Black Exhaustion

By Pilot Viruet


When we were children, my older brother and I looked nearly identical. So identical, in fact, that I sometimes successfully convinced strangers that we were twins, despite the two-year age difference. We wore similar boys’ clothes: baggy jeans, oversized T-shirts boasting our favorite hip-hop artists, construction boots, and camouflage jackets from our military father. I wore my hair in thick cornrow braids, typically underneath a baseball cap. I was often mistaken for a little boy and, because I’ve always been an androgynous tomboy who wanted to be more like my brother, I rarely corrected anyone. For a few years, my brother and I were black twin boys whom people occasionally cooed over in the grocery store. As children, we were adorable; as adults, we are targets.

When any tragedy occurs, there is a natural, almost primal, urge to make it about yourself, to force yourself to relate it to somehow, to tweet about how it makes you feel. It can border on obnoxiousness or cluelessness — I regularly bite my metaphorical tongue and remind myself that it’s not worth it — but I understand. It is necessary, sometimes. It is unavoidable, sometimes. It is the only way, sometimes. Whenever a police officer murders another unarmed black person — man or woman, teen or adult, or, Christ, a child — it is personal. It is deeply, depressingly, angrily personal.

It is always a reminder that I am a target, and my brother doubly so. It is a warning that blacks are guilty by nature, that we are born waiting to die, and that, if we make it to end without an officer’s bullet (or six, or 41) inside of us, then we are lucky. It has nothing to do with who we are, whether or not we sag our pants, what we do for a living, if we have ever committed a crime or if we have never once touched a gun. Increasingly, it seems, remaining alive only has to do with luck. Increasingly, I am learning, remaining alive while black is a radical act.

But more than anything, it’s getting so exhausting to be black: To spend all day on edge, obsessively reading the news and the hashtags and the DOJ reports and making myself feel worse and worse about the color of my skin. Opting to walk a few extra blocks to the second-closest subway station from my job because I spotted officers patrolling the first’s entrance and my heart races nervously whenever my eyes land on their guns. To stand, embarrassed, at the front of a drugstore while a white employee empties out my backpack because I spent too long in the nail polish aisle but didn’t purchase anything; to be accused of stealing because I’m black and the store didn’t have the shade of purple that I wanted.

It’s exhausting to try and convey this to well-meaning, endlessly patient non-black friends who can’t possibly understand, as much as they try to, and then to feel guilty for bringing it up, as if I am crashing their carefree party with reality — and to know this isn’t the case, but how do you not feel like a broken record when the world is a broken record of broken bodies? To unfairly put my white partner through this: to emotionally shut down, to be loved and comforted but to aggressively reject that love and comfort because the larger world tells me my darker skin means I don’t deserve these things. To love the non-black people in my life but always harbor some small resentment knowing that they will always have it better, and to be inherently suspicious of allies because I worry they care more about looking good on social media than they do about my actual life. It’s exhausting to be sought out to write essays about race in popular culture, and to try to explain that there are some days when I absolutely cannot muster a single shit about taking a celebrity to task for saying something boringly bigoted when I am watching videos of my black brothers and sisters being murdered in the street as revenge for having the audacity to breathe.

It’s exhausting to constantly worry about my own existence but, more pressingly, about my older brother’s existence. He is the nicest human, a black man who still believes in enough good that he would like to be a police officer — we are, according to dueling Facebook statuses, occasionally on the opposite side of issues like protesters, “rioting” or looting, and what the appropriate responses should be. I try not to think about that and I can’t yet bring myself to talk to him about it — but to know all of that and still worry that entering the wrong store, or looking vaguely similar to a suspect (or even not at all) could result in the unthinkable.

It drains the body to think about this all day, but there is no way to stop thinking about this, especially when there is another death and another death and another death. There is another protest, there is another officer hurling a rock at high schoolers, there is another misguided person bringing up black on black crime, there is another fundamental misunderstanding of a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, there is another tweet from someone valuing personal property over black lives, there is always another. My mom watched Ferguson on the news and texted me about the similarities to the civil rights protests when she was a kid, accidentally reminding me that we have been fighting a never-ending fight, and that I will never be a person worth more than hoses or rubber bullets. I think about the future and feel disgustingly, guiltily thankful I was not born with a maternal instinct or any desire for kids; the thought of bringing a black child into a world that actively tries to eliminate black lives leaves me frozen in fear, depressed in a way that even diagnosed depression never prepared me for.

I am no stranger to feeling sad, to being inconsolable, to viewing the act of getting out of bed as an impossible feat. Yet this is much bigger: this is a constant war of needing to do something but feeling too defeated to even think. It’s depression through anger, all of my outward hostility about systematic police brutality sometimes turned inward at myself for not being able to change things. All of this forcing my body to shut down mentally and physically, to spend too many hours curled up in bed trying to make myself as small as possible — as small as the world views me — and cry myself raw about feeling helpless, and to know that there’s power in simply being black and alive and confident but sometimes being too stuck to even do just that.

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