I am at my girlfriend’s father’s house waiting on her newly 90 year old grandmother to show up. Her family are nervous for me to meet the woman. I can’t tell if it’s because I’m her granddaughter’s girlfriend or because I’m black. They keep huddling together and whispering. I eye my girlfriend’s twin who has married a Korean man to anger the family. The son has married a Swedish woman to anger the family. I once asked the twin if she loved her husband and she shrugged and said she initially went out with him to upset her racist parents. Apparently they weren’t only racists; they were also xenophobes & homophobes. My girlfriend assured me that in the eyes of her parents, being a lesbian was as bad as dating a black person. I thought of my own family, how my mother responded when I told her I was seeing someone, that I was happy & that my girlfriend called me everyday to tell me I was beautiful. She looked at me, dressed as I always was back then, in a peasant skirt & a peasant blouse, each wrinkled. “Does she see you when you’re dressed like that?” she asked. I nodded. “She must be white,” she said. I looked at her and nodded, expecting a lecture on racism. “Black women don’t know how to love each other like that,” she said. We were in the doctor’s office. I wanted to ask her so much, but she stopped me and said, “We’re too busy picking on each other, trying to make each other perfect, trying to make each other look respectable and decent for white people for us to say some wrinkled black woman is beautiful.”
By the time I was in junior high school, my white NPR voice perfected, the white kids were hanging out with each other only. It was as if some switch had been turned on, as if my once white friends had suddenly seen me for who I was: a black girl with the voice of a radio announcer. Junior high school sucks for everyone; there are thousands of recorded stories of feeling different, strange; stories of isolation. I didn’t sound like a typical black girl, so, for the most part, the black girls avoided me. I had two friends, which was enough. We were wild but good girls; we pretended to be lesbians but only when the teachers were looking. We wanted to upset things. My closest friend was a gay white guy; he was often being harassed, people pushed him and laughed in his face, spat at him. He said he and I were the same, two people in the wrong bodies at the wrong school. He wore young women’s clothes. I loved him because he was fashionable in junior high school. Because despite the bullying, he came to school every day, fiercely dressed. I cursed people out, twisted my face at them. He never said anything to them, wanting to hold himself above them. I could never bring myself to always be that person, the silent and strong one.
At my girlfriend’s father’s house, the grandmother showed up. She touched me on the shoulder & I turned around and melted as I always do when I’m around elderly people. I smiled and said hello. “Now, who are you?” she asks. I tell her my name; my girlfriend quickly appears beside me, puts her arm around my waist, “This is my girlfriend,” she says, “I told you about her.” The grandmother beams and then says, “Well, you are the prettiest nigger I’ve ever seen.” I’m amused. Her son rushes over. “Mom! We can’t say that anymore! It’s not PC.” It’s the beginning days of the PC crisis. It is the summer of 1997 and I’m standing in an historical district in my hometown. MLK, Jr Boulevard is three blocks away. I’m on the block of wealthy white families. Three blocks over, poor black families. There is nothing PC about this neighborhood.
The grandmother is flustered. “What am I supposed to call her?” She’s visibly upset and I can’t tell if it’s because she has to learn something new or because she’s being corrected by her son, in front of me and the family’s black maid to boot. “African American,” he says, then looks at me, “right?” I shrug and say whatever. I touch the grandmother on her arm, tell her happy birthday and say thank you for saying I’m pretty. I laugh and ask her if she watches much television, if she’s seen all the gorgeous black women out there. She shakes her head and forces a grin. She’s still upset about her son. It makes no difference to me what they call me. All I hear is “not PC” and know they aren’t interested in change; they’re interested in presenting themselves as change.
When then Senator Obama was running for Presidential office, blowing up the word “Change” in ostentatious red white & blue, I knew the GOP weren’t angry because they hadn’t capitalized on the word first. They were pissed about the possibility of performing change for the next four years.
Change is the equivalent of a lobotomy, it seems, where race and gender and sexuality and religion are concerned. All these man-made constructions of power. Yet another white guy has said that my posts are not about race, that they’re really about bad choices in friendship. A black guy said my mama needs to come pick me up, that I’m making bad choices about where to live, who to talk to. Mansplaining, I reckon & worse, whitemansplaining. But truly it’s just change. They can’t stand to think that a woman, a black woman, has the right to chose her life, to chose her friends, to experience their racisms, to learn from their racisms, to expect to be anywhere in the world, to live anywhere in the world, without apology, without fear, without dread of going to dinner with the wrong white person.
