This is America

Shannon Barber
Sep 4, 2018 · 6 min read

CN: racial epithets,

The scene. It is the mid 90s and I am a teenager with a crappy job in a telemarketing hotbox. I get hung up on, had started smoking and spent most of my time listening to a man who called himself a master junkie, extol the virtues of an old-fashioned rig. While on break, we sat outside smoking together and we talked books and a man I hadn’t met walked up and stood in front of me. While he stood there, his face turned a few shades of red before he spoke.

“I can’t believe they let ghetto niggers work here.”

He went on for the rest of our break calmly explaining why it was disrespectful, evil and ultimately what would destroy this country. The terrible thing was me. That I was given a $5.75 an hour job soliciting donations for a shady organization for twenty hours a week. It wasn’t just that segregation had ended as he’d tell me a few weeks later, but me personally. I would ruin this country because I was obviously going to have fourteen children and clearly only had ambitions of being a welfare queen and cheating him personally out of his tax dollars.

It wasn’t the first time I was ever called a nigger and certainly not the last, it was the first time it really hit home to me that on many levels, what I did or didn’t do personally didn’t matter to people like him. I also learned that regardless of how much pain or fear I might be in, most White people I came into contact with would either not believe me or make excuses as to why this man would say such things to me.

When I told the supervisor and started crying after the first incident, I was told to cut out the crying and get back on the phone. When she witnessed one of these quiet tirades, she told me he didn’t “mean it that way” and that I should stop provoking him. The master junkie got fired and I stopped taking my break. I was afraid to eat in the breakroom, go to the bathroom because he always sat right near the bathroom door, I was afraid to go to work but I went.

I believed that if I could be less, speak better, take up less space and somehow not let my Blackness be so apparent that somehow, I’d deserve not to be spoken that way. As much as I tried, I also began to really see the world around me.

When at another job, a wealthy old White man took a liking to me, I think I was 18–19, and he called me Brown Sugar and bought me an ice cream cone, I was uncomfortable and told to be nice to him because, “he just likes Black girls”, I saw it.

I saw it when I was riding in a car with a friend, we got pulled over and he was driving, I was taken out of the car and questioned at great length. I was terrified and at one point the officer told me point blank that because I was a Black female in the car with a well-dressed White man, he knew I must be a prostitute. I was thankful I wasn’t on a date and didn’t have any condoms because I likely would have at least been cited.

I lived in a neighborhood for a few years where, for about 6 months someone called the police on me every morning when I was walking home from work. Every day, a report of a suspicious Black person. Every day I was stopped by a cop before I could get home. I was searched, my name run, lectured about my apparently nefarious act of walking home. It wore me down enough to move miles away.

Now we’re in 2018. We have massive amounts of social media available and the things I have known and grown up with and struggled with are being documented by people like me. What is important is to realize that these things, the racists screaming, Permit Patties, grown White people terrifying children of color, the hijab snatchers- all of these things have gone on for our whole lives. Many of us have spent years laying ourselves bare and talking about these things only to be met with excuses at best and ridicule or doxxing at worst.

For the last couple of years, I’ve watched mainly White people I know express constant shock and dismay. This isn’t my country! How could this happen? Look what Trump has done. All I can do is shake my head. This is your country. I watch long threads of White people struggling to come up with lengthy conspiracy theories, they theorize about mental illness, lament the fact that “we’ve” gotten to this point.

Most of the time I say nothing because I’ve already said it. Other people of color have said it and the fact is, most of the people who are so shocked at what is happening, have known we said it and not listened. That is how we got here. I want to say I’m angry, I want to be up in arms and running screaming through the streets. I want to let out every we told you so and I can’t.

I am angry but moreover, I’m tired. I’m more tired of well-meaning White people who repost these things for “awareness” but, when I or any of us have said, yes we told you, retreat behind White fragility. And thus the cycle is refreshed. And I’m tired. This is really your America.

This tweet by actress Debra Messing is an absolute example of what I’m talking about. She is only 9 years older than I am, younger than my parents. If she finds it shocking that someone in the GOP would call a Black person a baboon, gosh I got some bad news.

Image for post
Image for post
[image description: screen grab of a tweet from Debra Messing that reads: OMG. This is HORRIFYING. The virulent hateful racism has never been on display like this in my lifetime. I thought we left these grotesque epithets behind decades ago. Trumps America.

This isn’t personal about her in particular. I see this kind of “shock” from especially White women all the time.

I ask, where have you been?

I’m sure like most white women I know, she knows at least some Black people. Maybe the Black folks she knows have magically been immune to racism. Maybe, she’s never read anything written by Black people in the last 50 or so years about what happens every single day in this, our America.

So here we are.

What can folks do?

Stop saying how shocked you are. If you are, you need to re evaluate who you listen to and when.

Start paying attention to the thousands of us POC and Black folks in particular who are talking about these things.

Change your language. Instead of hand wringing or talking about how shocked you are, take a moment and be honest with yourself. Are you really shocked? Or are you pissed off? If you are really shocked that racism is still real, ask yourself where have you been? Have you used social media? Watched the news?

Where have you been?

What are you really doing?

What can you do?

  1. Amplify the voices of marginalized people. We write a lot, find us, boost us.
  2. Give to marginalized people in need.
  3. Handle your own people. Start developing a deeper understanding of how racism works and talk to folks. Outrage only goes so far and we have work to do.

A few tips:

  1. There are eleventy million resources. Spend some time with your favorite search engine and search racism 101. There are resources for every level of knowledge and many of them are free.

That single thing can get you started. If you are committed to being a part of how we deal with racism in our country, make that small commitment.

Now, put on your hard hat and protective underpants, and go all the way in.

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