My first cognizant brush with racism happened when I was fifteen years old.
And it was traumatic AF.
I was visiting my father in Pennsylvania that summer, where he’d been living the past few years after taking a job at the federal prison in Wayne County.
We’d driven to a local supermarket to pick up groceries and supplies. Dad had already entered the store, and began darting through the aisles on his mission by the time I’d left the car and walked inside. It was at that moment that a hush suddenly fell over the checkout area, all activity at all of the counters had ceased, and everyone on the lines along with the cashiers were now staring in my direction. Because this was a new sensation, it took some seconds to register what was happening. Once it did, I ran to find my father, begged him to give me the keys to the car so I could sit in it while he shopped, and urged him to hurry out of the store.
Having grown up in the segregated south, dad’s first instinct was to brush off my nervous pleas and continue on his business as if nothing was amiss. But I knew differently. I’d felt it in those tense few seconds of cold stares that things wouldn’t be okay.
In the weeks and months that followed, my father, a man who was thought to be hispanic by his white colleagues and neighbors because of his fair skin and dark, curly, slicked-back hair, began to have his house vandalized. He’d casually reveal this during our phone calls, and without missing a beat would assure me everything was alright to ease my panic.
Eventually, graffiti on his house and debris on his land escalated to shots fired through his windows, and he finally relented and transferred to the prison at Fort Dix in New Jersey, once it became clear that he couldn’t ignore the very real fact that he was in danger.
In short: My father lived for years hiding his true ethnicity so he could live and work in peace to advance his career as a federal employee. Until one day, his brown-skinned child walked into a store and nearly got him killed for existing.
I thought about that yesterday, as I listened in on a conversation with black executives who spoke about the pressure of having to “be on” at a time when black people as a collective are hurting. And it struck a nerve.
For the past two weeks, I have been contacted by a number of non-black friends and former colleagues, who’ve either expressed concern for my state of mind, regret for their lack of awareness pertaining to racism in America, or sought my counsel on ways they could help while unpacking their own guilt for not doing more sooner. While I appreciated their sentiments and gestures, it wasn’t until that talk that I finally was able to feel truly heard, ironically, by people who weren’t even aware I was in the (digital) room.
Throughout my life, I’ve been seated at tables that didn’t get served water as I watched every other one get service. I’ve been at receptions in country clubs where I was the only person of color NOT serving the guests. A man once told me my afro reminded him of his poodle. I’ve gone on dates with men who fetishized me. I’ve been called an “angry black woman” (admittedly, it hurt more when it came from a black man).
And in my professional life, I’ve been the person who got paid four dollars an hour less than my white counterpart while I had significantly more experience and responsibility. I’ve had my hair touched by total strangers in my place of business without consent multiple times. When my mom passed away, my team contacted me during my bereavement time to inquire about calling my clients for an event, and weeks later took up a collection to send food and a card signed by the department to another member of the team when her mother died. Another time, it was suggested that for the company Grimm’s Fairytale-themed Halloween party, I should dress up as “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”
Fun times. Certainly not the kind anyone who isn’t black has experienced on the regular.
In all of those times, I did as I was expected to do and likely what my father did before me: I sucked it up and continued to be professional. I made my sales goals. I helped fellow members of my team get what they needed in whatever form that took. I sacrificed nights, weekends and holidays with my family to be of service to my company and clients. I was the silent contributor whose work was claimed by others in the spirit of collective wins. I was the go-to cheerleader, promoting the successes and putting positive spins on the losses. I went to the happy hours and feigned amusement at the inappropriate jokes.
Now…something has snapped.
In all my efforts to practice self care in so-called “stressful” times, I missed the mark completely when it came to times like this; when I instinctively want to heal the world and tell everyone it’s going to be okay, when truthfully I’m only hanging on by a thread. I’m trying to put a smile on my face and “breathe through it,” while simultaneously suppressing the urge to cry, scream and break shit. And it’s only slightly comforting to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.
The world has suddenly come to the disappointing realization that black people don’t want to be magical negroes; the soothing, sensible voices of reason who keep things in order and come to the rescue when things go awry. (That’s not to say we won’t be because we don’t want the world going to shit on our watch because we live here too.) We just want to be human beings allowed to exist, thrive and feel and process our feelings without judgement, denigration or expectations. Hell, right now we need to be rescued, and we’re just hoping the current wave of compassion isn’t just a trend that seems fitting because everything else has been cancelled by the quarantine!
I’m tired of brands using “Black Lives Matter” to score cool points. I’m tired of predominantly white media narratives putting our stories in fishbowls to attract more eyeballs. I’m tired of black bodies and talent being used to make others look good while being relegated to perfunctory roles and dismissed as afterthoughts. I’m tired of being considered a threat instead of an asset when I shine. I’m tired of our pain being ignored, mocked and glorified by monsters. And I’m tired of being the source of “strength” when I barely have any left to lift my head off my occasionally tear-soaked pillow.
There are things that I am oddly grateful for at this moment: The first being that my father wasn’t murdered by racists in Pennsylvania or his home state of Georgia, and lived long enough to forget the horrors he’d seen in his seventy-four years. The second is that the world stopped just long enough to make everyone take notice of a sickness that has killed far more innocent black people than the coronavirus. And lastly, that fourteen of some of the most powerful black people in business collectively gathered on a zoom call to pray, choke back tears, and tell the world they have no intention of going back to the way things were.
This may not have been our 2020 vision, but things sure as hell look pretty clear from this point on. Hopefully, this clarity allows us to see the path leading to the end of this current nightmare.