Shades of Grey in-focus: a journalist’s notebook
Omoefe Ogbeide discusses lessons learned on completing a four-part series on race at BrandeisPublished: April 29, 2011
It was Nov. 4, 2008 when I stood in the middle of Shapiro Campus Center surrounded by rambunctious cheering and excited chatter. My lungs breathed in air thick with anticipation, my heart palpitated with growing anxiety and, as if bracing myself from what was occurring, my arms were inextricably linked with my friends around me.
The 2008 presidential election was winding down and the winners of the last states were being announced. I couldn’t believe what was happening was real. So many political and social debates had been inspired by the idea of a “post-racial society.” Was this country capable of electing its first “black” president? The answer was yes and I began to cry. I couldn’t explain what was happening to me as I looked into the worried faces of my first-year hall-mates who tried to console me. All night as I roamed the campus, my smiling eyes connected with everyone passing by with acknowledgment of this exciting news, but each time I saw one of my black friends, I couldn’t stop my tears.
Looking back at that time, my newly acquired wisdom has illuminated that experience as the first time I felt a connection to my race. I grew up relatively sheltered to the reality of racial undertones in society. This came primarily from the environment of my childhood growing up in the San Francisco-Bay Area, one of the wealthiest and most racially diverse regions of the United States. I falsely believed I grew up in a utopia. I never noticed rampant socio-economic disparities because I lived above them, on a pristine street of identical Mediterranean style houses where my neighbor across the street, Virginia, an elderly white woman, waved at me and my Asian, white and bi-racial neighborhood friends on our way to school.
I never noticed anything unordinary when my Nigerian father preached to my brother and me that we were first generation Nigerian-Americans and not “black.” We were told that we could not act like “one of them” but as immigrants. I never understood what that meant completely but I internalized it as a duality of good and bad.
To put it frankly, I grew up learning that African-American people were inferior all while never feeling like that had anything to do with me. After coming to college, my silent arrogance did not last long. Being out of my bubble of familiarity, I quickly discovered that I was not impervious to this destructive societal perception.
Heated and poignant discussion in classrooms and on couches became a norm to me as I sought out people from all races and backgrounds. Their differing and sometimes incendiary opinions obliterated my smug complacency. The barrier between “them” and me disintegrated and I underwent somewhat of a rebirth. I do not look at anything the same way, and now simplistic statistics and stereotypes speak volumes to the extensive history of racial inequality and the slow and sometimes ineffective practice of rectifying civil injustice.
Writing these articles was my attempt to pay it forward. I wanted to share this enlightenment with the Brandeis community and incite conversations that I had benefitted from having. We all come to Brandeis University with a belief that we will leave with a comprehensive knowledge of the world, but I fear that without more interactive and introspective discussion, we will leave never truly knowing ourselves.