I am a black woman, and like most black women, I am familiar with the many forms of racism.
Explicit racism: Rome, Italy. I was eight years old and I was living there because my father worked for the United Nations. A man wearing a jacket patched with a swastika over his heart barred my family from entering a restaurant. Apes, he said, should not be served with human beings. My always elegant and collected father, in his pin-striped suit and tortoise-shell glasses, looked out of control as he grabbed the man by the lapels and shook him for just a second before realizing I was watching. We hurried home, not speaking.
Implicit bias: New York. I was eighteen and a freshman in college. “Nadia?” asked the professor holding up my paper. “You wrote the best paper in the class.” I stood up to thank him and to receive my paper. “Nadia?” he asked again, looking around the class, looking for someone else.
Institutional racism: Boston and Brooklyn. I have two younger brothers. Both have been stopped and frisked repeatedly by the police for things like parking their own cars outside of their own apartments and asking a white woman for directions to the movie theater. “It’s whatever,” they said after each incident, “I’m fine,” as something hardened in their bright eyes.
Structural racism: New York. I work for an organization whose mission is to address poverty and inequality in America’s cities. I have studied the reasons why the racial wealth gap has widened rather than narrowed since the 1960s. Indeed, the Pew Research Center reports that the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of African-American households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. And, this gap exists regardless of education level — the median wealth of African-American families in which the head of household graduated from college is less than the median wealth of white families whose head of household dropped out of high school. This is largely due to the continuing impact of redlining on American homeownership and to segregation in public education.
I am familiar with the many forms of racism, so I was not surprised by the rise of Donald Trump. I was not surprised by his popularity with people who waved confederate flags and shoved a young black girl at one of their rallies, hate in their eyes. I was not surprised that many white Americans asserted that they were not voting for him because of his racism and I was not surprised that they were willing to vote for him in spite of it. I was also not surprised when two Boston brothers, Scott and Steve Leader were arrested for brutally assaulting Guillermo Rodriguez, beating him to a pulp with a metal pipe. I was not surprised that they urinated on him and called him a wetback. When questioned by the police, they cited Donald Trump as their inspiration. Trump’s response when asked specifically about this incident: “People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.” No condemnation of the violence and the hate speech. No thoughts or prayers for the man who was assaulted or for his family.
On Election Day, many of my white Brooklyn liberal and socially conscious conservative friends (yes, they absolutely do exist) went out to bars and parties, certain that America, despite our shortcomings and our differences, was not going to elect someone who has said that Mexico sends us their rapists, who refused to condemn the KKK, who wants to ban all Muslims from entering the country, who was sued by the federal government for housing discrimination. I, like many people of color, however, was not so sure.
So that evening–the evening that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Leader of the ‘Free World,’ Commander in Chief–I went for a run in the park with my boyfriend. Despite his whiteness, he was not so sure of the outcome either. He grew up in Appalachia. He too was familiar with racism. The n-word rolled comfortably off the tongues of the people in his hometown.
We ran to avoid watching the numbers come in. We ran to live, still, in the America we imagined, not the one that exists. We ran to fill our lungs and to feel our hearts quicken with something other than fear.
The air was unusually warm for November in Brooklyn. People were out walking pit bulls and chiweenies. A white man wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt was doing pull-ups in the outdoor gym. There was a group of people playing soccer in excited Spanish. A black woman, lost in the sounds of her Beats by Dre headphones, was free-dancing in a sports bra and fluorescent pink leggings. As she grooved, she smiled so big that a pair of older blonde-bouffant-haired power-walking ladies in zip-up tracksuits stopped pumping their fists to smile back at her. I smiled at her too. Warmed by her smile, I challenged my boyfriend to a race. We prepared ourselves to run and someone screamed “He’s winning Florida.”
“Go!” I shouted and I closed my eyes and sprinted as fast as I could. I wished that I could keep sprinting forever, feeling only the strain of my own efforts, only the pain of my stretching muscles. When I crossed the finish line, after my boyfriend, the woman in the fluorescent pink leggings had stopped dancing. Her big smile was gone. I buried my face in my boyfriend’s chest.
At home, we couldn’t bring ourselves to make the salad. I opened a bottle of red wine and poured a big glass, started gulping. On the television, Trump was winning. On social media, our friends were writing scenarios that could make it not so. They were trying very hard to believe them. We went to bed before the election was called. We knew it was over. The pundits’ lips were quivering. Their voices were distended to near shrieks. They were trying and failing to make sense of what was happening. My boyfriend and I were crying too hard to talk about it, and I had to wake up at four in the morning to get on a flight to Atlanta for a racial justice conference. “Maybe,” I said, as I turned off the light, “we will wake up to a miracle.”
I was not surprised, but I had not lost hope.
