I had just spent three hours in customs. I had waited in line, I was searched repeatedly, and I was hungry and tired from a four-hour flight. I barely made it with 15 minutes left for my connecting flight and all I was looking forward to was resting my head against the window near my window seat, and sleeping. But when I finally arrived to my prized window seat at 19A, there was a lady in it, seated next to her child. The flight attendant turned to me and asked me if it would be okay for me to take a middle seat in the back of the plane so that the woman in my seat could sit next to her daughter. The woman who occupied my seat simply sat there, did not address me.
I was livid… right then and there I decided that no matter what happened, I would not give up my seat.
You see, the woman in my seat was white, and in the calculus of emotion, hunger, and fatigue, this moment for me was not about a mother wanting to comfort her child, rather it became a confrontation with white privilege, and a white woman refusing to address me even as she was taking my seat. Was I right to be angry? Had I assessed this scenario accurately? Was this a modern exemplar of a white person forcing another black woman to the back of a moving vehicle? Or was this something innocent?
I stood there in my anger, conflicted. How had race, once again, become so entwined in this seemingly innocent exchange? How had it come to this?
I want to share my story with you.
Race did not always matter for me. I am the product of black African immigrant parents who had the courage to leave Ghana in the 70’s to escape famine for a better life in Libya. While there, my parents were lucky enough to win the visa lottery to emigrate here through the Reagan Administration’s immigration policies. Haunted by the memory of nepotism and corruption in Ghana, America’s promise of meritocracy for my parents meant a life where no limits existed if they were willing to work hard. My parents instilled this “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality in my siblings and I, perhaps in the naive hope that it was true: that indeed through hard work and determination, life would remain limitless. This was my parents’ dream, and within it race -- and therefore racism -- simply did not and could not exist.
And for a while, racism did not exist for me as well in my first years in America.
I remember those first days in America when I joined my parents in a slice of suburbia in Diamond Bar eight years after their arrival. I was beside myself with joy; I would constantly close my eyes and open them in complete disbelief that I was truly in America. Everything was clean, beautiful, almost glimmering, and when I turned on the tap and felt hot water, I knew that I had truly arrived. Even the sun shone differently here.
I almost loved this place, but somewhere within me, I sensed that I did not belong here; that I was somehow, always, on the outside of everything.
This awareness began innocently. There were always questions from my classmates about lions, and tigers, and elephants who they presumed I lived with in Ghana. And once, out of sheer curiosity, my desk-mate licked my arm to see if I tasted like chocolate. I didn’t really even mind when my teacher asked whether the first time I wore clothes was when I landed in LAX. To me, this was what I assumed were innocent questions about my difference.
But as I progressed from elementary school to my undergraduate years, I could no longer deny race and racism and its effect on myself and my family.
My memories persist. There was the time my brother was stopped by our neighborhood police because they thought he was riding a stolen bike. Or the time when I worked as a courtesy clerk for Vons and my supervisor detained me for an hour to go through videotaped footage to prove that I did not steal a tangerine from a fruit stand. And in my sophomore year of college -- on the night of President Obama’s first inauguration -- a car drove past me and my friends. The passengers yelled: “Fuck you, you fucking niggers!”
The fact is that all of my family members and close black friends have been called niggers by white people at some point in their lives. In our twenty years of living in America, I have now come to understand these experiences as vital rites of baptism into black citizenry.
For my family -- and I believe many families in this nation -- race and racism is a constant, overwhelming presence in our lives. We structure living, loving, working, and being around it. And it is the haunting that makes fragile our brittle hopes of an American meritocracy free of racism.
I imagine that is perhaps the reason we celebrate Dr. King. He believed in the best of us. And he dreamed of a Beloved Community where we could all accept our differences and love each other for who we truly are.
Although I imagine that we all hope to live in this Community where race and skin color has no bearing on our love and acceptance of each other, it is evident that we are nevertheless living with a keen awareness of being judged, every day, by the color of our skin.
To deny this truth under the myth of colorblindness is a painful, profound betrayal of Dr. King’s legacy.
As a nation, America carries this betrayal collectively, evidenced by the ways in which we choose to forget and remember Dr. King.
Dr. King was so intensely driven by love for this nation. He also was driven by the conviction that racial equality was the only way to realize a Beloved Community of equals. But forty-nine years after his murder, Dr. King is celebrated not for confronting Jim Crow laws under white supremacy. Nor is he remembered for fighting for economic justice “for the colored masses of the world.” Rather, he is celebrated to maintain the façade of a colorblind meritocracy whereby America whole heartedly denies the very real and devastating effect racism continues to have on the economic, political, social, psychological, and spiritual lives of the people of color still trapped within it.
Colorblindness makes it acceptable to live in a society where four hundred individuals hold more wealth than 61% of our population, and where black and Latino people continue to struggle to amass wealth within their communities across generations.
Colorblindness makes it normal to live in a society where schools are more segregated now than they were in Dr. King’s time and where black and Latino children are one-third more likely than white students to be arrested in their public schools.
Colorblindness makes it inevitable for the most crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act that so many bled and died for in Selma to be repealed by our Supreme Court.
And finally, colorblindness enables our Supreme Court to participate in maintaining racial inequality by espousing the view of a colorblind constitution. Where in the face of overwhelming racial disparity in prison sentencing, hiring practices, cases of police abuse, the Supreme Court limits the showing of racial disparity to antiquated Jim Crow-like displays of discrimination. This irony is more profound considering the fact that the equal protection clause of 14th Amendment was specifically created to facilitate the transition of a newly freed slave class into a society that deemed them property. This same amendment was used to overturn affirmative action some 100 years later.
So I return to seat 19A, the drama of an innocent exchange unfolding in the shadows of our dark racial past. In the illumined darkness of the plane, I had to confront my own prejudices, my own compromises of character negotiated around our post-racial lie. In that moment, I forced myself to do what our nation does not. I gave up my seat.
But as I did, I looked the woman in her eye, and told her what I wanted to tell the child in me that once believed in America. I told her what I wanted to tell my immigrant parents who had so much hope in the American dream. And I told her what I wanted to tell Dr. King’s four little children still alive today:
This is post-racial America 49 years after Dr. King’s death. A dream and our reality, unreconciled.
Priscilla Ankrah, J.D. Candidate 2017, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles