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Cocky. Arrogant. Self-centered.

I may be all of these things or none of these things – I don’t know. I do know that I carry myself a certain way and have since high school. Allow me to explain. See, there are some benefits to moving as much as I did as a child. You learn how to adapt. In the summer leading to my senior year of high school, my parents did what many Black families did in the early 2000s, we made the “Great Negro Migration” from Oakland out to the outer realm of the Bay Area on the way to Sacramento. A bunch of folks moved to the Antiochs, Pittsburgh, and Modestos. We ended up in Stockton.

In my senior year, I went to Bear Creek High School. I went from a mostly-Black Emery High School, which had less than 300 students to a school with 2300 people, and Black folks were the minority. There, I learned of a beautiful yet mystical thing called ‘privilege’. The kids at this school were different. Whereas only a handful of students even had a driver’s license at Emery, I went to a school with a student parking lot where I saw Range Rovers and Mustangs. One of my close friends had a BMW M3 (he was 17), and one of my other friends drove his father’s Corvette. Needless to say, I was in a much different place.

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The students at this school just moved differently. They knew they were going to college. At Bear Creek, I was in AP English for about two weeks. The students in this class set high standards and negotiated assignments with the teachers. In my old school, there was a strict no food or drink policy in our classes, whereas in my first-period Spanish class at Bear Creek, I watched a third of the class enjoy lattes and it was never an issue. In my AP English class at Emery, the most rigor I experienced there was a packet on Romeo & Juliet. No, these Bear Creek students were different. They felt like adults. It was a culture shock. So I watched. I watched the athlete with the bleached-blonde hair and his letterman jacket. I watched the way he interacted with the world and how the world interacted back with him. I watched as he experienced multiple internships in different fields. It wasn’t just white folks either. I watched the Black boy whose parents were both highly educated, and he would get frustrated between making a decision between his dad’s alma mater, Stanford or his longing to study in New York at NYU.

I didn’t quite know what I was witnessing at the time. I didn’t have the language for it. What I was witnessing was confidence. It was self-actualization in the teenage form. I was learning a different type of confidence. They didn’t feel like they were lucky because good things were happening; they expected it. They expected to be treated a certain way. Their parents expected things from the school with allowed those parents to place high expectations on their children. I wanted that type of respect. I learned early on that you command respect. Yeah, sure you give it, — we always give it! But I never felt like my people were demanding it. I learned how to exude expectations from my environment in the way I arrived.

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There’s only one problem; my poor Black ass was from Oakland by way of Chicago. There’s an expectation that goes along with that. Striking that balance has been a task that I am constantly learning even today. Here’s what I experience when I display that confidence. There’s a trigger in our heads that go off when the young Black dude has expectations for how the world should interact with him. The trigger says, “Nah, get back in your place, Nigger!” I saw it in college; I saw it in grad school, and I have seen it on every job I’ve had since college.

To the young Black folks that read my words, take heed. Smart people learn from their experience while wise people learn from the experience of others.

I am a person that understands that he doesn’t know a lot and the fastest way to get that knowledge is to find someone that does and commandeer them as a mentor. You can ask some of the biggest leaders working in Oakland today; there aren’t many that I haven’t had lunch with or volunteered to help with something so I could absorb what made them successful. Elihu Harris, former mayor of Oakland, mentored me for a spell when I was an undergrad. He told me something I would never forget. In fact, I found myself quoting it the other day. He said,

“Leaders love to leave a legacy. Every good leader wants a younger, better version of themselves to live through when they leave the work. So ALWAYS pick the brain of the leaders you come in contact with. If their office door is open, it’s your job walk through. If they didn’t want people walking in, they’d close it. Put yourself on their calendar. Make people tell you no.”

I don’t know what Mr. Harris is doing these days or if he would even remember that conversation, but it changed my life. It changed my approach. He told me that people were going to react to me differently because I was a Black kid that came from the slums. He also said that the folks that would have the most trouble dealing with how I moved would be other people of color. It’s stepping out of place in some of those folks’ eyes.

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So I’ve done that. I value my time, and I don’t waste people’s time, and I don’t allow them to waste mine. I don’t think I am better than anyone but I know I am valuable, and it shows. That thinking made me one of the youngest social workers in my company’s history at the time. In my job after that, it would push me from line staff to directing two sites across the Bay Area. That confidence helped me lead a walk out with a small group of others that altered how California State University, East Bay (then it was Hayward) engaged with students around budgetary changes. It helped lead to my Senate seat nomination at that institution. I know my worth. I’ve seen how privilege moves. I’ve seen how it talks. I’ve studied how it walks and it ain’t only for the white folks, homie.

For any young person of color reading this, you’ve got to know your worth. You have to know your value, and that is what allows you to walk into that president’s doors and still be able to kick it with the janitor. You have to be able to do both seamlessly. The world is your’s; it’s just waiting for you to take it. Take your mentors! Take your shots! Fail! Then fail again. It’s one of the best methods to learning. Trust me, I fail at what I do ALL THE TIME. Folks will call you cocky. Folks will call you self-centered. If that’s what it takes for us to have agency and ownership over our path in life then so be it. I’ve seen the alternative. Listen, if you work with kids in any capacity and they don’t leave your presence believing in themselves more than when they met you, you failed. I don’t care if you teach math or Sunday school.

I’ll just be a cocky young negro. If you decide to be one then you’ll be in good company. Malcolm X was called arrogant. Oprah was called arrogant. Denzel Washington got called cocky. As I write this, there’s a full segment on television on just how arrogant Cam Newton is. I want all of our kids to be confident and demand greatness from themselves and respect from the world. Call us cocky all you want, but you’ll be doing it as move out the way of our success.

– Cole Out

Charles Cole

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