In the morning, there was no miracle. There was only a dark sky that was no longer illuminated by the silver moon and had not yet been filled with the fire of the sun. There were only bewildered headlines and op-eds full of how and why and what might come next. On the plane, waiting for take-off, I scrolled through social media. On Facebook, an old acquaintance–a white guy with whom I once worked at a restaurant–had posted a status about disagreeing with all the people in his feed ‘who were feeling sorry for themselves and who were afraid of being lynched tomorrow.’ Despite my familiarity with the many forms of racism, despite the election of Donald Trump, I was surprised. I was surprised by his flippant use of the word ‘lynched,’ by his cavalier dismissal of the very real fears being expressed by people who I can only assume were his friends and acquaintances. I was surprised because it was him. I was surprised because I used to know him, ten or so years ago. He was not those people waving the confederate flags. He was not the people shoving a young black girl at a rally. We had once shared beers and a catfish sandwich at two in the morning, commiserating over another long shift. He was an artist and had shown me his beautiful paintings. He had let me ride his skateboard. I knew him, when I knew him, to be kind and quick to ask how your day was. But there it was: I disagree with the people who are afraid of being lynched.
Here is what I know about lynching in America: It was a terrifying kind of terrorism that was harnessed and supported by the state to enforce segregation and racial hierarchies. It was harnessed and supported by the state that Donald Trump is referring to when he claims that America was once great. The state that he conjured up during his campaign speeches as being what he would like to recreate in the America of 2016. Lynching was not a matter of a few extremists like the Leader brothers committing hate crimes. It was widespread public torture and murder committed in front of an audience of people eating sandwiches and drinking soda pop. People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and they acted with impunity. “They love this country” those picnickers might have said of the men carrying out the lynchings, “and they want this country to be great again.”
I took a deep breath and commented on my acquaintance’s post, asking him to consider the history of lynching, asking him to consider why people of color are justified in their fear. By the time I got off the plane in Atlanta, I had been told by other white men on that post to ‘educate myself on the real issues,’ to ‘get over it,’ and to ‘stop with my fiery rhetoric.’ I responded by pointing out that the world might look different to them, through the lens of white male privilege. I emphasized that ‘getting over’ oppression is not something that I am willing to do. “We are talking about other issues,” my acquaintance wrote, “and you keep bringing everything back to race. You are on the attack.” Well, perhaps I was. But, so were they. I was on the attack because I could not fathom that they could not see the racism; because the fact that they could not see it brought hot tears to my eyes. They were on the attack, I believe, because they resented my attempt to make them see it. Educate yourself on the real issues, they wrote. The real issues, I can only assume, are the ones defined by them, by white men.
In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin wrote “The negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American Dream. This has everything to do, of course, with the nature of the dream and with the fact that we Americans of whatever color do not dare examine it and we are far from having made it a reality. There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves. People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal but they love the idea of being superior.”
I had brought my browning copy of The Fire Next Time with me to read on the plane. It used to belong to my father. As I teetered back and forth between reading it and reading the comments, addressed to me, on my acquaintance’s Facebook page, something in my throat opened up. When I was accused in one of the comments of being racist against white people, alone in my hotel room, my voice rushed out in a yawp that I have not made since I was a young child. I was ready, in that moment, to precipitate chaos. I would precipitate a small-scale chaos on social media, to start. I took screenshots of the comments on my acquaintance’s page and posted them to Instagram with the caption White Men Explain Things to Me. I tagged my acquaintance in it and called him a bigot. I would, I decided in a rage, force him to examine the fallacy of the Dream, to know uncomfortable things about himself.
“I have come to the conclusion,” my acquaintance wrote in a text message to me the next day, after I told him that I planned to write about our exchange, “that you are an idiot and you have no business writing anything.”
There is another form of racism that I am all too familiar with. Internalized racism is loosely defined as the internalization by people of racist attitudes towards members of their own racial group, including themselves. Educate yourself. You are on the attack. No business writing anything. Get over it. The stereotypes I see embedded in these comments are: Your people are uneducated. Your people are angry. Your people should not have a voice. I believed my acquaintance, I think, when he texted me that these things are not what he consciously meant, but what about subconsciously? What about the things that he dared not examine?
Internalized racism: New York. For a moment, after receiving that text message about how I had no business writing anything, I wondered if it was true. Despite having been a writer since I was three years old. Despite having written the best paper in my class. Despite making a living as a writer, I still wondered if it was true.
One of my goals with my Instagram post was to shame my acquaintance. I am not afraid to examine what that means. I am still examining it. I do not yet have answers. I do not know if I have any business writing anything. I do not know if my anger is productive or destructive. I do not know if it even matters anymore. My words on my acquaintance’s Facebook page did not mean to those white men what they meant to me. It is possible that there are things they wrote that I misread. Our inability to understand each other has been made abundantly clear through this election. It is not, I know, just a problem of explicit racism. It is also a problem of old acquaintances of different races who used to like each other. It is a problem of all of us.
Baldwin ends his essay, with a warning of what is to come if we do not address racism: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy recreated from the Bible in a song by a slave is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.”
My Dear Acquaintances, Friends, and Fellow Americans,
This could be next time.
My words might be all wrong. You might not understand them. I might not understand you. So, I ask, willing to dare everything, furious and deeply sad, but still holding on to hope: Where do we go from here?