Six months ago, I entered an event for fathers eager to engage with those in attendance and hopefully come away with added knowledge beneficial to my daughter. Upon my arrival, I was greeted not with open arms and respect, but by being told that I resembled another Black man that had been unfortunately loitering in front of the event space. I resorted to a comment I usually share when I experience this. "You're getting your Black people confused." I've always found this statement to be quite effective. However, for the first time, this comment was completely lost on the gentlemen who were so adamant that I resembled this random individual. No apology. No walk back. Nothing. It was jarring to arrive and immediately have to confront stereotypes. And one of the more annoying stereotypes people of color have to endure is that we all look alike. For me, it happens everywhere. At work, I was constantly confused with the other black guy, who was over six feet (I'm 5' 9") and had an afro (I'm bald). At my daughter's school, I am confused with the only other Black male parent in the entire grade. He has freckles (I don't) and is lighter skinned and taller than me. During my lifetime, I've had people say I "look just like" Sugar Ray Leonard, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, and former Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward to name a few.
It took everything I had to not just walk out of the event. I wish I had spent more time explaining my emotions and why their comments were so disappointing, but I didn't. Sometimes, I want to be sans burden. And this is why I share this story. To bring to light something that I perceive as an unfair burden. It can be hard being the only or one of a few people of color in a given situation. The fatherhood groups with which I am associated are almost entirely white. I've attended some of these events as the only person of color. And yes, I notice that every time. Every. Time. Sometimes it's not enough to be in a group of nice, polite people. Sometimes you also want to see several faces like your own as a reminder that the narrative doesn't just sound different, but also looks different. I entered all these groups so excited about sharing my stories of fatherhood, but for some reason forgot that I am at a very different place than most of my fellow members when it comes to diversity awareness. My passions are very different. My concerns are very different. My experiences are very different. And I found few if any people who share all three of these. So, I'm back carrying a burden far too many people of color are forced to bear in predominantly white environments: educating white friends and family about aspects of diversity.
No, you may not touch my hair.
Nah, all Black people don't look alike. C'mon man!
You can't say the N word. No level of friendship will allow that.
Although it can be a burden, I am determined to do what I can to enlighten. Because I don't want people to be misinformed. But I can't help but wonder this. Have I reached a point where I need to focus on what they can do for me instead of only what I can offer them? Would leaving these groups and organizations be an act of cowardice or necessary self-preservation?
Considering leaving is hard. What I often see and hear is how many of my fellow group/organization members have a safe space. I see such joy and comfort. This level of camaraderie is incredibly valuable and beautiful to witness. I am so happy that these fathers have places that afford them the opportunity to let their guards down. I appreciate the value of such groups and events. But, I've not felt this to the same extent. (With the one exception being moment #4 at Dad 2.0 this past February.) I struggle because when I enter and open up, I have not always felt my experience, my style of fatherhood, or my core ideals affirmed. I don't want to only be seen as a father. I need to be acknowledged as a Black father. Because I am. A major part of my identity is my Blackness, and my identity influences so much of what I do. With that comes complexities that can not be nor should not be avoided. I can still be treated with respect, but I need to be seen for all of who I am. I urge many of you who read this to not focus on you. Don't immediately become defensive, but think about what I might be going through.
So, I'm not going anywhere just yet. I'm willing to continue carrying this burden due in large part to feeling an obligation to represent the voice of other marginalized fathers. I will continue to do panels such as the one I was a part of at Dad 2.0 earlier this year: Parenting and the Modern African-American Man, even though they are likely to be poorly attended. I will do so loudly and confidently, because I know I have much to offer to the narrative of fatherhood in the 21st Century.