I was recently asked to sit on a panel by a local group that was hosting a discussion about what it’s like to be black in America. Mostly older white folks would be in attendance, and I was invited to be as real as possible in my comments. If you’ve read any of my other articles, you know that level of honestly isn’t hard for me to achieve, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t lighten my part of the discussion with humor, as I am wont to do, because of how receptive it makes people to what I’m saying. I wanted to deliver gut punches that left the audience gasping. I wanted to bring them low, where I sometimes find myself. And I really wanted this mostly white audience to understand that being black in America means understanding and accepting a myriad of things:
This country is not for you.
Living in America is a lot like inexplicably finding yourself in someone else’s house. You understand that this isn’t your house, so you’d better be on your best behavior or you might be forcibly ejected. You have to explain why you deserve to be in the house in the first place, and you don’t dare make the owners of the house feel uncomfortable, no matter how they act towards you.
2. You are routinely treated as though black folks are a monolith, meaning that when one POC does something, it’s treated as though it’s representative of the entire group.
White folks will use the preference or statement of one POC as evidence against you when you call them out on their racism. For example:
You: what you just said was really racist.
White person: but I say that around my black friend and he doesn’t have a problem with it.
This never works in the opposite direction.
You: do you want some of this dish I made?
White person: No, thanks. I don’t like eggplant.
You: what? My other white friend loves eggplant. I don’t understand why you don’t…?
This shitty phenomena is a prime example of othering. Because this is the white folks’ house and they make the rules, they get to be individuals, with their own hopes, fears, strengths, and weaknesses. But one bad apple will ruin the entire orchard where POCs are concerned. And you will be held personally accountable for anything terrible that another black person does.
3. You will face constant microaggressions.
There will be so many examples of the hostile and casually racist microaggression in your day to day life, but here are just a few of the most common:
-You will be ‘othered’. Since America isn’t your house, you will be treated like a suspicious outsider who must be watched, questioned, and disbelieved.
-You will walk into a store and not be noticed by employees who will then run to assist a white customer who comes in after you. Or, worse, you will be followed, treated with open suspicion, told to buy something immediately or get out while white customers are left to browse in peace.
-White people will be surprised to find out that you have a college degree and that it’s not in African Studies.
-White people will assume you have many kids, all from different partners.
-You will receive backhanded compliments such as:
You’re pretty for a black girl!
Wow, you are so articulate!
You don’t even act black!
-Upon first meeting, before even asking your name, a white person will demand to know: What are you?
4. You will be expected to drop everything to educate white folks no matter the time, place, or what you are doing.
Google exists for a reason and there are thousands of articles, books, and blog posts on the subject of how to identify and work through implicit racial bias. But instead of using any of these free resources, white people will expect you to take on the burden and heavy emotional labor of instructing them on how to best go about bettering themselves.
5. White folks will feel the need to share with you every racist interaction they encounter throughout their day when you are literally just trying to get through your own life.
They will lose their minds over every social media post, every news story about an unarmed black man getting shot by a police officer, every racially charged comment overheard in the store. And they will bring all of this to you, laying it onto your already heavy shoulders.
This kind of fanatical outrage is especially troubling because it places the white person at the center of a discussion about blatant racism, leaving the POC in the position of comforting that person. You know racism exists from daily experience, and it’s exhausting to get all of this secondhand racism on top of the firsthand racism you are already dealing with. This exhaustion is compounded by the soothing of the white person that you will have to undertake just to extricate yourself from a conversation that you didn’t want to have in the first place.
6. You will be perpetually asked to rubber stamp a white person’s questionable conduct as not racist. Usually, this conduct actually is racist, but that isn’t what you are there to say. You are there to comfort the white person and provide them with assurances that they are not being racist. This evidence will likely be used in the future against another black person who later calls out this white person on some racist conduct. Because all POC are the same, remember?
7. You become used to hard facts at an early age, such as:
-Your skin color is a liability that leads to and justifies poor and unfair treatment.
-In a dispute, especially if it involves law enforcement, your word will never be accepted over that of a white person’s.
-The cardinal sin is making a white person feel uncomfortable. Your job as a POC is to soothe white people and never allow them to feel guilty, even when they are the perpetrators of gross indignities. Remember: this isn’t your house.
-You will be told to be grateful for what you have, as though you haven’t earned it with your own merit. You are lucky to even be here. Never forget that.
-You will be made to explain to your children why their skin color puts them at a disadvantage, and you will need to deal with the inevitable aftermath of the first time your child is called the N word. And it will happen before they reach double digits.
8. Being black in America means understanding your place in this country for what it truly is. It means being uncomfortable in a house that doesn’t belong to you, but finding a way to live your life anyway. It means fighting for meaningful change but not expecting it any time soon, though you keep pushing. It means not giving up.