It was the last day of clinical exams for my brother. He was in class to become a certified nursing assistant, a small step in his ongoing journey to becoming a doctor. His white woman teacher stopped him. “Before you leave I just want to tell you something, so when you get a few minutes come see me,” she said. He saw her in the hallway and she pulled him into an empty room.
“I just wanted to tell you I feel like you have a lot of potential and you’re really good and I see your test scores and your clinical work, but you might want to do something about your hair. When you came in I saw your hair all hanging down in your face and I said to myself, there’s no way this guy is going to make it. But then I started getting your tests back and I said ‘Wow this guy is a total freaking brain!’ You know everything and the way you talk and present yourself is really great, but it’s the initial impression, you know. You should probably do something with your hair because, not saying that you’re a bad guy, but it’s the initial impression, and you know. I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, because I mean it from the bottom of my heart, but you know.”
A Puerto Rican woman, born and raised on the island until she was 18, received the highest grade on the final with a 98. My brother tied with a Jamaican woman who moved to the US in 2015 for the second highest grade, a 97. But, you know.
Do you know what despair is? It’s not hearing stories like this from everyone you know. It’s not constantly watching the triumph of white mediocrity in everything around you. It’s not hearing your beautiful little boy call himself ugly and wish that his hair was straight. It’s not watching men, women and children that look like you and your friends and family slaughtered in real time over and over and over and over again. It’s not looking at the sagging buildings and rusted fences and gaping potholes and overgrown weeds in your neighborhood and wondering why your community doesn’t deserve the same care as everyone else’s. It’s not knowing that the wealth of the greatest empire the world has ever seen was built by your ancestors under the cruelest conditions imaginable, maintained by the most sadistic expressions of targeted violence humanity is capable of, and enjoyed by a class of people whose willful ignorance of that reality is trumpeted and celebrated throughout all corners of society. No, those are simply the wages of blackness, the price of color.
Despair is experiencing all of this every day, and realizing that you’re afraid to talk about it.
You get something. A little glimmer that resembles hope. A new job. A better home. A good school. Something that’s not really something, but it might lead to something. Something that you can lose.
And you become afraid.
Fear seizes you. It feels like electricity shooting through your limbs, a sharp tingle in the joints of your fingers and toes, in the back of your knees and the crook of your elbow. You smack your lips because your mouth is drying out. You can hear the blood roaring through your ears as your heart pounds harder.
You hold tight to that something, because you think that it’s the only thing that you have. It becomes precious not as the something that it is, but as the means by which you can escape the desperate spiral of frustration and sorrow that you wake up to every day. You pour your heart and your dreams and your whole self and future into that something, as trivial and uncertain as it may be. This is your way out, the illuminated path out of the darkness of dashed hope and stunted opportunity because of the color of your skin and the circumstances of your birth.
You become afraid that you might lose that something. You become afraid a thing you say or do might swing the gate shut on your path and condemn you to being just another nigga forever instead of being that special one that overcomes and gets the movie made about you so that you as the exception can somehow shatter the rule of the slow, deliberate strangulation of your people.
You lose sight of the fact that the something you’re holding is not actually hope, but simply the appearance, the shadow, of hope. Because in the end you are just another nigga forever as long as the hope you think you have flows from the hands of people who do not live where you live and talk how you talk and sing how you sing and look how you look. Your hope is not hope because it relies on the beneficence of people who can afford to not be charitable when it suits them. You have a job until a white person says you don’t. You have a school as long as a white person is there with you. You have a house until a white person needs it. Your future, your life, is held by someone who is incentivized to not give a fuck about it.
But you don’t want to think about that. As long as the good ones remain good, then you’ll be okay. And they’re the good ones, right? You know, the ones who send their kids to your school and vote against changing zoning regulations so that you can send your kids to THEIR schools. The ones with the solidarity bumper stickers who tell you to relax when you point out the casual racism of almost everything they say. The ones who hate Donald Trump and don’t have a single person of color in any of their Facebook pictures. The ones who will hire you to improve diversity in their workplace as an office manager or an assistant or a part-time employee with five people to report to in a six-person organizational structure. The ones who will tell you to your face that they thought you were nothing and then tell you that others will think that you’re nothing unless you resemble those who they think by default are worthy. You hold onto that something as tight as you possibly can because you can’t see an alternative.
So you get a little quieter. You push a little less. You calibrate your answers. You suffer bigger indignities. You smile at a few more jokes. You nod along to a few more asinine statements. Because now you have something to lose, and you’re terrified of being denied this one small something that you’ve worked your entire life for and that holds the promise of you being recognized as something more- as a human being.
After the next child is murdered by police, after the next report comes out explaining that even if your life is not ended by violence it will be shorter and less healthy, after the next smug white man does some racist shit and feigns ignorance, you remember what Audre Lorde said all those years ago.
Your silence will not protect you.
Neither will your compliance, or your ambition, or your agreeableness, or your respectability, or your friendliness, or your frankness, or your talent, or your intelligence, or your strength, or your upbringing, or your job, or your family, or your friends, or your money.
The only thing that can save you is action. Action to build something, for us and by us. Choices to support each other. Decisions to protect our communities. Doing these things ourselves, so that we don’t have to ask the good white people for a goddamn thing.
I’m not talking about segregation. I’m not telling you to go find your white fave and spit in their face. What I’m talking about is autonomy, independence, self-sufficiency. So that when they say no, we can say, “Fuck you too” and DO IT ANYWAY. Because that’s what they have- the ability to do it without us. If our white faves decide to retreat behind their walls and take all of their stuff with them, which one of us is fucked? The point is not whether they will or won’t; the point is that they can and we cannot.
I’m certain that white woman thought she was doing my brother a favor, being an ally, all the shit that people like her tell themselves about themselves. I’m certain that she went home with a clear conscience and the knowledge that she might have helped. I would bet money that she thinks of herself as one of the good white people. She’s right, and that’s exactly the fucking problem.