I’m Screaming in / (Your) Silence \ Is Deafening
It is always the worst at night just before I go to bed. I’ve made it through my day. I’ve had a chance to unwind. I’ve watched an episode or two of television. I’ve checked Instagram 30 times. I’ve checked Facebook 20. I still don’t understand Snapchat, so I leave that one alone. I check a couple more times to see if he texted me. I check my email one last time for good measure. And then it comes. It’s time to put my phone down for the night and unwind and disconnect from a screen so my internal clock can understand that it’s time to go to sleep.
There are no more distractions once I put my phone away. I’m stuck with my thoughts — my reflections on my day. Some are good. Some are bad. I try to think about how I progressed and what I’m excited about. Overall, it was a fine day. Not the best, but certainly not bad. But I can’t escape this nagging feeling. This looming isolation. This overpowering undertone of Other. Of not belonging. Of unworthiness. Of fear. Of wondering: When. are. they. going. to. come. for. me.
You see earlier I had a chance to catch up with my brother who lives on the opposite coast. We don’t see each other enough. We don’t talk to each other enough. And that’s a problem. Because we are black. And my brother lives in New York, where police profile black people — black men to be more specific. And sometimes he wears T-shirts that say “If you see a cop, let a brotha know.” Like it’s a joke. Like it’s a motherfucking joke. You see because sometimes it’s easier (read: a coping mechanism) to pretend these things don’t happen to people like us. We’re upper middle class. We are assimilated as fuck. We went to prep school. We went to fancy colleges. For godsakes, I have three higher education degrees. My brother drives an Audi. I live in Los Angeles. We have 401ks even though neither of us are 40. We are responsible citizens. We don’t have any baby mamas or daddies. But we’re having this conversation anyway. We’re having the conversation that goes like this because we are all so freaked out and isolated that we don’t even know how to break the subject gracefully with our own family members. So my brother says: “and this thing with these cops” out of the blue, like it’s a perfectly natural segue from our conversation about our career goals. Ya, we were talking about our career goals before my brother just states “this thing with these cops” and I respond “oh the one where they keep killing us” and he says “ya.”
And we don’t even mention the acquittals, because who can talk about that? Who is ready to talk about that? The emotions are still too raw. The sting of “justice” is still too strong. The reminder that the institution built so long ago is still working perfectly; it is still suppressing us. It is still treating us as less than. As other. Like we don’t belong. Even when we do everything we can to belong. Trust me, I tried bleach to my hand when I was a kid just to see if it would work so that these little girls who kept calling me a nigger at the park in my new neighborhood would stop. We had just moved back to the States from Spain, where my dad was stationed for the Air Force. I had to ask my white friend when I was five years old what a nigger was. Because I had lived my whole life in Spain and I truly didn’t know what it was. And he told me it was a really, really bad word that some people used to call black people. And that was when I knew I was black. And then I realized that’s why those girls at the park were laughing at me. And I immediately wanted to be white. That’s my first clear memory of living in this country.
The second is sitting on my kitchen floor trying to bleach my skin. I knew bleach cleaned things and I wanted it to clean me. I had to move quickly before my parents came downstairs and saw me. So I went to the kitchen sink and opened the cupboard below it and there was the bleach. I knew if I drank it, it could kill me because it had that poison sticker. I didn’t want to do that; I just wanted to be clean. So I just poured some on my hand and then I rubbed it in. I sat on the floor in the kitchen and rubbed the bleach into my skin for what felt like forever in kid time, so maybe it was two minutes. And nothing happened. I was still black. And I was so disappointed.
Do you know that Maya Angelou had the same desire? Maya fucking Angelou in the first few pages of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings describes this daydream she had as a child in the 1950s in the south about being white. I remember reading those words in 2016, when I decided to read her autobiographies, because despite over 15 years of schooling and higher education, it was somehow never assigned as reading, and remember that I felt the same exact way in 1992. Whiteness seemed like the answer to all my problems. And in 2017, sometimes it feels like it still is. Because here we are in 2017, me, my brother, and now his girlfriend, talking about how cops are shooting black people, but carefully avoiding the subject of the acquittals, and instead focusing on the logistics — tactics really — that my brother can use when he gets pulled over by a cop so he doesn’t get shot and die. Because no one on that phone could bear it. Not me. Not his girlfriend. We both wouldn’t make it. You can tell because we are taking the conversation incredibly seriously.
At one point, Kristen (that’s his girlfriend) makes a comment about how annoying the justifications are. I immediately agree and mention the ones for Philando. I remember reading a comment that essentially said “of course he was shot. When you get pulled over, you should have your wallet, ID, insurance and anything else the cop may want to see ready and waiting on your dashboard so you don’t have to reach for anything. Especially if you have a gun.” Because, after all, if Philando had just followed this very simple (and may I add) new set of rules for getting pulled over, he would still be alive. And since he didn’t play by the rules, he deserved to die. But then my brother says the strangest, yet the most logical, but also maybe the most vulnerable thing he has ever said to me in our relationship as brother and sister: “I know, I think I read that one. I read the comments sometimes for advice.” Me: “You do what?” As in, I know you didn’t just tell me you read through the comments of the bigoted assholes who try to justify a murder after it happens. You know the ones who say “well it doesn’t matter if she called the cops for help. The report says she was holding a knife when the cops got there.” Of course they never say what kind of knife it is. Cause like a swiss army knife is different from a butter knife, is different from a steak knife, is different from a cheese knife, is different from an Ikea knife, is different from a chef’s knife.