The other night, I shared a bottle of wine and a couple of tapas with a new friend. I can’t recall the number of times we’ve sat next to each other or across from each other, talking about growing up, about mothers and mothering, how often we’ve caught our tears just before they tumbled out of our tear ducts. She tells me that I always find a way to talk about race; I scrunch up my face, tilt my head, and she says, “You do You do”. I say, “Yes, I guess I do,” but I’m trying to battle my own memories of our conversations. “When my husband asks me what we talked about, I tell him we talked about race & he says, “Again? Can’t you two talk about anything else?””. I scrunch up my face some more, trying to see clearly, her face, wrestling against its own memories, my hand just shy of touching her hand, the memories of her childhood rushing at her from all sides. I want to pull my face off, throw it on the ground, watch it shatter. It’s not an accusation she’s levied against me; she’s clearly braced herself for our outing. But who wants to braced against while sharing a bottle of wine?
She tells me that white people have a hard time talking about race. I ask her if white people have a hard time talking about race or about racial relationships. We ponder this for awhile. I silently ask myself why I’ve asked one white person to speak for all white people. She tells me there is fear, discomfort, that she herself is afraid of putting her foot in her mouth, of saying something wrong and not knowing it’s wrong. We have a great conversation, as we always do. She says white people never talk about race amongst themselves. I tell her that’s impossible. “Maybe you don’t use the word “white” or “race” but how can you be a human being born and raised in the U.S. and not have completely absorbed race?” I’m thinking discourse and ideology; I’m thinking behaviors and attitudes. I tell her about one of the ladies at the community potluck, how she said she likes her food to be pure, how she kept emphasizing pure. I tell my friend, “That was about race; that was about cooking as a white person, without seasoning, spices.” I tell her about the time I rented an apartment in Indiana, that when I arrived the landlord had the lease ready for me to sign, that he pointed out important bits on the lease, the one about no candles, the one about no incense, the one about no spicy food cooking. I tell her about our argument, how he said the neighbors complained about the spicy food coming from the apartment I was currently standing in. How they complained about the smell of incense. “They were Indian,” he says by way of explanation. I lose my mind. I scream at him, tell him he better find me another apartment, one that wasn’t owned by a racist. He stumbles, said it wasn’t about race, repeats that the people who lived there were Indian. I want to strangle him. He stumbles through “curry” and “those Indian spices you know how they are with their spices but you won’t be cooking with all of that, you’re not Indian” I want to open a box of spices and throw them in his eyes. I yell at him about the foul odor of baked ham, of boiling potatoes, of boiling beans. I ask him if those foods are banned, he says “Of course not, now. . .” I cut him off. I look at my lover and tell her we need to leave. I tell him again that he needs to find me an apartment. I stomp out. His son, the sheriff, has pulled up outside. I tell him he and his father need to find me an apartment or at the least give me some newspapers so I can find an apartment. I tell him I rented without full knowledge that his father was a racist. He looks alarmed. My new friend is laughing and I’m enjoying telling her this story, enjoying outing another racist, although I don’t tell her his name.
Earlier in the conversation, she tells me that it’s a burden that black people have to carry, explaining race and racism to white people. I nod. I am in agony. I tell her that it shouldn’t be our burden. “I agree,” she says, “I totally agree, but it is.” I tell her it’s not, that so many activists of color are taking stands to not educate white people about race. I can see that we have our tongues tied, that we’re tripping over the right words to say. What she means is that when a white person does something racist and they’re not aware, that it’s a black person’s burden to call them out. What I mean to say is that white people need to do some serious unpacking of everything. Everything.
A few days ago I wanted to share a post, a poem by a friend of color. When I went to the website that had published her poem, I decided to look through their archives. I counted 25 names before I found a name belonging to a person of color. Twenty five individual posts before the editor posted a poem by a person of color. The next one, 8 posts later, then another one 14 posts later, another one two posts later & I think “okay, they caught on!”. The next one, 58 posts later.
I get obsessive about these things. When I worked for the Boy’s Club in my hometown, I drove through all of the housing projects looking for sightings of white people. The only time I saw a white person who lived in a housing project was when they had a biracial child with them. Even then it was rare. I asked someone in housing where the poor white people went, she said in houses in poor neighborhoods. I asked her why they didn’t go into housing projects and she rolled her eyes at me: “They keep the housing projects for the black people; they think we’ll tear up their houses.”
Sometimes I think about the various white professors I’ve had, the ones who have either said I was “too smart for my own good” or too theoretical or the one in Houston who made me go to her office after the submission of every essay so she could quiz me on my own ideas. “I just don’t believe you’re the kind of person who can produce such sophisticated, ideas” she said. My paper three I asked her what she could possibly have against Black people; she was from Spain. Like my friend in Poland, she’d seen Black people on television, in films.
