When I was in college, I noticed a certain… synchronicity with my classes. Regardless of what I was studying at any given time–a French literature class on the history of Jews in France, a government course on racism in the United States, literature of the British Restoration–I would notice connections between the subject matter even when those connections were not obvious. Sitting at my computer writing an essay for one course, I would suddenly have a light bulb moment and leap across the room to grab a volume from my bookcase that I’d been reading for a different class entirely. I felt my brain yawn and stretch as the world around me began to make a different kind of sense.
This was especially true of my final year at Cornell, after taking a leave of absence and nearly leaving the school due to depression, lack of money, and being entirely fed up with the racism that was rampant on campus from students and faculty alike. I returned in 1998 to the same racism, poverty, and depression. Yes, there was the day I went to speak with a white professor during her office hours about ensuring a spot in her class, which explored Shakespeare from a feminist perspective and she literally jumped when she opened the door. I’d knocked and waited when she said, “Just a minute.” But she still jumped when she saw me standing there with my short dreadlocks, JNCO jeans, and hoodie and then made many excuses for why I shouldn’t take the course, as it was a senior seminar (I was a senior), English majors received priority (I was an English major), and we were two weeks into the semester. (I’d been attending the class since Day One and had done all the reading but was still not officially on the roster. I ended up taking that Restoration class instead.)
Since college, I’ve continued to come across these moments of synchronicity. Unlike in college, these revelations don’t earn me a spot on the Dean’s List. They only confirm that which for so many years before college I never wanted to confirm: just how deeply entrenched racial animus continues to be in American culture.
When I last wrote frequently in this journal, we were gearing up for the election of the first African American president. I watched slack-jawed as women I had read and idolized as a young, budding feminist let their unacknowledged white privilege and, in some cases, white supremacy, ooze onto the digital pages of the Huffington Post, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. I again leapt to my bookcase, to grab Angela Davis’s Women, Race & Class, George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations About Race. That a racist dog-whistle was in heavy use by the GOP (and at times Hillary Clinton’s own campaign) was galling, but again, only confirmed much of what I had learned both while studying history and during my own 32 years as a black woman in America.
And so now.
Three years after the Oscar Grant shooting. Three years after I ended a relationshipwith a white man who couldn’t conceal his contempt for black people being angry about the shooting and believed sympathy should lie with the white cop, who clearly had the worse day of his life when he killed an unarmed, restrained black man on a cold, BART platform in full view of a train full of passengers on New Year’s Day. Three years since I watched Barack Obama’s inauguration with my heart in my mouth and then watched hisfirst dance with Michelle with tears in my eyes. Three years since I contended with a police officer in Oakland who didn’t believe I could possibly have an innocent NPR driveway moment like so many white people do in my car outside my own apartment.
It’s been three years, and I’m living in Austin, Texas now, working for a game company again.
On, March 25, I went to a coworker’s wedding. I had a pretty good time despite the aunt who said in front of me that there were a “lot of angry coloreds” in Vegas the last time she went. I looked at her, and she looked at me, and it seemed to dawn on her that she’d said something wrong. But it took her three tries to say, “Blacks! A lot of blacks!” and I couldn’t even be angry.
Why couldn’t I be angry? Why couldn’t I, fightingwords, Queen of the Taint Kick, Worshipper of Tire Irons, be angry?
I couldn’t be angry at this old, drunk woman from Lockhart because Shaima Alawadiwas dead, her head actually beaten in with a tire iron in her own El Cajon, CA home and a note calling her Iraqi refugee family terrorists and telling them to go back to their country left beside her body. I couldn’t be angry because Kenneth Chamberlain, a 68-year-old veteran was Tasered and then shot to death by New York police officers responding to a medical alert call at his White Plains home–and though the entire episode was recorded, police officers have yet to be charged. I couldn’t be angry because Rekia Boyd was shot in the head in my hometown of Chicago by an off-duty cop who claimed a man near her had pointed a gun at him when he rolled up in an unmarked car to scold a bunch of adults for hanging out in a park after dark. (No gun has been recovered, and according to the supposed gunman, who was shot in the hand, the policeman admitted he fired because he thought his cell phone was a weapon.) I couldn’t be angry because Anna Brown died on a cold, jail cell floor in St. Louis, MO after being denied treatment by staff at the local hospital because they assumed that the homeless black woman was just seeking drugs and had her arrested for trespassing.
And then there’s Trayvon Martin. Do I even need to talk about this?
I grew up in Florida. I went to junior and senior high school in Miami Beach, where I can say from experience that being Hispanic (or Latino) does not in anyway exempt one from participating in anti-black racism. It is to understate things to say that one of my my best friends in high school was forbidden to speak to me. To say it plain, upon meeting me for the first time when Chris and I came to pick her up from work, his mother refused to acknowledge my presence and cursed (in Spanish) all the way back to Treasure Island, where we all lived. She pulled over on a busy road to let me out of the car instead of pulling into the circular driveway in front of my high-rise even though she had to drive past it to get to their apartment building a block and a half away. She threw his clothes out of their second-floor windows, took away his keys to her car, and hung up on me whenever I phoned Chris after that night. Chris and his mother were Chilean. The police officer who shot and killed a black motorcyclist in Miami in 1989, a year after my mother and I moved there and which led to three days of rioting, was Colombian. And everyone knows that race has always played a huge role, and sometimes a deadly one, in Latin America…right? Why is it so surprising that the racism of Central and South America (and the Caribbean) dovetails neatly with our domestic variety, and especially in the south?
