“Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” – Ruth Wilson Gilmore
“Things will get better”
As a teenager, I latched onto this phrase to make sense of the things going on around me. Dealing with extreme poverty, bouts of homelessness, and no real security made my “now” not so promising. I watched my family live pay check to pay check. In fact, the concept of a savings account devoted to taking excess money and saving it was unheard of until I got to college.
I escaped my “now” every chance I could by thinking about the future. I was going to do things. I was going to be a socially conscious rapper. I was going to go to college out of state. I was going to take my family out of poverty and give my mom the house she deserved. Notice everything was in future tense: the same as my life. Early on it became clear that the only way I could exist was to live perpetually in the future. All my worth was in my “would be” never with what I was. I learned to hate and mistrust “now”.
This effectively put me on the pipeline from a child to an adult and cut out important parts of my development. I learned all the shit people shouldn’t learn until their 20’s. I provided for my sisters. I paid bills. I was the “man of the house”. When I hear the people around me talk about their adolescence crises with pimples or dating I am immediately thrown back into the time I could not cherish on account of the fact I had to survive. I struggled every day to find something to make tomorrow worth it. My days could only be spent as a preparation for tomorrow or an erasure of that day or my past. My days were just things to “get through” to make it to the next. I was forced to take care of others before I could take care of myself. My life was a race I was never truly given a chance to excel at.
Such is the life of many low income and/or minority kids in this nation. Classism and racism force children to experience adult existential crises and either deal or fold. These systems take all the issues with growing up in America and exacerbate them with added obstacles. One of the most daunting effects is the shortened lifetime. Capitalism and racism unite forces and speed up the lives of so many children of color. We seem older to the rest of America, which results in us being treated as older than we truly are in multiple discipline systems resulting in harsher punishments such as longer prison sentences, no presumption of innocence, and a society that would rather keep us out of the public eye rather than treat misbehavior as a real problem rather than a character defect.
These issues do not stop at childhood. When students of color come to college campuses they are met with plenty of privilege kids who have no clue how to interact with people who were brought up under different circumstances. Cue the racist and/or sexist microaggressions in the form of “I’ve never had sex with a Latina”, “You’re not Black if your skin isn’t dark”, or the casual “N*ggas” that people slip in when they’re rapping or trying to be cool. Granted this form of racism is not overt, but that’s what makes it most sinister: it feigns ignorance. How do these situations relate to the “premature maturity” people of color experience? While people are out enjoying a college experience that was fashioned for them by race and class privilege, Students of color and/or Low income students must learn how to pay bills they don’t have money for, speak to administrators about their vulnerable state, and deal with the indifference and ignorance of their peers. What is a fun environment for those with privilege is yet another obstacle course people of color and/or low income students must navigate. Can marginalized people make it through these obstacles? Absolutely. I am currently writing this piece and have had the privilege of working with others doing the same. However, the point shouldn’t be CAN people make it, but rather SHOULD they be forced to go through these extra steps. Though some people would argue adversity builds character, the numbers indicate that the structural obstacles we face are not just providing a little adversity, but rather, over-determining our life potential in severely harmful ways.
Though people often like to joke about “Colored People Time (CPT)”, the humor hides behind a daunting fact: the experience of time and maturity in America is significantly different for people of color, especially Black people. We are exposed to rapid aging that is destroying our youth’s ability to be just that: youthful. Survival tactics become second nature and are difficult to shake off. This Premature maturity disrupts their ability to trust others and/or build meaningful relationships. Worst of all, it reduces their life to an ever present potential that may never be. People of Color and Low income people (note their often one and the same due to the intimate relationship between class and race) lives are truncated because racism and classism (due to capitalism) have worked themselves into every aspect of their lives. These forms of oppression have been centuries in the making, but future generations have always given us hope. It’s no wonder that change hasn’t happened yet, given the fact that so many youth never make it to an state of security where they can contribute to changing this nation to reflect their desire. They say children are the future. It’s no wonder some of the most marginalized children have taken this to mean that the future is the only place where they can gain value.