On Shame and Moving Forward

I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Chapel Hill that is separated from Section Eight housing by one major road, its name recently changed from Airport Road to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. If Chapel Hill were its own state, it wouldn’t swing like North Carolina. Not only are there Obama stickers everywhere, but every other car also has one of those goofy/clever “Coexist” bumper stickers on it. It seemed like all the parents I knew were somehow connected to either Duke or the University of North Carolina. Chapel Hill is a liberal enclave in a state that is barely in the South, depending on who you ask.
The first time I saw my brother weep from something that was not my fault was when he was in seventh grade. I was in the fifth grade, and I vividly remember feeling so frozen when he finally composed himself well enough to tell me what was going on. He told me that his classmates had called him an Oreo: black on the outside, and white on the inside. He warned me that they would call me that too.

The first time someone called me a nigger I was 12 years old. I was at a tennis camp in Winston-Salem. One of my fellow campers thought it would be a good idea to tease the golf campers, who stayed in the dorms next to us. One of the golfers took particular offense to this and threatened Morgan. When I stepped in to defend him, the golfer called me a nigger bitch—an overreaction so extreme it was almost comical. He yelled it over his shoulder, and ran into his dorm room, letting the door close and lock behind him.

“It is hard for me to explain, but let me put it this way: no frat boy has ever stopped me at the door to ask if he can touch my afro, because I don’t have one.”

I’d gotten into an argument or two before that, and definitely some more afterwards, but few fights have affected me the way this one did. I broke down like I never had before. I sobbed to the camp counselors, nearly incoherent, that it had all become clear to me.

I was wrong. It was not all clear. It took almost a decade for me to understand the golf camper’s words as the quintessential “nigger moment,” Professor Elijah Anderson’s name for a moment of acute, racially based disrespect. A nigger moment is when you are forced to recognize that you are on the outside, you are other. Ten years later I don’t feel that same intense pain anymore, but I pity the child that I was. While she might not have had the vocabulary to explain her shame, she realized early on that if you are Black, it does not matter how smart, rich, or well behaved you are—even the dumbest of white men can always, always reduce you to just another nigger.

Run-of-the-mill racism doesn’t really work that way anymore. Much of the racism I’ve had to explain to students at Yale is unspoken and unchallenged. I empathize deeply with the outcry from the people of color here. The events of the past few weeks are not minor slights that have been blown out of proportion. I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that for many students of color at Yale, the past few weeks have elicited a series of post-traumatic flashbacks, because that’s what this is, it’s trauma. It is the trauma of being reduced to one of the ugliest words in the English language, or of watching your older brother weep and knowing that you’re next.

Between twelve and twenty-one years old I put my head down and I worked hard to get to where I am now. Like most elite college students, I’m smart, but I’m not that smart. During high school, my peers always seemed surprised by how well I was doing. They would point out that I was the only Black person on the tennis team, and in my singing group, as if they were saying something insightful, and as if I were not already aware. I blocked all this out. If you suspect that some suppressed rage is coming up now, you are absolutely right.

if you are black, it does not matter how smart, rich or well-behaved you are—even the dumbest of white men can always, always reduce you to just another nigger.

At the same time, I am aware of my role in the systemic racism at Yale. I am Black, but my skin is more coffee- than charcoal-colored. My hair is relaxed, or chemically straightened, rather than natural. This was a conscious decision. I opted not to have natural hair because at a young age, I noticed that people responded better to me when I had straight hair. More smiles and more eye contact made the choice pretty simple. Because of my appearance (as well as my upbringing), it is easier for me to navigate predominantly white spaces than it is for others. It is hard for me to explain, but let me put it this way: no frat boy has ever stopped me at the door to ask if he can touch my afro because I don’t have one.

In the process of integrating into mainstream Yale, I distanced myself from many of the Black women on this campus. My freshman year I joined an a cappella group, and though it was never my intention to dissociate from the Afro-American House, conflicting a cappella rehearsal time gave me a perfectly good excuse not to go to Black Student Alliance meetings.

