Look and See

I hiccupped into the phone as hot tears spilled down my cheeks. My face burned and my voice caught in my throat as I tried to explain to my mom what I had just found out—the superintendent of the residential college I was living in as part of my summer job was refusing to let me move out of the roach-infested room. They were taking the word of the white girl in a suite with an empty room in another college. She admitted she didn’t actually know me, but still told them she wasn’t comfortable living with me. I was weary by the time this happened, crying from all the moments that the melanin that graced my skin was used to make me feel small and unworthy.

Those moments when I had to tell my teammates that yes, I can feel it when they put sticks, leaves, and rocks in the kinks that form my afro; that yes, I could feel it when they poured water on my hair; that yes, of course I can wash my hair; that no, the cloudy white liquid dripping from my hair while we practiced in a downpour was not my hair lactating but in fact, leave-in conditioner being washed out. Those moments when my coaches didn’t recognize me while leading recruits on campus tours because I changed my hair, and then tried to hide their initial recoil beneath a tight smile after I touched their arm in greeting. They would laugh in the moment, as if the fact that I became just another indistinguishable brown body to them as soon as we left practice were something that was humorous. Each time was as fresh and as raw to me as the abrupt end of the self-assured bliss of my childhood—when my five-year-old self learned that people could be afraid of my blackness. I remember standing beside a kiddie pool because the children of a family friend refused to let me come in—they were worried my black would come off in the water.

Those moments when my coaches didn’t recognize me while leading recruits on campus tours because I changed my hair, and then tried to hide their initial recoil beneath a tight smile after I touched their arm in greeting.

As a freshman I quickly learned that there were rules I needed to know to navigate college: to not put on the navy blue sweats provided by the track team before leaving campus for practice because people will assume I am a custodian and ask me to clean something for them; to not look too self-assured while browsing envelopes in the post office or people will assume I work there and demand I help them with something; to always have my ID card handy to swipe into residential colleges because people will shut the gate when they notice me walking behind them. I considered all these to be annoyances, unfortunate yet unavoidable aspects of my condition.

I let myself feel safe from the violence against Black folk that I saw far too often in the media—until I found myself on Yale’s campus, caught between a scared white man with a gun and two young Black men. The New Haven Police and Yale Police officers who responded that night spoke first to the white man, taking his claim of self-defense at face value. They waited nearly forty-five minutes to speak to the young men and me. No one on campus was notified of the incident that night, though it happened within one hundred feet of Morse and Stiles. It took days of pestering before the administration sent a tight-lipped email to the students, stating that the man with the gun had been banned from campus. I felt betrayed during my meetings with the administrators tasked with keeping campus safe; we spent hours debating the legitimacy of the threat posed by the man who drew the gun. The ambivalence of their response left a bitter taste in my mouth—they refused to admit that the man had posed a threat or had received preferential treatment from the responding officers. Administrators, apparently moved by my tears of frustration, offered up examples of experiences that helped them “get it”: traveling to Africa frequently and being the only white person in the room for weeks; going to a discussion at the Afro-American Cultural Center and being the only white person in the room, but recalling a distinctly pleasant surprise at how well they were treated.

Each time was as fresh and as raw to me as the abrupt end of the self-assured bliss of my childhood—when my 5-year-old self learned that people could be afraid of my blackness. I remember standing beside a kiddie pool because the children of a family friend refused to let me come in—they were worried my black would come off in the water.

I struggled to articulate my experience on campus: what it feels like when I greet members of my athletic team on the street, people I’ve seen every day for the past three years, and they think I’m a panhandler and ignore me; or what it feels like when people shrug as they put their hands in my hair, saying “it’s too cool not to touch”; or what it feels like when white students in my seminars blatantly interrupt, ignore, or try to talk over me when I speak. I knew the white administrators I met with this summer would never know the feeling of the knot that formed in my stomach as a white man violently contorted himself when we passed on the stairs to ensure that no part of him touched me. You can’t know what you can’t see, can you?

I knew the white administrators I met with this summer would never know the feeling of the knot that formed in my stomach when a white man violently contorted himself when we passed on the stairs to ensure that no part of him touched me. You can’t know what you can’t see, can you?

To be a Black woman is to insist on my value in a world that is intent on disabusing me of any notions of self-worth. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “All my life I’d heard people tell their Black boys and Black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’ These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.”

To my sisters, in case no one has told you yet today: I see you. I hear you. You matter. You belong. I stand with you as we refuse to accept half as much.

One thought on “Look and See”

  1. –The story of my life and the lives of so many young, gifted, and black people I know.

    While some people naively perceive these instances as inconveniences, they are actually microaggressions that accumulate and destroy the spirit: from the person who slams the gate in your face at the entrance of your college to the professor who assumes you cheated because she refuses to accept your brilliance. These shouldn’t be issues–at Yale or elsewhere–in 2015.

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