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What It's Like to Live With the Stress and Fear That Comes With Being Black in America

August 14, 2020
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By GL Mason, as told to Saundra Young

It’s painful being an African American in this country.

I’m a father, a husband, a son, a professional preacher, a motivational speaker and a business owner. I have a good life. 

Still, it’s painful to always, in the back of your mind, have that thought: am I good enough? 

It’s not that you don’t think you’re good enough – the question is whether the people you work with, and those you work for, think that you’re good enough. I want to be seen as being just as good as everybody else, on the same level playing field as my white counterparts. But throughout history Black people have been, and still are, considered the least, the lost, and the left out, no matter the contributions we have made to every aspect of American life.

I’ve always been conscious of the racial divide, the injustices against Black people in the United States. But the killing of George Floyd brought a new level of awareness. It has triggered so many emotions – I’ve been angry, I’ve been sad, I’ve been frustrated. Sometimes all at the same time.

And though I knew race relations in America were bad, it wasn’t until that incident that I actually felt afraid. Afraid for myself, for my children, and even though I don’t have grandchildren yet, afraid for my children’s children. Afraid that I, or someone I love, will be caught in a similar situation.

When I think about that video, him begging for his life, hearing him call out to his mother as he was taking his last breaths, it creates a pain inside of me so deep that it’s indescribable. I could see the light go out in his eyes. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

I don’t think African Americans have a problem with George Floyd being arrested. I think we have a problem with the fact that when he said he couldn’t breathe and was clearly not resisting, that officer’s knee was not removed from his neck. We have problem with the fact,   for centuries, there has been a knee on the neck of Black people.

People don’t realize the wounds that we have. Every time a situation like George Floyd happens that wound reopens.

Our parents try to prepare us. I was probably between 10 and 12 years old when I had “the talk” with my parents. This talk is generational. It’s a conversation that was passed down from my great-grandfather to my grandfather, to my father, to me, and now from me to my three daughters. So, for at least 5 generations we have been having this same talk: Keep your hands on the steering wheel, make sure your eyes are forward, make sure you have driver’s license and your insurance readily available. Do not reach for anything unless the officer gives you permission to reach. Make sure that you’re respectful, keep your tone calm, do not raise your voice, do not seem agitated, do not be belligerent, do not give them any reason to pull their weapon out.

Those were the instructions I was repeating to myself when I was pulled over in my Mercedes Benz in my own predominately white neighborhood for failing to signal when moving into another lane (at least that’s the reason the police officer gave).

When the officer approached, I followed the instructions that my father had given me. I noticed that the officer had his hand on his gun, still holstered, but it was unbuttoned as if he was ready to draw. And even when he saw that I was not a threat, that I did not have any weapons and I had the legitimate paperwork, my license, registration with the car registered in my name and my insurance, he never took his hand off of his weapon. 

I got a warning to be more careful “next time.” I’ve been pulled over at least a dozen times. Thankfully I’ve never had a situation where the encounter ended badly.

But the stress is phenomenal. It’s like living every single day as if there is a target on my back.

In fact, I believe that it triggers some form of PTSD. If you’ve been stopped by police and you’ve been wrongfully searched or racially profiled, anytime you see those lights and hear those sirens it takes you back to the original incident where you were wrongfully accused, wrongfully searched, wrongfully profiled. And that PTSD raises your levels of anxiety, it raises your blood pressure, you start having heart palpitations. 

These painful situations can really affect your psyche. It makes me feel as though I always have to prove myself. I’m 42 years old – I should not have to look for validation, but I do, because as Black men, we’re not validated.

Having to live this way, under this kind of pressure is insane. For example, the extra precautionary measures I take when I leave my house. I always let someone know where I’m going, what time I’ll be there, what time I’ll be back, checking in when I get there, checking in when I’m leaving.

And if I’m even slightly late getting home, my family starts to worry. If you’re 15 minutes late now in 2020, that 15 minutes could mean a whole lot. George Floyd died in 8 minutes and a few seconds. So, if I’m 15 minutes late without checking in, the stress level starts to go up in my home.

I’m a pretty punctual person so if I’m late and did not make a phone call then that means something is probably wrong. But it’s not even that something’s wrong, it’s more about the possibilities of what might be wrong. So, maybe I had a flat tire, but these days a flat tire is not the first thing that comes to your mind when you’re pretty punctual African American husband is late. And that’s the painful part – that that’s the first place African Americans’ minds go now. It’s the default. So that’s where most of the problem lies – that we can’t have regular problems when something happens. When someone is running late, it seems normal to think, “Oh they must have run into traffic, gotten a flat tire, they had to stop at the store” – but in the Black community, it’s just not the first thing that comes to mind. Worry is the very first thing that comes to mind – and that has to have a detrimental effect on your mental health.

This feeling of unease is nothing new. It’s not borne of George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, or Rayshard Brooks. A couple of years ago I was in Georgia visiting a friend who lives outside of Atlanta. We decided to go for a run. As we set out, I noticed it was starting to get dark because some of the streetlights were out. All of a sudden it didn’t seem like a good idea for two strange Black men to be running around a predominantly white neighborhood at night. So, we didn’t. And I wonder are these same fears on the minds of white men? If I were a white man, would I have been afraid to continue my run? Would I have the same feelings of anxiety and fear that I have as a Black man?

So, I just want to I want to be part of the conversation that helps bring a level of awareness of how it feels to be an African American male in the United States. I think if people just understand what we go through, if a white person could stand in a Black person’s shoes for one day, I think it would raise the level of understanding. 

Until we get there, I refuse to be a hostage to the fear and the evil actions of others.

What keeps me grounded now is my belief in God, and the hope that things will get better and this country will heal.

GL Mason is a veteran of the United States Air Force and has 2 Master’s degrees—an MBA and a Master’s in Religious Studies focused on ethics and social justice. He currently lives in the Washington, DC, area with his wife and three daughters.

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