I attended the first Yale Black Women’s Coalition meeting my freshman year. I left the meeting knowing that I would not return. At the meeting, the women spoke of their frustrations with interacting with other students, both white and Black, but though I was only a few days into my freshman year, something in me whispered that this was not my place. I realize that I distanced myself from these women because we had different experiences, and I did not want to get close to their pain. I am ashamed to admit that I am also complicit in this system that has worked to oppress so many of us, complicit in that I knew there were problems, but I avoided them when they didn’t seem to affect me. White men who have felt so attacked the past few weeks think that I don’t sympathize with them but I do. I now know how it feels to realize you are not, in fact, one of the good guys.

The guilt isn’t productive. Eventually, we have to realize that. A lot of white people have asked me what they can do to be a good ally to the women of color on this campus and my typical spiel is that they should just talk about race. It seems small, but it is not, because white people can choose to ignore race. They are so afraid of saying something wrong when it comes up that they don’t address it. The result of this is that the vast majority of microaggressions I have experienced on this campus have happened in the past two weeks. I recently asked a white friend to come to a lunch to talk about race on campus. He looked back down at his computer screen and he waved his hand, saying, “I don’t wanna hear all of that.” In the moment I was hurt that he had just dismissed my problems, not with the intention of making them go away, but of making them once again invisible to him. The moment passed, and I questioned if it was justified for me to even be hurt. One of the key components of a microaggression is the uncertainty that comes with it, and a lot of times, the uncertainty comes down to one question: Am I overreacting?

White men who have felt so attacked the past few weeks think that I don’t sympathize with them but I do. I now know how it feels to realize you are not, in fact, one of the good guys.

I stopped questioning myself at that same lunch my friend refused to attend, where I met a Black freshman in my college. I was the only other Black student at the meeting, so I spent about forty minutes talking to my roommates and the faculty members who were there about racial tensions on campus. I tried to make it clear how amazing my close friends had been throughout all of this, supporting me, coming to events with me, and even bringing me food because they knew I had stopped eating. When I paused, the freshman offhandedly remarked that she had yet to speak to anyone about these issues. I nearly choked on my food. “You haven’t spoken to anyone?” I asked her. She shook her head and I don’t know if tears welled in my eyes first or in hers, but suddenly everyone in the room was crying, faculty included. I cried because I was ashamed that I had neglected the freshmen in my own college, who of course did not feel comfortable challenging recent friends in the name of racial justice. In her, I saw myself, thirteen years old in a supposedly accepting environment and yet still isolated, and still trying to explain to classmates why it was racist to start a White Student Alliance and call it the Kool Kids Klub. That is to say, I saw myself, thirteen years old and angry, screaming into a void.

Most white liberals do not want to believe that racism exists on this campus because the Yale they applied to was the same diverse wonderland that I was hoping to attend. They do not realize that a dismissal or a refusal to engage hurts more than any ignorant comment they could make. Black people constantly have to ask themselves, was I just rejected because the person did not like me, or was it because of my race? That uncertainty wears on you, makes you unsure of your place in the world, and ultimately takes a toll on your mental health. When I say that white people need to talk about race, to their student organizations, to their Black friends and their white friends, I’m not asking something small. I’m asking them to do something that they have never done before.

I can envision a world in which I think of my blackness and I don’t have to think of all the ways in which it makes me vulnerable, and others frightened. Many people have asked what we’re going to do when all of this dies down. Maybe by the time you read this it will have died down. People are afraid that all of the tears and the hurt will have been for nothing, and we will simply return to the status quo. All I can ask of you is that you let some of the stress and trauma of these past few weeks stay with you, because it will certainly stay with me. If in order to feel motivated you need examples of Black people getting discredited, attacked and killed in the media, there are many. This violence is bred from ignorance, and in the past few weeks, Yale has proved that a liberal arts education does not exempt you from ignorance.

