When I was growing up in and around Los Angeles, there were neighborhoods that I knew not to visit and certain stores I knew were off-limits. They were not for me. In fancy department stores, steely eyes followed me as I browsed, and salespeople wished me out the door as soon as I had walked through it. In those moments, there was nothing I could do to change the way they saw me or where they felt I belonged.
For black people in America, there is a place for us: It is in dilapidated neighborhoods, in jail cells, in inferior schools or in service to others. For blacks, the American dream—defined as upward mobility and a better life than our parents’ generation—has a caveat: Don’t outshine, outearn or outperform whites. If and when we do achieve outsized success, we should be appreciative and deferential. If we’re not, we are considered “uppity.”
For me as a brown-skinned girl born to a teenage mother, the bar for success was low. I was poor, and I didn’t expect much more than I already had, which, to be honest, was very little. Through a mix of luck and fortitude, over the years, I managed to do what less than 1 in 4 of people born into poverty manage to: escape it. Along the way, people both in and outside my community said that I was reaching for too much or that I didn’t know my place. I shrugged it off and kept going.
In the 1800s, “uppity” was used to describe someone who was prone to “taking on airs” or “assuming liberties beyond one’s social station.” By the early 1900s, the term was almost exclusively used to describe black people who did not show the appropriate level of deference to whites.
Both Barack and Michelle Obama have been publicly chided by conservatives for being uppity, or for believing that they and their children are entitled to the same rights, opportunities and privileges as whites. The backlash against Colin Kaepernick and his inability, despite great talent, to snag a NFL contract is a result, in part, of his perceived lack of gratitude or deference.
The list of black celebrities and public figures who have been punished or shamed for not knowing their place or assuming their freedom in the world is long: Henry Louis Gates Jr., Chris Rock, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice, Forest Whitaker, Serena Williams, Jamie Foxx, Gabby Sidibe and Tiger Woods, among many others.
When I hear stories in which someone is denied service or criticized for looking angry or unappreciative, or their accomplishments are diminished or unacknowledged, a familiar wave of knowing washes over me. It’s sharp and unsettling. It is a well of anger that I swallow to maintain my dignity and to appear unaffected—but I am.
Historically, there’s always been a steep price to pay for being uppity or not knowing one’s place. In 1923 the primarily black, tiny, self-sufficient town of Rosewood, Fla., was burned to the ground and many killed, in part because blacks had crafted a beautiful, thriving community that rivaled the neighboring majority-white town of Sumner, Fla. Acts of violence against blacks, including lynching, continued through the 1960s as a way of maintaining a strict social order of whites over everyone else. Policies and legislation such as “No Negroes allowed,” restrictive housing covenants, poll taxes and mandated segregation in public spaces also helped to maintain the social order.
This social order, despite legal gains during the civil rights movement, is embedded in most, if not all, of our institutions and systems. Today, enforcement of the racial social order doesn’t look like public signs and written covenants but, rather, a hidden matrix of unwritten rules maintained by law enforcement, the neighborhood watch or PTA, or people in boardrooms whom we may never see.
The new administration, which was ushered in on a wave of anti-blackness and fear of the loss of status and privilege of whites, has worked overtime to undo the progress made over the years to dismantle institutional biases and prejudice.
Most recently, Department of Education head Betsy DeVos signaled that she will limit civil rights probes and funnel money into voucher programs and charter schools instead of improving the quality of existing public schools. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to restore the use of private prisons and has reopened the door to stricter sentencing, urging federal prosecutors to charge suspects with the most serious offense they can prove. All of these decisions will make it harder to level the playing field and to defend against unjust treatment.
After NBA superstar LeBron James’ Los Angeles home was defaced with a racial slur, he said that it was tough to be black in America. He is right. Money, fame and social status are an aside to the searing racial order in America. But as always, we persist and dismiss these incidences as anomalies. They are not. Collectively, they are meant to send a caustic message regarding the place of blacks in society. They are also meant to knock us down a peg or two.
For me, there is no place that I belong, other than the place I say I belong. I am entitled to the same comforts, privileges, rights, and access to quality schools, a nice home, and to live in peace as the next person. I am your Uppity Negro.
C. Nicole Mason is the author of Born Bright: A Young Girl’s Journey From Nothing to Something in America. Her writing has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Politico, The Nation, Marie Claire magazine, USA Today, Essence magazine and the New York Times, among other outlets. Most recently she delivered a well-received TED talk at TEDWomen on “The Courage to Disrupt” and “The Gift of Being Difficult.”