What frustrates you the most about racism and/or racists?
Vern: That they’re not willing to look at the other side. If you have a point of view about something—understand that someone else has a different point of view. It’s impossible for there to only be one point of view on anything. And for that point of view to be the right point of view. I don’t understand how people think that way. I’m sure there’s a quote that goes something like, “truth comes from the many, not from the few.”
Race: I prefer black.
Birth Decade: 1980s
Hometown: Lawnside, New Jersey
When did you first realize that your race mattered?
Vern: I always knew it mattered. I grew up in a black town. I went to black schools. My town– the history of my town– was rooted in black identity. The Underground Railroad runs through my town and the oldest building there was part of the Underground Railroad. All that history has always been around me. I come from the Still family of Philadelphia. The Stills are well known even today.
“I always knew it mattered. I grew up in a black town. I went to black schools. My town– the history of my town– was rooted in black identity. The Underground Railroad runs through my town. The oldest building in my town was part of the Underground Railroad.”
How would you describe yourself?
Vern: I’m dependable. I’m willing to step out of my shell when I need to. I’m a dreamer, an artist, and a loner. When you need two points to win the game, I got your two points! Clutch! Haha.
Does race matter?
Vern: Yes and no.
Yes, race does matter because people’s perceptions of who I am are based on their perceptions of my race. A lot of things in America are set up around race. The fact is– it’s a consideration. My nationality is American, but I’m still seen as “other.”
But no, because the whole thing is based on bullshit, right?
In your educational experiences, did you learn anything about race? If so, what did you learn? What resonated with you?
Vern: If the question you’re trying to ask is ‘did I learn the history of black people in this country?’ then the answer is yes. I learned about the Harlem Renaissance, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, MLK, Malcolm X, and their fight for equal rights in this country. There was never a time in school when it didn’t feel like Black History Month. Being part of the Still family means something. Maybe because I grew up in a black town is the reason why I never really experienced any racism.
“There was never a time in school when it didn’t feel like Black History Month. Being part of the Still family means something.”
I learned about black excellence. The whole thing resonates with me. As you grow up, you find out that you didn’t learn everything. There are so many more places and people and experiences. There are so many more people that contributed to the story– to our story– who should be, who could have been, our heroes.
But did I learn the real stuff and how race affects you growing up– even growing up in a black town? Did I learn what people’s perceptions of me might be? I’d have to say no.
If you’ve ever been treated differently because of your race/culture, can you describe any/all relevant situations?
Vern: There’s never been a time when someone has said explicitly ‘you… black person,’ or ‘you…insert racial slur.’ Have there been looks? Perhaps when I was younger, but I would have to say no. I can’t think of a time when I was treated differently because of my race.
Growing up, to what extent did your family educate you about your race and/or other races?
Vern: I would say that it’s a slow, daily educational period. It was situational. An example would be, maybe even before you get your license, your parents are vigilant on how you act around police. I don’t know when you learn it, but somewhere in there, you learn the difference between what is “white” and what is “black.” I don’t think anybody ever said the words, but you find out.
To what extent have you considered how you will discuss issues of race once you have children?
Vern: In some respects, everybody is going to treat you differently. Hopefully you’ll be respected, but you can’t count on that. That may not have anything to do with race, but it could. You have to fend for yourself.
A lot of the problem, I believe, stems from people’s anger at their current situation—or what they believe their future might be, based on their current situation. No one wants to take the first step towards making themselves better, so instead, they get angry at other people for their own problems.
I also believe that a lot of things that people are angry at other people for, are things that they see in themselves. You take your weaknesses out on other people. They’re your scapegoat. It takes a strong person to admit when they’ve been wrong and when they’ve been offensive to other people. This comes from being at one with yourself. I’m not saying I’m there. I’m just saying it’s where we have to get to.
“In some respects, everybody is going to treat you differently. Hopefully you’ll be respected, but you can’t count on that. That may not have anything to do with race, but it could. You have to fend for yourself.”
You’re an artist. Why the focus on black hair and natural beauty if you have no explicit experiences with discrimination?
I used to paint portraits of Native Americans. When I first started, I didn’t want to make black art because I thought it was cliché. I wanted to shy away from making black art because I didn’t want to be a black artist making black art, so I focused on someone else’s injustice, so to speak. It was a slow change.
Eventually, I stopped painting Native American faces because I couldn’t consistently create a narrative for myself to justify why.
As black people, we don’t have a language that brings us all together. Black people are divided into so many factions. Our hair– our natural hair– is perhaps our only connection point. As an artist, I’m trying to promote things that I think are important. And I want to promote things that are important to who I am.
“As black people, we don’t have a language that brings us all together. Our hair, our natural hair, is perhaps our only connection point. As an artist, I’m trying to promote things that I think are important. And I want to promote things that are important to who I am.”
Thanks for sharing, Vern!
***If you liked this post, feel free to check out these others. Let me know if you’d like to be featured in any of the upcoming Perspectives pieces!
- Perspectives on Race #6: James, From Trinidad
- Perspectives on Race #5: White Like Me
- Perspectives on Race #4: Cat, On Checking Both Boxes
- Perspectives on Race #3: Anonymous in Maryland
- Perspectives on Race #2: Jamie, From the Midwest
- Perspectives on Race #1: Black, Muslim & Tired
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