On March 26, two days after I saw the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel,Jezebel published an article entitled “Racist Hunger Games Fans Are Very Disappointed” about the outcry on Twitter (though it was also alive and well on Facebook) from fans who not only lack reading comprehension skills but were upset that some of their favorite characters from the trilogy were played by black actors in the record-breaking film. Notable among the hundreds of comments and tweets are those by @sw4q and @JashperParas, respectively:
“Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture”
“Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad #ihatemyself”
It’s also worth noting that not all the table-flipping over casting choices came from white fans.
On March 27, Stephanie Eisner published a political cartoon about the Trayvon Martin shooting in University of Texas at Austin’s student paper, the Daily Texan. Stephanie Eisner is a student at UT, and unlike my coworker’s relative at the wedding, can’t possibly be a relic of a time in which it was ever acceptable to refer to black people as “colored,” regardless of her position on the media coverage of Martin’s killing. And yet.
On March 28, a black burlesque performer in the Bay Area, Dorian Faust, posted to her Facebook page:
“white burlesque performers: no it is not okay for you to do a song that has the n-word in it repeatedly. sorry. start shit on my page if you want to, i’m done with it.
Nearly immediately came the condemnation of the “n-word” by white commenters of any usage of the term, by anyone. Few commenters addressed the actual situation about which Dorian posted–white performers using songs rife with the word “nigger.” But many chimed in to add their $.02 that the word itself is ALWAYS off-limits, no matter who is using it, as though their own commitment to this, the laziest aspect of anti-racism, is only conditional, as though if we call each other “nigger,” they feel entitled to call us nigger, too. No one actually said this, but more than 70 comments in, it’s become quite clear that this is the prevailing notion.
Listen. There are black people in this world who may call me their nigger, and it sounds like “sister,” feels like an embrace, lets me know I’m home. But that word in the mouths of white people, whether they are singing along with Patti Smith, John Lennon, or a song they heard on a contemporary radio station, will always trigger within me dread and a fear for my personal safety. Yet, it seems that some white people have decided that the only way they will promise not to say “nigger”–people who have never been bought, sold, raped, lynched, harassed by law enforcement, or turned down for housing or a job while a white person uttered that word–is if I promise not to say it, either. Because they find it offensive. And isn’t white people’s discomfort with anti-black racism (and the ways we’ve learned to deal with it) the most important thing ever?
On March 30, the Internet lit up with video of GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum seemingly calling President Barack Obama a “government nigger.” Well, okay. He didn’t say “nigger.” He said, “nih” and then caught himself. (One of the best comments I’ve seen on this is “I guess ‘nih’ is a derogatory term for ‘blah’ people.“) Aside from nearly dying of not-surprise from yet another slip of the tongue from the GOP candidate who has spent weeks lambasting Obama for daring to use a teleprompter during his speeches, this moment simply brought into focus the last few weeks of rage-worthy news. The Republican Party has dispensed with the racist dog-whistle and bought a vuvuzela. That, or they just watched Blazing Saddles for the first time.
My friend and former coworker B.J. West posted on Facebook several days ago, “I am beginning to think that the stability of the United States for the last 100 or so years was solely due to the lack of high-speed communications technology.”
And I do not disagree. While I am grateful for my access to information, I am also very clear that right now, I am walking a tightrope. It is not true that I was not angry at that wedding when that woman referred to black people as “coloreds.” I just couldn’t let myself be angry. It was not the time.
I was angry. And I am angry that my enjoyment of The Hunger Games was cut short by the realization that at least one of the people watching it at the Alamo Drafthouse with me was probably aghast that a character he or she had grown to love, and had mourned, looked like me. (While there have been a couple of hundred comments identified online of people who feel this way, it’s safe to assume they represent a more common, but unvoiced, perspective.)
I am angry that the idea that white people are always innocent–and that black people never are–is why Trayvon Martin (and Rekia Boyd and Kenneth Chamberlain and Anna Brown) is dead right now, and that their character is being posthumously trashed to justify their deaths.
I am angry that in the comments to news stories about Shaima Alawadi’s murder, there are white people claiming that this obviously ethnically-motivated killing wasn’t ethnically motivated at all–that someone left those racist notes to throw the police off their trail. (People on the internet not only lack reading comprehension but also have never heard of Occam’s razor.)
I am angry that supposed white and non-black “allies” in the burlesque community have made it clear over the last three days that they are only willing to commit to not calling me a nigger if I censor myself because otherwise, it’s just too damn tempting.
There is information. There is synchronicity. And there is anger. And in these post-Livejournal days, I am trying to figure out what do with all of them.