Sterling Bishop: Coach, volunteer, dad, husband

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Sterling Bishop — Courtesy India Rose

Interview by Kyra Steck

My name is Sterling Bishop. I am not from the Island. I’m what you classify as a wash-ashore. I moved here about 15 years ago, and the reason I’m here is because of my wife. My wife grew up here, and we decided it was a better place to raise our family. I’m originally from Boston, so I grew up in a very predominantly Black area, around Dorchester and Mattapan, with major violence. Making the decision to raise our family here rather than there was an easy decision. We have support of our in-laws, we have support of a great community. It’s safe, and the schools are excellent. It was a no-brainer for us. And just in my time being here, I realized that this is probably the most supportive community I’ve been a part of. I’ve worked with Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, I’ve worked with Elder Services running Meals on Wheels, I’ve been coaching at the high school for 10 years, and I am also a DJ at weddings and events, bars and nightclubs.

Growing up in a Black neighborhood, I wasn’t sheltered. I had life experience outside of the Island. But living in this environment, it was a little bit different. And I have to say, it took me a while to get comfortable; I had a lot of experience with other people viewing me a certain way. It’s like, either I’m a threat, or I often get, “Oh, he must be somebody. He’s on the Vineyard. He’s a Black guy, he’s tall, he’s athletic-looking. He must be like a professional athlete or someone walking around here.” I’ve been asked for my autograph. That’s how extreme it’s gotten at times. People are like, “Oh, you must be somebody. Can I get your autograph?” Not even knowing who I am. It’s extreme for me on both ends of the spectrum.

Most of the time, though, I’m viewed as a threat. I’m often finding myself being forced to make other people feel comfortable in my presence. I mean, I’m 6 foot 5 and 280 pounds. So you walk into any room at that size, and it’s like, “Hmm, I’m curious.” Oftentimes that curiosity is presented as someone being uncomfortable, or “I need to feel safe.” That is, until I open my mouth, until I talk to them. I feel like I need to make them feel comfortable and change the tone of my voice, change gestures with my hands, and try not to come off as aggressive.

I had an experience last summer. I was finishing one of my DJ sets at the Cardboard Box on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. I walked out, and there were a couple people out front, and I saw a young white lady. She was clearly under the influence, and she was really, really upset. And I saw a Black guy hop into a vehicle and drive away because there were cops out front, and he didn’t want to argue with her. She then approached his vehicle as he was driving off, and attempted to physically assault him through the driver-side window. So he’s driving, she’s throwing punches and swearing and yelling, and me, being the person that I am, I attempted to verbally intervene. Not physically, but verbally. I said, “Hey, are you OK? Do you need help? Is everything OK?” And she turned around and began to berate me in the most extreme way I know. She was calling me the N-word. She was calling me a monkey, and she told me to go back to where I came from. She was like, “You’re going to take his side because he’s Black, you’re Black.” For me, I was so in shock. I mean, I’ve never experienced anything so blatantly racist in my life. I’ve had the stereotypical stuff, like a person crossing the street or clutching a purse or getting up from one seat to move to another seat. I’ve had that happen, and I’m OK with that because hey, if you’re uncomfortable in your own skin, that’s all you. That’s not my problem. But she approached me, she got into my personal space.

I was so in shock that I just stood there, and I’m just like, “I can’t believe this.” It was like an out-of-body experience. It got to the point where I tried to find out who she was. I went back the following day to talk to a couple of different establishments in the area, and found out who she was. I would have to say that the owners of those establishments were very supportive. They have a zero-tolerance policy, and actually printed her picture from her Facebook page, put it up, and said that she’s no longer welcome. Which to me, that was huge. I think that that’s the type of environment that we live in. I mean, people often are naive about racism or profiling in our community. They want to turn a blind eye to it and say, “Oh, that doesn’t happen here.” It’s not true. There are people in this community that are blatantly racist, who say negative things and feel a certain way toward people of color.

In that moment, so many different responses flashed through my mind. It was a thought process, and I thought, “What are some of the potential repercussions if I were to put my hands on her?” Now — I’m justified. She’s in my personal space, verbally assaulting me. I could have taken her down and done different things, but the perception from an outside third party viewing that interaction with a 6 foot 5 Black guy and a 5 foot 1 white girl who happens to be under the influence — that can cost me more than it will cost her. So there is always a thought of, “How’s this gonna affect me? How’s this gonna affect my family? How’s it going to affect my relationship with the community?” I mean, ultimately, this community is super-supportive. But initially, there’s going to be those comments that I’m desperately trying to avoid. I don’t ever want to be in that spotlight. Being African American, people say you have to work twice as hard to get half as much. It only takes one strike against you, especially in this community.

People are comfortable with me now, but early on it would happen consistently. I’d walk into a business, and it’s like, “Is that person going to be purchasing items or potentially stealing items?” Or even when I worked in the hospital, walking through in a shirt and tie, dressed professionally, I’d still get the questionable looks of “Who is he? What’s he doing here?” And you can see it to the point where the people don’t even have to say anything. You can feel it. You can feel the tension.

It’s unfortunate. I’m consistently conscious about the way I talk, my tone of voice. I try not to use any slang words. It’s this lifestyle of trying to live up to a stereotype of what’s not the negative. I’m not the gangster. I don’t wear my pants hanging off my butt. I have never had alcohol. I don’t drink. I’ve never smoked anything, no doing drugs and pills, no nothing.

You know, honestly, there’s nowhere on this Island that I feel unsafe. But just like anywhere else, every town on this Island has its own personality. And a lot of the people of color whether it be Brazilian, Jamaican, just African Americans, they don’t necessarily go to Chilmark, or they don’t go to West Tisbury …  There are areas of this Island where they’re like, it’s unspoken, but it’s kind of like it’s not diverse, and diversity isn’t necessarily welcome there.  I mean, people often are naive about maybe racism or profiling in our community. They want to turn a blind eye to it and say, oh, that doesn’t happen here, this is the Vineyard and we love everyone. It’s not true. There are people in this community that are blatantly racist, who say negative things and feel a certain way towards people of color, or whatever the case may be, but it does exist.

It’s like this anxiety that’s consistently with you every time you step foot out of your house. It’s a lot. You have to be a different person. To be honest, you have to be a different person. I know for me, it has become a way of life. I want to see the future like my kids, and kids today not having to do that. I mean, I don’t know if that’s realistic or not, but to have my children live in a world where they don’t feel like they have to consistently be conscious of how other people view them — that’s all I really want. Honestly, let me be safe and free.