I don’t usually share details of the experiences of aggression toward me due to my race for several reasons:
- I don’t always know if the treatment is because of my race or if the person is just being an asshole in general.
- Many of my white friends (and light-skinned black friends who pass for white) don’t want to believe that what I experienced was racially motivated when I try to explain my encounter. It’s a subtle art, discrimination, and if someone doesn’t want to believe that it is happening, I’ve found there is very little I can say to convince them.
- Because I don’t want to peg myself as a victim. I am in control of my life and how I respond to my experiences. I know who I am, and I know my value. I do not need to call attention to the misdeeds of others because it is only the love that transpires in an interaction that is real and tangible. All else slips away like wisps of smoke on the wind and is meaningless. There’s a quote from the Bible that goes “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” 1 Corinthians 13:1. So my goal has been only to speak openly of the love that transpired between myself and anyone that I have encountered.
Now, in the aftermath of the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others before them — now that our country is being ravaged by riots, and liberal white people are more willing to listen, I am willing to share what I can remember of these experiences, one by one. I’m willing to recognize that the most loving thing I can do is shine a light so that my white friends can know the truth and do their best to correct the erroneous institution of white supremacy.
I know that this is not a comprehensive list, that it’s possible that I am describing less than 1/4th of the micro-aggressions and outright racist behavior I’ve suffered for seemingly no reason other than the color of my skin, but to the best of my ability, I’ve made an account of all of the experiences that linger with me, that I am unable to lock away in the space in my mind I’ve reserved for the things I don’t want to remember or believe could be true.
Some of this list contains events and encounters, and some are memories of feelings that remain locked up inside of me, like prisoners that weep for a glimpse of freedom. I’ve listed these experiences in order of where I have most recently lived or traveled.
- Two white male friends over 60 calling me “exotic” on two different occasions. I know they meant it as a compliment and not an insult, but it’s difficult not to feel like an animal or a rare fruit instead of an American who was born in the same country they were.
- A white man I didn’t know telling me how much he liked my outfit in passing and then saying “You look like…no, I won’t say it.” And silly me, pushing him because I wanted another compliment and hearing him say, “You look like you don’t belong here.” Sigh.
- A white woman grabbing my hair at the Farmer’s Market without permission.
- A white woman grabbing my hair in line at Annapurna, my university’s dining hall, without my permission.
- A white woman asking to touch my hair at a local church and then being sore about it when I refused.
- Five or so white women surrounding me and asking to touch my hair and reluctantly allowing them because I didn’t feel like making an issue of it. Feeling all the while somehow violated.
- Ice cold interactions with healthcare and government workers. Not being able to tell if it’s because of my race.
- Educating two white men over the age of 50, on two separate occasions, about the Jim Crow laws. They really had absolutely no idea what they were.
- A white man texting me a photo of his penis and then getting angry with me when I was horrified (you know who you are).
- My professor waving away my disheartened comment that there were very few artists of color to study to say, “What about women? There are not many women either.”
- A white business associate hijacking my social media accounts and posting defaming, humiliating, and shaming posts to my customers. Deleting my over 1,000 followers. The police and county attorney doing nothing.
- A week after his death, days after the protests and riots begin, explaining what happened to George Floyd to one of my white friends over the phone.
- Shopping in an arts and crafts store and a woman approaching me, assuming I worked there.
- A train controller saying: “Hallo, your black…I mean, your ticket, please.”
- Biking through Berlin, and a group of kids, all probably under 15, shouting the theme from Lion King as I rode by.
- Going into a Turkish restaurant for a delicious Kumpir and feeling instantly unwelcome and met with cold gazes.
- A man in a grocery store staring at me with such hate in his eyes that it is still jarring when I think of it today.
- Visiting a small village and walking alone down a pedestrian street full of gawking strangers. Some curious, some indifferent, some disdainful.
- Eating in a restaurant with friends in Beijing and being stared at openly with contempt by a Chinese woman on staff.
- Watching a couple get out of the tub immediately when I join them at a spa in Beijing.
- Touring with a group that included three white men and having those three be the only ones that the people we encounter are interested in interacting with.
- A group of white women passing while I locked the gate to the store where I was working, and one of them whispering “dyke” under her breath to the laughter of her friends. At the time I sported short hair and worked at a shop specializing in gifts for men.