A Facebook friend loves to tell me that she’s not racist, that she doesn’t know any racists, despite the fact that she was born and raised in the U.S., that she now lives in the South, that she reads books from publishing houses with a dismal rate of publishing people of color, if any at all, that she watches television and views films that cast people of color in negative lights, if any lights at all. When I tell my friends that there are restaurants on the busiest street in this city I live in where waitresses will look right at me and move past me, as if I’m not there, they don’t believe me. This is 2015, they want to say. Or worse, That’s the South for you, they want to say.
Two years ago I was at the Millay Colony in upstate New York. I often went to a coffeehouse in the closest, largest town. The woman behind the counter there also wouldn’t wait on me, even when customers would come in and say, “She was ahead of me,” she’d look just beyond me and ask the blank spot behind me what I wanted to have. A simple person would have left that place alone, but life is complicated. I’ve been that simple person, I’ve refused to give money to racist establishments; I’ve contacted managers and had people fired. In the end, those people are still racists, just as the county clerks in Tennessee are still homophobic, despite now also being jobless.
Living ain’t easy, no matter the weather.
One person wants to know why I chose to live in an all-white community. I wonder if this person also wants to know why we’re still celebrating “the first Black” this or “the first Mexican” that. I wonder if this person also wants to know why a Black person in New York City would even bother leaving the house at all, considering the rates of police profiling and harassment. I wonder if this person also wants to know why a woman who has been raped by a man would still go out with men. He’s likely the kind of guy who thinks a transgender person is bringing the random verbal abuse on themselves; the kind of guy who supported the move by Brooklyn police to tell women to not wear shorts or short skirts in the evening because there was a groper on the streets.
No matter the weather, living ain’t easy.
Back in 2007, when I lived in Indiana, the chair of the English Department told me I should go into the class and apologize for being different, for being Black. “Just say “I’m sorry”,” he said. We often got into heated debates about his attempts to whiten me for the classroom. The mentor he assigned to me, a man from the History Department, said, “I don’t have the problems you have in the classroom. But, of course, I’m much taller than you, and height intimidates people.” I looked over his shoulder and he quickly added: “And I’m a man, that makes a difference.” A long sigh from me finally elicited: “Well, I mean, I’m white, so I mean, I can say, well, I mean, I can be well direct with them about certain well I mean okay, well, I heard some students complaining about Professor X and when I heard what they said, I thought about it, then I said to them, “hey, those all sound like good ideas Professor X has, I might implement those,” well, yeah, it did occur to me that they didn’t like Professor X because he’s a Black man who happens to be very rigorous.” He promised that he’d show me some techniques, some things I could do to make the students forget I was Black, so we could just get to the business of education.
If I had a pot of gold for every job I left because I understood the racial atmosphere wouldn’t change. . .
But here I am in my office at work, this historically white college in this historically white town. I have one colleague here who often says, “All the stuff you say, I can say that to them, because I’m white, they don’t feel threatened by me,” and I often reply, “Well, it’s also that they can feel guilty with you; they can feel shame with you.” My new friend says it’s fear, discomfort. It’s that, too, I reckon. And the unease of recognition, of acknowledgement. I once had a student who was so distraught during our Caribbean lit class, that she came to my office and said she was basically going radical. I asked her what she was willing to give up. She said everything. I told her to give me her writing utensils, her clothes, her car, her imported fruits. She wasn’t willing to give up everything, none of us are.
Contemplating difference, lazily, leads us to thinking we have to give up everything. At AWP in 2001, I sat in a room and listened to a white professor from Vanderbilt angrily say that if we make room for Phillipino literature, we’ll have to make room for everyone else. I’d been in another panel about the lyric and another one about writing cover letters that will get you into literary journals. The white aggression was everywhere and overwhelming. In the lyric panel, the panelists talked about what constituted good writing. From what I could gather, it was any musical form that had no jagged edges, no frayed corners, no thick tongues, no foreign tongues. The only examples they offered were white poets whose lines all sounded so much alike I thought they were reading from one poet writing under various names. In the panel on cover letters, one editor said he wanted professional letters, nothing personal. I left feeling dampened. Even in creative writing, the suit jackets were tightly buttoned, the collars were pressed and neatly folded. We were all to live behind a white mask, difference was not to be tolerated.
It is not our differences that will kill is. It is our belief that the thing that makes us most different, our skin color, that has been the end of us and will continue to be the end of us. There is power in difference, Audre Lorde often noted. Difference is dynamic and chaotic, the force of change.