As a man of the Negro persuasion, I am often forced to experience social situations from a racially unpleasant perspective. In The Race Files, I’ll attempt to illuminate my experiences in a tasteful way.
I’ve been wearing glasses since middle school. My first pair weren’t very becoming. In fact I’d say in hindsight they were dorky and diminished my cool. I used to try to adjust the little nose support things to some obsessive standard of comfort and symmetry (trying to have it both ways, I’m sure) and would end up breaking them, incurring repairs that were annoying and costly (for my parents). I was just a stupid kid who didn’t know anything about style.
In college, I used contact lenses almost exclusively – vision correction was a mostly utilitarian concern for me. I wanted to be free to be active, play sports run around, jump off things etc. I was infected by the folly of youth.
However, after college, slowly, I understood an open secret that I was either too dense to understand, or that I was somehow resistant to – that a well-chosen pair of glasses can enhance the image and confidence of the wearer in a deep and profound way.
I’d like to say it was just that one day I thought back to those D.O.C. “Put on your sexy specs” commercials and realized there was an immutable truth to the campaign. However that’s not it. There was a racial component to my revelation, an unfortunate and complex one in fact, but one I am coming to terms with.
Let’s face it, as a black man, I get looked at differently. Most people in this day and age will refrain from judging outright based on skin color, and I can’t say I have evidence that I’ve been treated differently, but I have seen a lot of the things like those hallmarks president Obama spoke about recently – people crossing the street (in fact, I often cross the street to avoid walking behind people), aggressive greetings while out shopping, doors locking as you pass by, etc.
In addition I also have a severe case of babyface. As Ghostface Killah put it, “Skin painted on my face look ageless”. No one can tell how old I am. I don’t get the benefit of age – my years ripe with maturity and wisdom. I’ve been estimated to be as young as 16, multiple times, within the last year.
However, with my glasses on, particularly the rather hip pair I have now (my friend described them as “Half-Malcolm Xes”) I can defuse so many of those early awkward feeling out without any conscious action. Immediately I am treated as someone with a sensibility – an urbane college student, an urbane high school student, a young professional, a creative type, etc.
Unfortunately the yoke of double-consciousness is to always be conscious and always also to be conscious of being black. So it could be that half or more of the battle is taking place in my own head. I accept that. However I believe there is some real posture benefit, a boost of confidence in my carriage that I derive from my eyewear, which in turn increases my estimation in the eyes of others. I can’t prove it, but I can swear I’ve felt it, in bars, cars, libraries, offices, stores, restaurants, apartments and myriad other spheres of human interaction.
To be blunt, wearing my glasses (often in conjunction with colorful, sometimes outlandish hip clothing) is like hanging a big sign around my neck that says “Don’t fear me, I’m civilized!”
Some might say that by wearing glasses and funny hip clothes I am guilty of elitism, and trying to distance myself from common expressions of black American culture. Those people would be absolutely right. I was raised by interracial parents, and my black parent is not from the US. I was never connected to black American culture in the way that most people who look like me are.
This is why I identify with President Obama’s words about having to forge his own sense of blackness. I didn’t live in nearly as many places as him, but I understand the tricky navigation of being black and dealing with certain expectations from the black community, as well as certain assumptions and expectations from the white community. Everything you do comes under dual scrutiny – listening habits, manner of speech, choice of sports, hairstyle, dating habits, fashion sense, taste in movies, use of free time, choice of friends and on and on.
I’ve been looking for a way out, culturally, for a long time. I suppose my answer to the choice of black or white mainstream culture was to choose neither – and to dive willfully and deeply into the obscure. At this point I’m so divorced from almost all of the hallmarks of United States Black Culture (USBC) that I can’t even relate to it any more. Like Huey from the Boondocks, I became exasperated with the silliness, the evasions, the castles built on nothing, the promulgations of bad habits, the constantly shifting slang and style wars, the ill-fitting clothing, the obsession with material wealth, the talking loudly in the movie theater, the closed-minded dismissals, the homophobia, the misogyny, the incorrect grammar – in short the negative aspects of USBC drove me away.
Sadly, I could not commune with the positive aspects either. Conscious Hip Hop, inventive slang, innovative resourcefulness, self-reliance, Neo-soul, slam-style poetry, African American Studies, Jazz, B-Boy Culture, black struggle, Pan-Africanism. I just couldn’t identify.
That doesn’t mean I don’t care. I get as angry as the next black man about police, institutional, and individual racism, mistreatment, shootings and brutality. I was disgusted by the Zimmerman verdict. I love the feelings of pride I feel when I listen to old Malcolm X speeches. I like listening to and watching Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and other black comedians who artfully illuminate the daily triumphs and defeats of being black in America. I love the power and grace of professional basketball, refined near to perfection by the hulking Adonises who are the forerunners of black wealth. I still root for black in most any situation. However, I realize that I am in fact, a spectator.
So in essence I’m a nowhere man. I listen to punk and heavy metal, I’m indifferent to pop music and most rap music, I don’t watch BET or MTV, I “talk white”, I read post-modern novels and Sci-Fi, I enjoy esoteric art films, I use social media sparingly, most of my friends are non-black, I only date white women, etc. etc.
The problem is that when people see me, they don’t see the weird cultural amalgam I’ve become (unless I freak-up my appearance to Dennis Rodman-type levels), they just see some young black guy, and, as Nas put it “They don’t know if I’m a robber, or if I’m Russell Simmons.” So in that sense the glasses help – they create a little distance between me and the black mainstream, the people who are my people, but yet in a sense aren’t.
So ultimately it’s a little depressing that in order to feel like I’m putting my best foot forward, I have to wear ostentatious corrective lenses in the hopes that people won’t lump me with you know, my race and all its negative connotations. But that’s the reality. Perception and first impressions matter, and I’m of the temperament where I don’t want to start out with any culturo-perceptual disadvantages other than the ones I choose for myself (like having a weird Mohawk or bizarre clothing or what have you). Beyond that, I can be very shy and quiet in certain situations, and wearing the glasses, I’m far more likely to be seen as contemplative than sullen. I also don’t want people to think I’m dumb or uneducated. I hate when I’m wearing a Northwestern shirt and people ask in painfully indirect ways whether I went or go there. Between the babyface and the race I don’t get the benefit of the doubt there as much as I would like. The man I bought my most recent car from asked if I was a “Fan of Northwestern Engineering” since I was wearing the shirt. “I went there” I replied. Turns out he thought I wasn’t yet of college age. So yes, I wear glasses because I want to be perceived as more intelligent.
You might say “Why do you care so much what people think about you? I thought you liked punk. It’s who you are inside that counts, and if other people judge you that’s their problem” This is a valid point, but it’s human to want to project the impression you think represents you best. I want to make a positive one free from unwanted baggage. I want to choose how and where I rebel, rather than making people uncomfortable when I am without agenda, simply being. That is, I like to stand out, but not in the way that being the only black person in the room makes me stand out. And in truth, if I am the lone black guy in the room, I’ll feel better about it if I have my glasses on.