- At the same retail store, on my second week working there (alone because the store was short-staffed), a white man coming into the store and shouting at me until I cried because I couldn’t find the answer to his question. Another white man, thankfully, entering and telling the angry man to back off.
- Dating a white man who enjoyed the “cred” he got from being able to say he was dating a black woman.
- Dating a white man whose mother openly disapproved of me because of my race and her delight when I gained weight a couple of years into our relationship.
- Dating a white young man whose parents made him move from DC back to Richmond to prevent us from seeing each other.
- Walking down a street and always feeling that I needed to step aside so a white person could pass. Being rammed into by a white man in a “chicken” type scenario.
- Taking long walks around downtown DC during the ’90s and wondering what it would feel like to have the confidence of a white man. Trying it out and feeling the distinct contrast between this and my own emotions. Putting the feeling on like a shield whenever I wanted to feel powerful, but this only serving to highlight my powerlessness.
- Police officers slowing down to check out myself and my black male friend as we walked through an affluent white residential area between Georgetown and Dupont circle.
- Having a one-time make-out session with a white male acquaintance who avoided me afterward. Finding his online dating profile and seeing that he had specifically excluded black women from his desired matches.
- White friends telling me that they were no longer allowed to play with me because of my race.
- Having “NIGGER” shouted out from a car as I walked the one mile east from Market Street to my grandparents’ house.
- A white friend being surprised when finding out that my skin could be tanned by the sun.
- My 5th-grade Chinese friend’s mother telling her that she thought I looked like a monkey and this friend delighting in relaying this to me.
- My school teachers praising me for my ability to speak and act as the white kids.
- Feeling the dislike of some of my neighbors in my mostly white neighborhood.
- Watching my grandfather morph from violent, unfeeling, and terrifying at home to kind, polite, and funny when white people were around.
OTHER MISCELLANEOUS EXPERIENCES
- Having the word “nigger” whispered under the breath by one in a group of three white men at a gas station in Bristol, VA. I was en route from Memphis to DC and this was one of the scariest experiences, because I was low on gas, in the middle of nowhere and alone.
- Walking into a boutique and being closely watched, followed, and given a general sense of being unwelcome or being rushed out of the store. (This has happened everywhere I have been except for Jamaica. I’ve learned to expect this and am relieved when it does not occur.) Adopting the hit or miss strategy of being impeccably well-dressed and groomed when shopping to avoid this.
- Going on dates with white men who want to have sex with me and don’t call me again when I will not.
- People telling me they don’t believe institutionalized racism exists, yet when the topic of interracial marriage came up, they were against it because they worried how the offspring would be treated.
- Entering a restaurant in Tennessee and a white man flinching with disgust when he saw me.
Thankfully my police encounters have been minimal, and the way I was raised to speak and my European-sounding name have granted me access to spaces in which I may not have been welcome otherwise. I’ve spoken respectfully and with poise to the police and have never been publicly loud or angry. My well-educated grandfather who partially raised me made sure that I disassociated myself with anything that would cause me to be rejected from white spaces. I was raised to fit in, to be comfortable being the only black person in a room. I was raised to perform for white people, to agree with white people, and to ease a white person’s fears when they first encounter me. To be friendly, happy-go-lucky. To let them know that I’m one of the safe ones and I won’t give them any trouble.
This conditioning has regretfully created an abyss between myself and my culture and heritage. As a child, I was bullied and rejected by many of my African American peers. I have received accusatory comments on my social media from black women who felt I was rejecting my people. It is understandable; I was taught to turn my back on my culture and walk with an air about me that elevated whiteness over anything else. There’s a subtle and complex racial hierarchy within the black community as a result of white supremacy within which I am keenly aware of where I fall.
I have had difficulty cultivating friendships with other black women and have very much felt like an outsider in the small cluster of African Americans in the small Iowa town where I have lived for six years until recently. I have struggled with a feeling that everywhere I turn, I do not belong. I am not white, I am not black enough, and I am not wealthy enough for it not to matter. In Europe, I am mistaken for a refugee. In China, the slang word for a black person means “dog.” In America, I am saddened and traumatized over and over again.
So where do I go from here?