“If I remember correctly there was a time when I was afraid to celebrate my blackness. I was afraid to be…”
If you’ve been witness to some of my unabashed ridiculousness of recent times, this might surprise you. Myke Thompson was afraid to be black? But in order to fully understand the situation, you must first understand where I grew up. I’m from Bakersfield, California. No, it’s not just a big, dusty wasteland. There’s actually a small city in between all those fields of cow shit and tumbleweeds. The estimated population as of couple years ago was a little over 370,000 people. First, we need to clarify something about a good chunk of these folks. Over 56% of the population is apparently white, 45% is not surprisingly Hispanic, a tiny, smidge over 8% are black, and the rest are Asian. I don’t understand how the math works. Maybe people claim Hispanic and white at the same time? I think you can do that? Who cares. I hate math, so IDGAF. While the Hispanic and white populations are relatively close in percentage, you should know better than to consider that these two groups happily thrive in the same areas or even create the same physical space in Bakersfield. The blacks (as a Bakersfield native would say, but not really) live with the blacks, the Latinos live with the Latinos and the white people live everywhere and nowhere there are too many blacks or Latinos. I hope you’re picking up what I’m putting down. This is not an opinion. Look it up. This isn’t a claim that racism is a constant state of being in Bakersfield, but I’m also far from claiming that it’s anywhere near becoming a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants. In my opinion, Bakersfield breeds a unique type of white person. In Bakersfield, you’re blessed with the descendants of Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana which basically means they are country AF out here and have no shame about it. I’m talking about cooking crawdads-in-a-bucket in your backyard country. I’m talking about kids with no shoes, no shirt and a mysterious red punch mustache country. This is I got horses, chickens, and a raised truck in my backyard country. I’m talking about still hanging onto the idea that the south will rise again country. No shade (actually, maybe a little) but multiple studies show Bakersfield is one the least educated metro areas in the United States. What does a predominantly white city plus a record low education equal? If you guessed “racism”, you would be correct. In what would be considered one of the most liberal states in our country, Bakersfield has firmly established itself as the proud, gun-toting, Republican, country music capital of the west coast. Sadly, that was neither a joke or a gross exaggeration.
Believe it or not, I still have real love for my hometown of Bakersfield. It’s not every single white person walking down the street with Confederate flags and tiki torches, but the collectively conservative mindset is the reality of the city. I look back and realize that every experience I had in Bakersfield prepared me for the real world. My bubble was filled with constant, real-world racism, prejudice and societal hardship that not every kid has the opportunity to experience. My experience was unique and with the astronomically disproportionate demographics, I was “somewhat” prepared for the day I got pulled over by a cop in fear for his life or a frumpy lady in sweats with ugly, sports sunglasses calling the police on me. I’ve presently discovered justification for the harmful elements of my Bakersfield life, but it was far from ideal when it was actually happening in my youth. Being one of the only black kids in my friendship circles, classrooms and neighborhoods was a nightmare I learned to endure.
|grade||# of black kids|
|1st grade||4 ← we’re off to a great start!|
|2nd grade||1 ←that’s me|
|3rd grade||1 ←it’s still me|
|4th grade||2 ← omg! hi friend!|
|5th grade||1 ← well, shit.|
|6th grade||1 ← alright, guys…|
|middle school||>15 ← this is new.|
|high school||>20 ←wakanda forever!|
That’s a lot for a little kid to process. At an early age, I had to recognize that I was different from the Josh’s and the Billy’s of my small suburban neighborhood. It was a suburban neighborhood straight out of a 90s sitcom. We had the nosey neighbors with drinking problems, the cheating husbands, the block parties where no one was in charge of watching the kids, and the self-appointed neighborhood watchers who mostly watched my family for obvious prejudice reasons, but let’s save that conversation for another day.
If by powerful intention or serendipitous black magic, my parents let me watch Roots before I could even write cursive or multiply and that was probably a defining moment in my “token black kid” experience. I recognized I was VERY different, but I also realized there could be a plus-side to this scenario. My curiosity gave way to reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, listening to all of the Martin Luther King Jr. speeches on cassette tapes and making sure all my assignments involved the history of slavery, abolitionism, and civil rights before I even completed the sixth grade. Think how uncomfortable I made my elementary school teachers with my race-fueled book reports on Nat Turner’s rebellion. I would present every word with vengeful glares and a quivering volume for dramatic impact. My early on-set hyper-awareness allowed me to mix and mingle with my white counterparts with just enough comfort to avoid being taken out to a backfield somewhere and beaten in the name of “the preservation of southern heritage.” I discovered that I could use my unique appearance to my advantage. For instance, I didn’t have to worry about being picked for anybody’s basketball team at recess. I wasn’t even that good, but I always ended up on the winning teams. I never had to worry about anyone remembering my name. Everybody knew Mychal was the black kid in Mrs. Chavez’ class. The best part of all was sitting in a classroom full of white kids allowed me the opportunity to steal the same education as the suburban white kids despite how hard they tried to incidentally place me in a box. If you don’t believe that our education system is hugely flawed based on demographic and region, stop playing stupid. We have no time for that, and it was never a good look on you. Knock it off.
On the flipside, being the only black guy in school can have a handful of adverse effects on a kid. Everyone knew me, but I wasn’t afforded the choice to fly under the radar. Ever. When it came time to discuss civil rights and slavery, the disparaging eyes always turned to me, whether I was in the mood to be an example or not. No hairstyle-change was left without a follow-up interrogation and a series of petting, scratching and rubbing.
Basic Becky: “OMG. Can I touch your hair? It’s so fuzzy. It’s like a carpet!”
Me: “Basic Becky, get the @$&% up off me before I snatch your good hair out.”
Lastly, any average teenage fight always resulted in one, single word insult as if calling me the “N-Word” was going to make me reevaluate the fight, count to ten, relax and back down.
Pro Tip: Do your research, people. If you want to squash beef with a black person or de-escalate the situation, DO NOT USE THE N-WORD UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.
Little Billy Smith: “But why can you people say N*GGA and we can’t?”
Me: “And that was the last we heard of Little Billy Smith.”
On the other hand, when I wasn’t dealing with bigotry from people who didn’t look like me, I was experiencing difficulty relating to people who did look like me. Select members of my family and other black people who lived in different areas of Bakersfield gave me the role of the “white-washed” black kid. Apparently, the stipulations for gaining this title were based on my grammar, my neighborhood, and my education.
THIS IS PROBLEMATIC. Education, dialect, wardrobe or hobbies don’t qualify blackness.
Let’s consider the fact that because my mom taught me how to read by age three, I developed a love for the English language, literature, and dialogue. This would eventually lead to degrees in English and Screenwriting, a fascination with puns, creating abbreviations and joining random words together. But, I guess younger Myke should’ve realized proper English, and a pair of Vans mean you hate being a black person. Go figure.
At the end of the day, I had the choice of either being ridiculed behind my back by people who didn’t look like me or mocked to my face by people who did. An upbringing in a unique city (Bakersfield) for a black man in America gave me some of the greatest experiences of my life and also gave me some of the darkest. I was left with discovering how can I channel these experiences into learning opportunities on how I am perceived and how I perceive myself in this world. Do I acknowledge my blackness every day at the expense of genuinely relating to the world as a whole or do I find a way to embrace who I am empathetically with everyone’s individual experience regardless of their background? This journey of navigating life as a black man in a predominantly white world gives me the opportunity to embrace at the end of the day, I’m in the right place at the right time.