American society is a white supremacist society. Every colonized country is and every one of those countries promotes harm to Black people. The harm has evolved from outright murdering, raping, pillaging, stealing children, and raising them to hate themselves. Now we use law enforcement, the judicial system, neighborhood segregation, the educational system, and mass media psychologically abuse Black people from birth to hate themselves and while they navigate a system designed to remove them from society at the hint of resistance. We are taught to seek approval from people who have never learned to respect the humanity of anyone not white and who actively maintain a social hierarchy entrenched in that belief.
I grew up learning about this system. Not in a way that would make me fight it – fighting it means certain death, most likely at the hands of the local government. I was taught about it to survive it. I was taught to distrust white people but to also understand that I needed them. In retrospect, I can see what my dad was trying to teach me – there is a nebulous proximity to whiteness that makes survival more likely. He was trying to teach me how to find it.
My father grew up poor. He was the youngest of seven kids with a physically abusive father and an emotionally abusive mother. He fought not to be either of these things, but when you’re existing in the lower rungs of the hierarchy of needs, psychological health is a luxury. By the time I was born, my parents had moved up in the hierarchy, but as they’d lived in the other ones for the majority of their lives, well, you know what they say about old habits.
But my dad knew. He’d been navigating whiteness all his adult life. He knew that in some ways, distancing yourself from Blackness could be financially beneficial and safe. He understood that the price for the illusion of autonomy in America was a willingness to subject yourself to the shittiness of white people.
Think about it. Black people live in a society that constantly scrutinizes, judges, and rejects Black people. We are intentionally barred from accessing resources. Black war veterans couldn’t take advantage of the G.I. Bill because banks were owned by white people who refused to approve loans for Black people. The G.I. Bill is recorded as a success for war veterans…until you realize that Black people accounted for less than 1% of the approved loans. In New York City during the 1970s, more than 95% of the Bronx burned down because the city cut resources in areas that white people in government didn’t care about – the areas filled with brown and Black people. Banks are constantly being sued for discriminating against Black people – fifty years after the Civil Rights Act.
But, if you are able to ignore the slights, suppress your identity, keep white people comfortable, conform, distance yourself from your Blackness, and accurately assess the nuances of violence, you can move in white circles…slowly. Carefully. Quietly. And once there, you benefit from the protections of that proximity.
You earn a degree from a racist institution that white people respect. Then, as a reward for not challenging their racist behavior, you network into a job and earn a living wage. Once you are financially solvent, you get access to neighborhoods with budgets for infrastructure – better sanitation facilities, repaired streets and sidewalks. You live near grocery stores. Your property retains or increases in value. Sure, your neighbors watch you some and seem to hang out without you, but it’s ok because you’re successful. You are making it.
You go to work at your predominantly white company and watch people with mediocre skills and mediocre work be hired after you and then promoted past you. You attend meetings where people ask you questions about your hair, your skin, your body, your face – the most minute movements noticed and commented on by everyone there. You offer solutions to problems only to have them ignored. Your questions viewed as criticisms, your input mocked and devalued. You are chastised for being too critical when offering your opinion and then reprimanded in meetings for not being creative enough. Nothing about you is right. Your clothes are too bright. Your laugh is too loud. When you don’t smile, you look mean and the way you talk is intimidating. In every company, every office, every position, you are the problem. You. Just you being…you.
You socialize. Watch them set their white co-workers up on blind dates. Learn on Monday that everyone hung out after work Friday. Or went out Saturday. That they’d scheduled some off the clock time together and managed to hide it from you. You learn that they’ve visited each other’s homes, know each other’s families. You see them leave for lunch together or offer to grab something for each other. And you learn to ignore the myriad of social slights. You tell yourself that you just don’t click. That everyone can’t be friends. And then, when they include you, they ask you if your hair is real or how often you wash it or why Black people do some disapproved action after hearing them talk about driving home drunk last weekend.
Then one day your supervisor tells you that you don’t fit with the company culture. That you aren’t social or engaging enough. People don’t like you. Someone complained about your attitude or don’t think you smile enough. “You don’t look happy…are you happy? Do you want to work here?” they ask. “Tell me why you like working here. Can you show me you want to be here?”
After years of being treated like a burden, you are expected to perform to keep your job. After years of being ignored, passed over, unjustly criticized, they try to make you explain why you should be allowed to stay.
These mind games and disrespect are power-plays designed to remind you of your place. They are to remind you that your job has nothing to do with your competence and abilities and everything to do with their benevolence. For a Black person, proximity to whiteness is knowing that the ability to have a livable wage and benefits come with the price tag of disrespect. It is the equivalent of cooking with bug-infested flour – buggy bread is better than starving. It’s fucking toxic as hell, and yet you aren’t quite sure how to escape it. So, you survive.
The rewards of anti-Blackness
For a long time, I didn’t know what anti-Blackness was. Despite growing up in an all-Black neighborhood, by middle school I’d been placed in all-white classrooms. I hated it. I felt so isolated and lonely. I didn’t know the other kids and we didn’t talk about the same things. It isolated me from my Black peers – suddenly I thought I was better than everybody. I was already a weird kid, but now I was a weird, brainy kid who they only saw at lunch.
When you’re constantly surrounded by white people, you learn quickly that it’s protective to distance yourself from the negative behaviors associated with Black people. To remain safe to my Black peers, I had to distance myself from the things associated with whiteness. The result is that my natural voice is a blend of these two coping mechanisms. It’s something many Black people learned to blend in and for me, it only feels normal when I don’t have to evaluate my surroundings to determine which way of speaking is safer.
But sounding like them, dressing like them, and ignoring their microaggressions is not enough for white people. To prove you really deserve to be there, you’ll be tested. They will say more anti-Black things and watch your reactions. They will tell you, “you’re different from most Black people. I can tell.” They’ll ask you racist questions and gauge their response. If you pass those tests, they will ask your opinion on some outright racist shit. My moment was when I was asked to review resumes for my boss. She told me to remove the ones who didn’t fit with the culture of the company – the ones with the names that were “too different.” I understood that my role was to remove any applicants who didn’t sound white. I passed her test but failed my own. I should have pushed back, but I didn’t.
And there lies the crux of my survival as a Black person - I needed that job and knew that if I pushed back on enough things, I’d be fired. I was already being attacked for not styling my hair, wearing pants and bright colors and refusing to wear heals and make-up. I refused to get the men coffee. I wasn’t subservient to the men in the office. I made them speak to me as an equal, something that was a constant battle. I had an “attitude” and occasionally they’d try me and fail. Except when it came to anti-Blackness. I was one of three Black people in an office of 60 people and I avoided talking about race.
When growing up, I learned that talking about race was dangerous. In college, I learned that white people would try to shut down the conversation before you finished your first sentence. In the office, I learned that talking about it put my employment at risk. The only people who told me that were other Black people and over time, I started perceiving them as the problem. Like in episode 3 “Racist as F*ck” of Issa Rae’s show, Insecure, I thought my indoctrinated co-workers were trying to suppress my shine, when in reality they were trying to protect me from whiteness. Eventually, I grew to resent my Black co-workers for constantly bringing up race and how I couldn’t do the same things my white co-workers were doing, not understanding how white privilege worked – especially when they punished me with isolation for not conforming to their recommended behavior. In retrospect, I now know they were protecting themselves from my ignorance.
You see, I’d believed the lie. I thought that when shit went wrong, it was my fault, that the onus was on me to fix my behavior. What it took years to understand was that it wasn’t my behavior, but my color that made me intolerable. Which is why my supervisors constantly monitored my facial expressions, body language, hair, clothes, how often I went to the bathroom. Which is why I’ve been reprimanded for talking and not talking enough; for not being in my cubicle every second of the day, for smiling too much, laughing too loud, not smiling enough, looking too serious. I’m too honest but lying is termination-worthy. When my father died, I was reprimanded for being too sad at work. I wasn’t crying; I just looked too sad for my co-workers.