But my brother says he reads the comments anyway. He reads them, he says, for guidance, for help, to figure out if there’s some sort of official guidebook he can use for interactions with the police so he doesn’t get shot. So he doesn’t die for a (sometimes made up) traffic violation.
The hard part, he says, is that it seems like someone’s been giving them the plays in our playbook or something. Like hands up don’t shoot is for sure out. So is telling the cop that you are legally carrying. So is telling them you can’t breathe. So is walking down the street, or down a hallway. So is running with your back to the cop. So is being a child and playing with a toy gun at the park. So is. So is. So is. It seems like everything we can think of to stay safe becomes unsafe. Just like sometimes it seems like everything we think of can’t be valuable until someone misappropriates it. That’s another topic though. A high tension topic. A really touchy subject for white guilt. But damn, aren’t they all? Don’t worry, we’ll comfort you. The suppressed that you sometimes mindlessly oppress will comfort you so you can sleep at night while we suffer through night terrors.
Anyway, my brother sounds defeated. He sounds exasperated because after all that reading, he still has not found a foolproof guide to staying alive during an interaction with the cops as a black man. And that is frustrating to him. It’s scary to him. It terrifies me. The reality of it cripples Kristen. The conversation gets too heavy and no one can breath. Because no one can comfort the others. So we change the subject to the fourth of July. Eventually we hang up and we say I love you. But we all know we’re saying I really love you. Please be safe. And remember that last time when you got maced by the cops in the parking lot when you were walking home with your white friends was lucky. Next time just let that nice white boy go to jail. Because if you speak up you are risking your life. If he speaks, they can de-escalate the situation without killing him. So for god sakes keep your mouth shut and let your white friend speak. Okay that was a lot of I love yous. And they were big I love yous. Did I mention I love you?
So it’s late at night and it’s my bedtime. And I’m thinking about what I would do if my brother got shot by a cop. I’m thinking about how I can’t imagine if it was someone I loved and what that feels like. I think about how the system wasn’t built for us or by us. I think about how when it was first built that we were literally classified as less than. As three-fifths. I think about how that’s better than nothing, which is what the other part of me — the Native American part of me — was classified as. I think about how lonely it is to be an Other. And how when bad things happen to people who look like you, you internalize it. You feel the pain because you know it could have been you, or your brother, your dad, your uncle, your mom. I feel devastation in its most crippling sense. Because the devastation stems from the feeling of powerlessness. Of being pushed down when you swear there’s nowhere further to fall. Of looking up to see if there’s a hand reaching down to pull you up. And there are none. There’s not one hand. There’s not one word. From these people who you have picked up time and again, who you have loved unconditionally in spite of their flaws, who you have comforted in their darkest days.
In all the loneliness, in all the devastation, in all the violence, in all the acquittals, I received one text message from someone who wasn’t black. It said I love you. It said I’m sorry. It said I can’t believe what is happening to your people and this isn’t the America I believe in. When I got that text, I was sitting on the floor in my room crying. It was July 2016 and I was watching that video of Philando dying. Over and over again. I couldn’t stop. I kept watching it. And I kept crying. It was late morning and I don’t know how long I had been there, but it had been awhile. Just me watching and crying. Someone could have made a boomerang. Like a really ugly one of horror and sadness.
But it’s late and I’m thinking about this text. And I’m thinking about how it made me feel less lonely. It made me feel like I mattered. It made me feel like if it had been me someone would have noticed besides my family and the Black Lives Matter Movement. And then I realized I’m a horrible person. Because the police said Nabra’s death wasn’t a hate crime. Just like Charleena had a knife. Just like Roberto should have come here legally. Damn. Those justifications are convenient as fuck. Because anytime you aren’t the Other, you have the privilege of relying on the justification to dismiss the story. To go on about your day. Because it doesn’t effect you. And if you’re white, you can do this on the daily. And if you’re an Other, you get do it when the focus is on a different Other.
It’s a key pillar of power: divide and conquer. I guess I never acknowledged how effective it was until I put all those justifications together in a row. The key to suppression is to divide and conquer. The other key to suppression is to give those with the power to do something an easy out. A few weeks ago, I watched the Hasan Minhaj special on Netflix and he talked about the hate crime(s) committed against his family after 9/11. When he told that story about kids throwing rocks in the Camry window, I remember realizing an awful truth about myself: I didn’t pay attention. I didn’t pay attention when brown people were being targeted. In part because I was young, but as I got older, in reality it was probably because it was such a relief that the spotlight wasn’t on me. It wasn’t on black people. And when we talk about immigration, the spotlight’s not on me either. My hands are clean then. I’m pure. I belong here. In that context, I am in the in-group. I’m not a terrorist. I’m not a bad hombre. I’m the in-group.
But damn they are killing us.
Imagine what it’s like not to be a “terrorist”, not to be a “bad hombre”, and not to be black. And then imagine you’re straight. And a man. You are the permanent in-group. You are never out. If the only difference is that you’re a woman, then you are almost always in the in-group. What power you have. What ability you have to sustain the system that makes a five year old feel like the best course of action is to bleach her skin. You can sustain that system by doing nothing. By doing absolutely nothing. By reading the justification and saying, “gosh, that’s tough.”
What little effort it takes to reach out to a friend when the bad news affects her. When it affects him. What minimal effort it takes to bring an Other back In. What power I have to reach out to my friend when I am In and he is Out. And that’s when I realize my silence is deafening too.