to say when people make comments about your hair
This will happen at least once in your lifetime (or once a month if you grow up in a white neighborhood), so understand it’s usually curiosity and not maliciousness, no matter how odd or ignorant the comment. Just be open and honest while explaining shrinkage and texture. In fact, do your best to really learn the ins-and-outs of your own hair because the more confident and knowledgeable you are, the less you’ll care about both the innocent and harmful comments.
What to do when someone calls you the “n” word
Every situation is different, but the most important thing to remember is to count and breathe and not give the irate reaction for which your antagonizer is begging. Also remember that this person’s issues have nothing to do with you and your history and are no way a reflection of something you did, no matter how immature or irresponsible. If these comments are made at school or work, documenting and making sure the remarks are put on record is imperative.
What to do when you are tailed in a store
Don’t panic (which will only seem to validate suspicions). Try to assess the situation objectively while trusting your gut. If it’s clear you’re being treated differently than everyone else, leave and don’t look back. Turning the other cheek or offering blind loyalty to a brand or product is unnecessary. In this day and age, whatever you were looking for can be found at the next strip mall or online (for probably less).
How to handle bad service
You may sometimes feel as though it takes longer for you to get seated or that the table next to you is always getting fresher cheese biscuits. It may also seem that the manicurist isn’t taking the care with you that she does with other customers, or she may suddenly put on gloves to treat your feet when she hadn’t worn them with her three previous clients. If the offense is minor, speak up in the most composed manner possible. If it’s major, remember who is paying who and leave. And don’t forget to leave a nice Yelp review for the establishment when you get home.
How to carry yourself with dignity no matter what
There may come a time when someone crosses the street or clutches her purse as you walk by. Doormen may also question you when they’ve let five people walk into a building uninterrupted before you. This is OK. I mean, it’s not OK, but it is OK in that it’s not changing your life or harming you or anyone you love. Use this as an opportunity to check your posture, smile, and put forth the happiest and most confident you. If you want to live to see your social security, learn to brush these people and encounters off because life is short and bigots aren’t worth the stress or high blood pressure.