If I ask questions, I’m challenging authority. If I don’t then I’m not invested enough in the work. If I make eye contact with the person speaking, I’m distracting. If I refuse to look up, I’m being disrespectful. Sometimes I’d try to “fix” my behavior, but often I just said “fuck it” and knew to keep job hunting. I couldn’t neutralize myself enough to slip under the radar and sometimes my Black co-workers, the ones who managed to slip under the radar, knew to distance themselves from my continual failure.
It’s no secret that promoting inclusion is a death knell at work. White people hate seeing Black people promote other Black people. When you seek out Black employees, you’re accused of discriminating against white people and punished for it, yet the abundance of white faces somehow isn’t the same. That’s just “normal.”
It’s hard being a Black woman living in that kind of normal.
Regaining and maintaining a sense of self in a toxic environment
It’s not easy being confident in the face of such constant and overwhelming hatred. I’ve spent the past four years cultivating a stream of strong Black women confidently and knowledgably calling out white bullshit. I’ve strengthened the network of Black women intent on fighting racism and white supremacy in a multitude of ways. I limit my exposure to white people. I limit my consumption of media. I question every fucking thing I see and I re-examine my beliefs to determine how rooted they are in white supremacy. I reflect, reflect, reflect. I go to therapy. I speak out when I hear bullshit. I assess my safety before doing so. I decide when, where, and how I choose to push back and I remind myself that I cannot do everything.
I create art – sometimes with words, sometimes with costumes, but it’s mine and it helps.
I contribute money to legal funds and charities when I can. I imagine the worst and try to plan. I anticipate dying because we’re going to war. I tell my spouse that we may have to choose sides. He doesn’t believe me. That’s ok. We’ll find out. I’m scared. I warn my friends and family. I check in weekly and ask if they are okay. They think I’m an alarmist. Maybe I am.
I don’t protest. Every job I’ve ever had runs background checks and I don’t want an arrest record. Maybe one day I won’t need those kind of gigs, but right now, that’s the reality. It’s always about assessing safety. It’s always about figuring out how to survive. The reality is that Black people are targeted in police encounters. We are deemed a threat and watched more closely. We also die in custody a lot. Survival first.
It took decades for me to explicitly understand that I can’t safely do the same things white people do. We don’t live with the same scrutiny, consideration, or perceived humanity. I didn’t want to accept that reality, but I also don’t like living a lie, so here we are.
I’ve become a lot more discerning about who I fuck with. People who say give tangerine goblin a chance? Fuck y’all. People who say give the nazis a listen? Fuck y’all, too. People who try to justify the oppression and murder? Triple fuck y’all. People who try to silence me? Get the fuck outta here. People who preach and promote tolerance of those calling for genocide of anyone not white? Yeah, I’m gonna have to evict you from my presence.
And those white supremacy embracing POCs? Y’all. Y’all. Listen. I love you but you’re fucked up. Super fucked up. I need you to get your self-hate under control and recognize it for what it is. When you clear your head, I’ll be here, loving you. Unless you start actively working for the white supremacists. Then fuck you forever.
Like Clarence Thomas? Ben Carson? Herman Cain? Fuck you. Condoleeza Rice? Omarosa? Stacy Dash? Fuck you. Them shitty agents of whiteness? Fuck you. My forgiveness has a line and you trash pandas crossed that shit.
I refuse to let those toxic motherfuckers in my sphere. Not that anyone in that particular group is at any way connected to me, but I do have a few people on the fringe of my life talking that shit and they are not allowed close to me.
Survival, y’all. It’s more than just the physical.
Don’t talk to me about any of that “both sides” bullshit unless you want to meet both sides of my rage. We’re way past that shit now.
These people are dangerous. These are the ones who will turn you in to save themselves. These people believe that if they kill off enough of their Blackness, white people will accept them. They are deluded. Do not fuck with them.
I know I sound paranoid, but I’m not. History has shown that people will eat their own to survive. Your job is to recognize those cannibals in your life and protect yourself from them. Some of them will look like you. Some of them will be related to you. Some of them will be born from you.
It doesn’t matter. Protect yourself. White supremacy permeates everything and it will take everything to fight it. Sometimes you will fail, but the only real failure is when you stop trying.