These days I’m tired of crying. I’m tired of calling my best friend in tears, only to discover that he is also already crying. It is disappointing to have those on the outside of the issue misinterpret the campus climate. I just read a Facebook post by someone I assumed would be sympathetic, calling the March of Resilience a “pantomime of a protest.” I cannot fault this man for not being able to see my perspective because I suspect that he has been reading the same articles that I’ve been waking up to every morning, the ones that have been portraying my friends as “shrieking girls” and my fellow heartbroken students as “spoiled.” I may not be able to package my fury and the stifling resentment in a way you think is most productive, but if the alternative is doing nothing, then I’ll stick with what I’ve got. I am a cynical person, but I cannot be cynical about racism or equal rights. If I truly thought that it did not in fact get better, then I would have no reason to get up in the morning. It’s been hard, but here I am.

3 thoughts on “On Shame and Moving Forward”

  1. This is a powerful statement. To those who toss easy insults at young people — especially people of color — who are speaking up and speaking out, I say this is precisely *the job* of a college student. And it’s the job of older people to listen, engage, and try not to be cynical, dream-crushing assholes.

    Thank you for writing about your experience, with such clarity and grace.

  2. I doubt many of the white men on your campus who should be reading this are, but I’d like to address them. Unintentional racism is still racism. You may well be coming from a place of being convinced there is no point in trying to empathize with the experience of a black woman, because it is so outside of your own experience, but the willingness to TRY matters. It matters enormously. You will almost certainly fall short of the reality you are trying to imagine, but it still entirely possibly to extrapolate from moments in your own life enough that you are willing to HEAR what is being told to you with a bigger ears, with widening eyes. You don’t have to pretend to understand her experience as she feels it, you can be willing to take a good shot at it. If you are reluctant to try, it’s probably because you are afraid of the discomfort you will feel if you come close to succeeding. Discomfort at the realization that marginalization really makes the marginalized feel “less than,” discomfort at realizing that in a thousand small, perhaps unconscious ways, you’ve been part of the problem. Well a little discomfort isn’t going to kill you, and you can’t get to the other side of it unless you go through it. But it is so worth it. Don’t wave away someone who wants to talk about race. Listen to them. Seek to understand. Seek to change.
    Bria, I’d like to share a with you a piece I just Huffposted on “The Importance of the Empathetic Imagination” if I may.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-olmsted/the-importance-of-the-emp_b_8656164.html

  3. Many thanks for such a powerful and inspired statement. I especially appreciate your recognition of not always being one of the “good guys;” the greatest tragedy of modern society is the inherent need to contribute to a system far beyond any individual’s control. That said, it is (as you’ve said) the power of the individual to reduce you to hateful words that relies and yields a part of that same system. Let me clarify: I’m currently in China and have been harassed, unprompted, by several Chinese for being an American “white bandit” or something similar, but these are words alone; the system (which in China is a business-focused view of the US with a total embrace of our media) respects foreigners enough that I am never at a considerable systemic disadvantage. Compare this to the US now, where similar verbal degradation harks to the slew of racially motivated horrors we’ve seen in the last few years. While I could simply affirm your strength as a person, emploring you to not let such a simple bigot reduce you to anything less than you truky are, it is the reminder if a system that has done just that that carries weight. (I’m sorry if I’m making false assumptions here, this is merely my interpretation.) And the only way to truly change such a daunting system is through repeated, if small, action. Race is a topic that cannot be avoided any more…literally, between protests and news coverage, it is an issue that all now know, like it or not. However, it now comes down to us as individuals to do something about it. I said earlier that an individual cannot truly change such a system as society, however through small, repeated actions, there is hope to inspire enough others to do the same, creating a new system, not merely graopling with the old, but replacing it entirely. I believe that many white people, myself included, are usually hesitant to discuss race because of a sense of guilt but also a feeling of helplessness; an inability to right so many wrongs. However resolving these issues needn’t be so daunting: acknowledging when the system has given you an advantage, consciously overcoming any innate prejudice (on both sides; try introducing yourself as a white, male, Southern Christian into a race conversation and see how people react–I’m not trying to victimize myself, just underscoring the inherent duality of tolerance), and treating others with basic decency is so powerful, yet so simple! All it takes is consciousness. Guilt is counterproductive; you are your own person, so create the society you want to see succeed your own.

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