My experience with Blackness is howling at the moon. It’s crying wolf. Often the wolf is there, sometimes it’s not. Some people believe me, most people don’t. It’s comparing bite marks. It’s feeling like your problem is my problem, my problem is my problem, and our problem is my problem. Achievement makes me exceptional, while disgraceful actions are proof of my “true” nature. It’s juggling my identity with others’ idea of me. I’m stuck in a game of “Quit Hitting Yourself”, but forced to be the moral superior. It’s holding a shield that people think is a sword. It’s not having second chances; doing messed up things, and being branded as inherently bad. But if someone insults, injures, or kills me, The World goes to amazing lengths to say “get over it” or to not only justify it, but explain why it’s my fault. It’s feeling like the world doesn’t care about me, unless I’m putting on a show.
By “The World” I don’t mean people who hate me because I’m Black. Witch-hunts for individual racists are mostly futile, since the person has to either volunteer that information or be caught with the smoking gun. And in some ways, I welcome hot and cold in this age of the lukewarm. At least blatant bigots draw a line in the sand for all to see, but still, individual racists are used as scapegoats; a free shot at a punching bag. The good people who don’t speak on these recent issues are the ones who frustrate me the most; my neighbors, my friends, my classmates, my teachers, my co-workers, etc. And I get it, it doesn’t affect you. You don’t want to choose sides or be called a racist if you say the wrong thing. Your intentions are good, and plus, we all have biases and prejudices, big and small, that we remain oblivious to, lead alone would admit to having.
But the reactions and non-reactions to the killing of unarmed Black men by white police officers across the country shows how much people care about self-image more than anything, and what measures they will take to reconcile it. We all say “race is a construct”, but unless you’re still playing in the sandbox, there’s no way anyone really believes that race doesn’t matter. We project our experience on to race, creating a collective self-image for those like us and othering those who do not share that trait. When Darren Wilson was not indicted for the murder of Michael Brown, I felt victimized as well. So when many scream this injustice is about race, I imagine why many non-Black people reject that notion. It widens the scope from an individual level to an institutional one, which counter-intuitively puts the responsibility back on to individuals. Because if racism isn’t about torch-waving, white hooded figures anymore, the conversation moves from bad people creating problems to good people uninterested in finding solutions. So when people say “this is not about race”, I cannot help but to only hear the words “this is not about me”. That’s why I’m not surprised when the finger-pointing ensues.
It’s why many media outlets put a dead Michael Brown on trial more vehemently than the man who killed him. It’s why some Black public figures choose to separate the good Black people from the bad ones through respectability politics. It’s why most of us don’t learn about slavery or the genocide of Native Americans in the school until we take electives in undergrad. It’s why the only references many people in this country have to Blackness are rap music and local crime news updates. It’s why the concept of “Black on Black” crime rolls off the tongue, but construing other forms of crime as White On White Crime, Christian on Christian, Heterosexual on Heterosexual, Man on Woman seems like prejudiced nonsense. It’s why looters are “scumbags”, Hurricane Katrina victims are “refugees”, and people who set cars on fire when their home baseball team wins the World Series are fans. It’s an American history of solving cognitive dissonance by reconciling our mistakes, but giving others full blame and punishment for theirs. It’s why people will assert that I’m making Eric Garner’s murder about race because I’m Black, then gasp at the rebuttal that it’s not about race to them is because they aren’t Black. It’s why we see society saturated with “isms”, but no “ists”; everyone is a victim, and not one victimizer in sight. It’s why someone can read all of the above and be oblivious to how they are connected.
This is my expression of hopelessness, not an essay full of answers. Some of my friends will explain how the way these encounters unfolded isn’t about race. They’ll post Post-Racial maxims in Facebook statuses, pleading for us to live happily ever after as one America, five minutes after citing “Black on Black” crime statistics. I know that the only racial debate they feel comfortable having with me is why they should be able to say the word “Nigga” too. And at the end of the day, they’ll still be my friends, because what I’m asking for is a lot. Everyone is inherently self-centered, so maybe it’s unreasonable to ask others to care about issues that clearly affect me, but maybe affect them. I’ve accepted that if my brother kills me, the explanation is simple. It just fits, it’s obvious. But if someone else is the shooter, then I have to be “objective”, because it couldn’t possibly be what people like me think it is. I know those who need these words the most won’t be the ones reading them. They don’t have to think about these things on a regular basis, but Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and others will be on my mind for the rest of my life, just like the young Black kids in Chicago who lose their lives to other Black kids in Chicago. I have to figure out what their deaths mean, and how I can help stop it from happening again and again and again.
“It’s not a racial problem. It’s a problem of whether or not you are willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it” – James Baldwin
That’s what being Black means. The mirror will always be there waiting for me.