A Born-again Angry Black Woman
by Lena Potts
When I was younger, I was very firm in my racial identity- I was mixed race. Partially, I felt it would be strange to, in my identifying as Black, disregard or not acknowledge the influence of my White mom, who raised me. But I also won’t deny that I, influenced like most people by the implicit racism we all live with, really liked my Whiteness. I thought it made me prettier and more interesting. When people pointed out my freckles or long hair I had a real sense of pride. I, too, was tying a higher value to my Whiteness and internalizing a hatred of my own Blackness, as I was taught to, as we’re all taught to.
My politics were also always tied to this. Because I love my mom, and she’s truly a wonderful person, I felt the need to bridge any racial tension, as though just because I hadn’t felt it, it wasn’t real- “Hey look, everyone can get along- I exist!” I would remind myself not to be too loud or too “ghetto”, because even though I knew that the “loud Black woman” was an awful, harmful, and unfair stereotype, I was not prepared to be myself in the face of it. I allowed, completely, a desire to be uniformly liked in a system that prefers Whiteness and maleness to control my behavior, my attitude, and my outlook on the world.
While I look back on this entirely filled with shame, and am wildly embarrassed to be writing this for people to see, I also recognize that these are the conditions in which we raise people, and this is what our society has told people to believe. We can’t expect children to radically oppose the norms of their surroundings, and it was, as with many people, the gift of education that lifted me out of that bullshit.
When I first became woke, toward the beginning of college, I was still docile. I was not prone to protest or see myself as a radical of any sort. I feared radicalism or militance. I was angry, sure, and armed with a new understanding of the true injustices faced not just by individual people, but imposed by the systems meant to aid in the function and progress of our country and the world, became more vocal. I began writing, as my own act of rebellion, but also because I like to, and because I have the power and privilege to have some sort of audience. And, from the moment I truly recognized the depths and layers of this oppression, and with each moment thereafter in which I was a witness, I became more and more Black. Now, as I have witnessed too many gross injustices to remain calm or act as a broker of understanding for people who frankly do not deserve it, my former identity and politics, tied to a horrific and demeaning system, have been broken, and in that I feel so amazingly fixed.
I do not look like a White person. I do not look like my mother.
My hair is wild and huge and curly; I am brown; my nose is wider, like my father’s. She is my mother, but no one has ever, nor are they likely to ever, walk up to me and say “please tell me about your experience as someone of Irish-American descent”. I move through the world with the appearance of a Black woman, and I am viewed and treated as such. I am so immensely fortunate to have never personally faced explicit racism. But, I am increasingly aware that, unlike my childhood perception of things, I very easily could. My White mother does not exempt me from my Blackness and what comes with it. Nor, I will add, would I want it to. I do not want a White identity that elevates me from others, especially others who are unreasonably oppressed and disenfranchised in most every sense of the word.
If you think I’m wrong, that that last statement is over the top, I’m sorry, but I have nothing to explain to you. I would have 5 years ago. I would have explained and listened and reasoned and compromised until everyone felt understood.
But, if you are in the camp that believes claiming widespread oppression and disenfranchisement is off-base, then I do not need to understand you- I have, we have spent hundreds of years understanding you. It is you who now needs to understand.
My little brother is 19 years old, 6 feet tall, and also Black. My little brother, who behaves in a way that I would say is entirely normal for a teenager/young adult, is no different from the many Black people we have senselessly lost to institutional violence. My little brother has committed crimes. So have I. I would, in fact, guess that I have committed more crimes than he has. I have probably used and possessed more criminalized drugs than he has. We have, because we’ve both been teenagers before, both shoplifted. Despite this, I reasonably worry that my brother could one day just die.
When we criminalize Black people, particularly Black men, and use it as a rationale for harming them, we do so erasing the fact that people of all races, genders, sexes, sexualities, religions, abilities, etc., commit crimes. Big crimes and small crimes, dangerous crimes and benign ones. And when we kill them for their crimes, we do so out of nothing but pure racism. My brother is less of a criminal than I have been, but I do not fear, really ever, racialized violence against myself, or being killed. That women are viewed as less dangerous than men shields me. My immense educational and class privilege shield me. My clothes shield me. My language shields me. None of the things listed have anything to do with crime or danger. They are all about perception, and our perception is dangerously, mortally flawed.
So now, I am angry. Openly, proudly, loudly, boldly, and with all of the strength I can muster, furious. Why wouldn’t I be angry that people who look like me and my brother are killed at random with the completely sheer excuse of criminality? Why wouldn’t I feel victimized? And I am a person with insane privilege. I am not at all representative of true victimization. While I fear for the life of my brother, I can not imagine the pain of being a Black mother. I can’t imagine being a person whose existence is constantly challenged and delegitimized, who perpetually struggles with an intersectionality so burdensome and robust it can be isolating, and who regularly fears the death of her children. My mom, a White mother of Black children, feels this fear daily, and also feels this anger. She monitors his behavior in a way she knows isn’t fair, but is reflective of her desire to keep him safe. She calls me furious about what could happen to her children and almost cried this morning at me telling her about the Alton Sterling video. But her anger comes off as an endearing fierceness, a “mama bear” mentality, while that of Black mothers is read as an unappealing foundational fault, not the reasonable response to unreasonable conditions that it is. These are the differences that impact people’s lives. More than that, they regularly take people’s lives.
To anyone who doesn’t really get any of this on a personal level- you can’t feel it because your brother or kid might not die, it’s just not that real for you, but you would really like to understand- stay wonderful. There are so many ways to be a powerful ally, which is, more than anything what I consider myself (I tend to believe that my own privilege excludes me from a group of people who experience very real and tangible horrors that I generally avoid). To anyone who believes it is fine to move through the world generally ignoring this, I am here to tell you that you are a part of the problem. And, finally, to anyone who thinks that I’m a stupid girl ranting about fake problems that don’t affect me- who thinks that my reaction to the deaths of people I’ve never met is overkill, or that if I want to see my brother safe I should just ensure that he lives by the letter of the law, or that I could straighten my hair, altering the form from which it literally grows from my head, to appear more “professional”, I have great news for you! I am using my financial and social privilege to create a chair factory in my backyard! I will soon have thousands of chairs for you to choose from so that you can take whatever seat makes you the most comfortable- since, after all, this is about you.
Rest in Power, Alton Sterling.
The rest of us will not rest.