Talking with White People

At a table of white females telling me to just keep up hope and have my children anyway, and you know what? It isn’t helping me.

I have just told them an edited version of the three possibilities that scare me:

  1. I will raise my children to have them killed for their melanin.
  2. My kids will realize the way the world views them, feel sad, hopeless, and worthless, and kill themselves.
  3. I’ll become so sad that I will no longer be able to properly care for them (translation: something so awful will happen that I actually end up killing myself, emotionally ruining my children for the rest of their lives)

These three possibilities were of course met with surprise, and mild ridicule. It’s very easy to look at someone’s situation from a distance and be like, “Well, don’t give up! You’d be a great mother!”

I think that I would be a spectacular mother, until I wouldn’t. I think that I would be wonderful and caring, until my depression swallowed me and I was unable to care for myself, let alone people who depended on me.

It’s funny how easy it is, even for myself, to make assumptions about people’s lives.
The woman who teaches with my mom, surprised that I’d forgotten my mother was receiving the Teacher of the Year award.
“It’s a very big honor. How could you not know?” she pressed. We were working at a camp for their district’s sixth grade, and I was helping her with an activity.
“She actually did tell me, a few months ago,” I told her. “It just slipped my mind recently.”
“Not knowing your own mother was teacher of the year?” she said, disapprovingly. “You’re very lucky to have her, you know.”

‘Really, lady?’ I wanted to ask her. ‘Am I lucky that my mother called me selfish for finally refusing to comfort her over my own rape? Is it unacceptable that with that, and the waves of black shootings and police brutality occurring all over the place, I may have forgotten an award ceremony?’
But of course, you can’t go around answering people’s judgmental questions with brutal honesty.

That’s the genius of tragedy: your story does not really belong to you.
Of course it’s your story; it has happened to you. You are the one who lives it, thinks about it, cries over it. But you cannot talk about it, without dealing with the people who listen to it. Once it is out of your head and into their ears, they have claim over it. Explaining myself to this woman would ruin the rest of our time working together. Telling my mother what happened naturally led her to expect comfort from me.

My mother, the white lady. Who, without being fully aware of the racial issues in America (or the world) suffers from extreme empathy. Who gave her mainly colored, largely conscious daughter empathic distress. Who is unable to completely mother me when I need it.
And now I’m supposed to take this, and have children of my own? I think I would be worse. If I look into my future and see fuzziness, how can I expect to be there for my kids?

“It’s just too bad,” someone told me. “I’d rather have your kids in the world than some of these other people’s.”
So would I. But it’s largely because of these other people that I don’t want to have them.

Want to make a joke? Tell someone on the edge of hopelessness to just stick it out; try a little harder; don’t give up. At the same time, admit that you don’t actually know how they feel, but tell them that there really isn’t that much to be upset about. Give them non-examples of things to be excited over, and expect that to replenish their energy.

“It’s hard to see the changes you’re making in your own lifetime,” she told me, “But they’re there. Like my mother, for instance, she never used to understand race relations. Whenever I’d talk to my parents, or try to correct things that were wrong, it would be like, ‘Oh, there’s Hippy Lacy, talking her crazy racial peace again.’ But now, with Trayvon Martin and, who was it? … Michael Brown! And all of those stories, they’re in the newspaper. My mom reads the New York Times, and those stories are in there. So now, she’s starting to think, and to recognize that maybe there is a problem, and now she’s sending me articles. That’s progress. All these problems and events are being covered, and that coverage is leading to improvements.”

“You do understand,” I said, feeling so tired, “That in order for any of this progress you’re seeing to come about, people have to be slaughtered. Innocent people have to be murdered, almost every week, and other people have to suffer and protest and exhaust ourselves emotionally. In my school, during the Baltimore riots, we had a blackout of the student center. We dressed in black, and gathered together, to mourn and share our experiences. It was beautiful, and horrible at the same time. Do you know what it’s like to sit in a space, sobbing, unable to go to class or even move very much, and have people stepping around you to get their lunch? Do you know what it’s like to observe the contrast between yourself, feeling stuck, and everyone else who feels unaffected enough by your situation to happily go about their lives? My friends and I are breaking, broken, and your mom is sending you a newspaper article.”
I did not know how to express how offensive I found the situation. I can exhaust myself to the point where I don’t want to leave my bed anymore, and that would be worth it to get a white lady to begin to think. People could put themselves in danger, plan, build, and march, so that a white woman could exert herself enough to put scissors to paper and cut out an article detailing the next murder of a black body. That was worth it.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked. ‘Should I be the next martyr?’ I wanted to say. ‘Should I write a Black Lives Matter manifesto, tattoo it on my body, put it in my pocket and jump off a building? That would make headlines. That would get your mother’s attention.’
‘And what will you do?’ I wanted to ask. ‘You four, sitting in front of me unaffected. Perhaps you think that what’s happening is wrong. Perhaps you can see a headline, and shake your head in disgust. What else will you do? Why am I the only one at the table trying not to cry?’
You,’ I wanted to point to a girl at my table. ‘We go to the same university, and I have never seen you before in my life. I have never seen you socially, and I have never seen you as an activist. You didn’t care about the AfAm department; you weren’t there for black lives; or Muslim lives. You are in Kenya now, but you couldn’t go to the vigil for Garissa. And yet you tell me that I shouldn’t be hopeless, shouldn’t give up? Should I be fighting, to make You proud?’
Once again, it was impossible to speak candidly. I probably wouldn’t have been able to get everything out, anyway. The effort not to cry was rough.
Misery is sobbing in front of people who do not have the capacity to understand how you are upset.
“I only want you to do what you want to do, I don’t want you to do anything else,” she said, hurriedly.

Fast forward to the next morning:
A woman, a researcher, is in our living room telling us about Kenya, past and contemporary. She is a white American woman married to a Ugandan man, who has been living in Kenya for 47 years. An interesting lady, a funny lady, a cynic.
“Why is it,” she is asking, “That no matter how carefully I try to explain these things, and how precise I am, they don’t get it?” She is talking about Africans, diseases, and information about the spread of AIDS. She says, referring to Africans, that there is always a skepticism or a rejection of what cannot be seen. Because Africans cannot see the bacteria and tiny organisms that give them the diseases, they will not believe in the ways that prevent them from spreading their existence. Thus, no condoms or caution when it comes to sex. It’s interesting that she does not seem to see how this issue of skepticism or rejection of what cannot be seen can also be applied to Americans. Perhaps not in terms of health, because they know that health concerns can affect them personally. White people and issues of race, though? I can tell you to your face about problems, about my deteriorating mental health, and you won’t get it. You won’t completely believe me.

We’re back, and the last white girl is comforting me.
“Just remember your dream, and the eighty-three year old matriarch,” she’s telling me. “You can’t give up. Because that has to happen.”

I wonder what it’s like in her head.

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