There is a thing I do, make white people comfortable. Survival techniques my parents taught me. Be well-mannered and respectful as not be perceived as an uppity negro. It does not matter if you are better educated, better read and more economically advantaged, just make sure ‘they”don’t feel it. Over the years, I learned, be passive and demure so I would not be perceived as the angry black woman. The past few years, I stay quiet and soft spoken as not labeled “one of those black lives matter people” to avoid an all lives matter debate. I do this well. I was with five friends in South Carolina touring at a polo field and one of the guys commented, “Wow, this looks like the plantation days, they even have a niggers mowing the lawns.” Stunned, I could barely breathe and froze. To have the word yelled at you in hatred stings less than when you hear it used in a conversation that you are a part of. Who and what taught him to use that word in the context and what made the others accept it? Yes, I do a very good job of making white people comfortable.
But, I’m tired. I confess, I am part of the problem. I let my fear that I will sound angry, militant and accusatory keep me silent and I have not respected the character and integrity of my friends enough to have some transparency of emotion. Once I described an incident at a pool and the response was, “well we didn’t have this in California.” Exhausted, I replied,” you’e not a person of color, how would you know?” The immediate thought that raced through my mind, oh no, now you’ve made her uncomfortable. The reality is, It’s human nature to want to isolate a bad experience. We don’t sit and constantly think a plane can crash into a building, an airliner can crash into the ocean or a ship can sink. Understand,as an African-American woman, experiences some people can isolate, treat and one offs are my every day world. I’m embarrassed to admit I wouldn’t go to the community pool covered by my homeowners dues alone because I fear racial slurs and I’d only go with friends.
Watching the NBA play-offs, for the third time in a week, someone commented about the hair of the African-American players. Things like, “look at that crazy hair”, “that is too much hair” and “shouldn’t there be a restriction on the height of a player’s hair, you can’t see over it. ” These seemingly benign comments, for me, showed a culturally narrow view of reality. I pushed myself and commented, “our hair grows out, not down.” Interactions like this don’t require an extended conversation. A response such as “message received” or “thanks for the insight,” for me is preferable over awkward silence. In June, I thought I was making progress in being a bit uncomfortable until this week.
I saw the dash-cam video from the Philandro Castile. ¹ It is 1 minute and 8 seconds; you see the officer approach Mr Castile’s vehicle, you hear the conversation and see the officer draw his weapon and shoot. The last 8 seconds show Phlandro’s 4 year old daughter exiting the car crying. In the audio, Mr Castile was respectful, he narrated him movements and the officer shot him 4 times. To quote Trevor Noah, that broke me. As a black woman who has had the police stop me outside my home as I was getting my mail, the idea that as polite as I was in the moment and when I followed the “protocol” and said here is my license with my address, I am reminded the incident could have gone horribly. That is gut wrenching. I’m not here to debate the trial and outcome. I just ask, how did a stop for a burnt out brake light end like this? I really wanted hear about this from a white perspective. After viewing the dash-cam video, does this interaction seem ok? I want to ask, but, I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. It occurs to me, people may think the things they hear in the news on the treatment of African-Americans doesn’t bother me because I don’t speak of it and that’s on me.
On Saturday, I was in San Francisco for an art exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love.It fascinated me that the adjoining wing featured an exhibit of African-American Art of the South. There were photographs; during the same time period as the summer of love, there were civil rights protests, police turning dogs into the crowds, African-Americans being kicked and beaten, and a sign I wish could be a relic of the past. As painful of a past as it represents, it is even more angst ridden when I think the only thing that dates this photo from over 50 years ago is the car.
In the final weeks of the NBA playoffs in June, LeBron James; house was vandalized with the “n” word. A portion of his response said:
“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough. And we’ve got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America.”
Next April will mark the 50 year anniversary since the assassination of Martin Luther King. Many things have changed, but there is still a long way to go. This fourth of July, as we celebrate independence and the sacrifices it took to get here, let’s all make small sacrifices of our own and have the conversations needed to move us forward even if it is a little uncomfortable.