Where I Come From.
A low key memoir about my work, my history, how racism has been in my life.
Long before I started writing about controversial subjects and giving incendiary opinions such as, yo don’t be a racist, I understood that being Black and having things to say in public (both internet and meatspace) was going to be a challenge. After my last piece at Medium and some conversation elsewhere, I think it might be interesting to document just how predictable a particular type of racism is and how it’s not a product of the internet and why at this point it just makes me laugh.
I don’t know how many of these I’ll do. Consider it part memoir, part lesson in as I said in this piece, the banality of a particular type of racism.
Let’s go back to 1993. Yours truly was just a baby potato, just getting a little bit woke, just learning about the real ways racism functions, just learning about feminism, just starting to get a little bit of their voice. One of the things about coming of age in the 90s was that like a lot of folks (this may be regional I’m not sure) I was raised to try and be colorblind. Unfortunately, that involved a lot of Anti-Blackness I had to struggle to unlearn as well as a lot of pain because of the level of cognitive dissonance that both the subtle and overt Anti-Blackness at home and in the community made me feel.
I picked ’93 because I was 16 and a few key things happened that year that stick out in my mind as the start of my deep passion for social justice. The first thing was the execution of Westley Allan Dodd. The debate about the death penalty was one that older folks I knew were talking about and was one of the first times I really sat down and wanted to figure out where I stood and to think about what justice is. The other thing that happened that year was being called a “nigger bitch” in a drugstore by an employee.
I’ve never actually told anyone this.
To set the scene I had saved up about 20$ and headed to a drugstore because I’d heard that they had some Black skin friendly makeup. I had a mission –sidenote: I cannot believe the clarity I remember this event with- I wanted a pressed powder, a stick foundation and if I had enough money an eyeliner pencil. Basic Baby Femme stuff.
In the store I found the eyeliner but not the powder or foundation. When I asked an employee, she responded by informing me that they would not carry “those types of things” because “you Blacks steal”. I remember blushing so violently I was sweating all over my body, I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to cry and throw up and was shaking. I had been polite, non-threatening and wanting to spend money and her response was aggressive and mean.
As afraid as I was, I spoke up in the kind of shaky voice that precedes tears. I remember saying, “that is rude and mean.” I remember because I wasn’t yet able to articulate, yo this is racist. Another White woman standing nearby got in my face and called me a nigger bitch. Her face was red, she was very angry and I put my things down and walked out of the store in tears.
That was the first time in my life I realized, yo that’s absolutely racist.
Call it my moment of wokeness. I began to hear every microaggression, every Anti-Black comment. It was a time when I silently seethed 90% of the time because I saw it everywhere and had no tools or language to deal with it or talk about it.
Fast forward a few years to around 1999 or so. I occasionally did open mics and poetry readings. I went to an open mic and performed a piece about my body and my budding love of my Blackness. It was the first thing I ever wrote that was in a quiet way absolutely pro Black. After the performance I was cornered by several White people and informed that my militancy made them uncomfortable and that the event wasn’t “that sort” of event.
I was also told that I would likely never get that sort of thing published and what stuck in my mind most, someone I didn’t know let me know that they would no longer support my work. I didn’t know them, I wasn’t publishing at the time and nobody forced them to listen. I wish I still had the piece, from what I remember I mostly wrote in a very purple prose-y kind of way about how much I loved my brown skin and whatnot, sort of in the vein of that India.Arie song “Brown Skin”.
In the years since, I’ve published quite a bit and I’d estimate 80% of anything I’ve ever had to say about Blackness, at least one White person needs to inform me that they won’t read, won’t support etc.
What still puzzles me is this.
What is the purpose of this? I won’t call it trolling. I’ve been trolled, mercilessly at times and this isn’t really it. For instance, this comment from this piece:
I’ve stopped listening to this kind of sewer sludge. You’re on your own, Barber. Have a nice life.
When I was a kid at those readings when confronted with this sort of thing I’d slink away, eventually I stopped going all together. If you’ve read any of my other work, that trend has not continued.
What bothers me isn’t really the sentiment. When I first saw this comment and others like it my initial thought is always, who are you and okay bye. What bothers me (because I’m relentlessly nosy and want to understand behavior) is what is the point of taking the time to say that? What’s also interesting is that as I was going back in my archives here on Medium, I noticed that my lack of engagement or anger at some of the people who were doing this on every entry, have disappeared. I didn’t delete them as is my general policy and I see that at least one of the people who created accounts to bother me are gone.
This is the flavor of what I guess is supposed to be a dismissal of me, my work etc that even after 20 years of hearing it in various forms, not once has anyone ever explained what their purpose is. What is it supposed to do to me?
In a world where the first time I was called a nigger I was 4 years old, where I got my first racialized threat of rape and murder at 10, when I’ve had people look me dead in my eye and wish death on me for being “too Black” what is the flouncing of some random White person supposed to do to me?
To wrap up this first edition I want to leave y’all with this. This type of commentary and behavior by White people when confronted with Black people who say things is not new. Neither the internet nor Donald Trump are to blame. And if you are a White person (and honestly White people are the only people I’ve ever heard the stranger flounce from) who feels the need to flounce, can you explain what your purpose is? I’m actually genuinely curious.
Next time, I will talk about my early social justice work and how those painful years of getting woke and learning how to talk about it worked with and against my early social justice work.
Until next time.