Black Girl Returning from the Seat of Privilege
Do you really believe slavery is more important than America, and everything this country has accomplished? I exhale, stealing myself as James repeats what I can’t believe he said the first time; my face hot with blood as my fight-or-flight response is triggered. He may not be threatening my life physically, but the brutality of erasure is still heavy in the air. In a single breath he has deleted my history, culture, lived experience, as if I had been dreaming it all. I’m sure many a person of color who’s lived their lives in white spaces knows the feeling, and knows the shame felt when from exhaustion or a basic sense of life’s futility you choose flight, choose to remain silent in the face of erasure.
On this particular occasion I was sitting in the back seat of a friend’s lover’s car, and I should’ve known better. We were returning from the lover’s beach house on the Hampton’s, making the drive back to Boston and I should’ve anticipated this moment, when trapped in the tiny two-door car, privilege would rear its ugly head. And to be honest a part of me expected to encounter a certain amount of privileged ignorance, a certain amount of insensitivity, a certain number of microaggressions. But there is nothing micro about this moment and I was stunned into silence by the directness. I barely remember making one or two half-hearted attempts to assert my personhood, but I know they were laced with a sense of numbness, of apathy. So trapped on a four-hour drive with all of that privilege I exhaled, dismissing him. His words, his presence, the confidence with which he drove what must be the familiar road home from the Hampton’s back to Boston. I sat running my fingers through the long Black and white coat of my friend’s therapy dog, imagining myself somewhere, anywhere but here.
Unfortunately, an attack of any kind does not require the participation of the assaulted — so it continues. This he says is the problem with identity politics, it makes us believe that our differences are more important than what unites us as Americans. He is dismissing me too. My brown black body, the way I grew up with one grandmother critiquing my ain’t got none’s and the other cleaning chitlins at the sink for New Years. The way I heard you got to be twice as good to get half as much, the way my mother pitied me for having no Black teachers. The way my grandmother would whisper you work hard and go far because they wouldn’t let me when I was your age, the way I’d stand in church watching the women cry out to Jesus, body bucking in pain, voice loud but broken with rage with exhaustion from years of not being heard or seen. Erasure is as familiar as breathing, as the sun browning my skin, as the ache of invisibility, the certainty that you Black girl cannot really exist.
I imagine James sees the middle-aged Black couple riding around the Hampton’s in their top down Mercedes and pastel summer linens and thinks but look they’re living the dream too. Just as Trump can get the endorsement of Alma Rosa and say look Black people love me. I have chosen flight, so I don’t try to help him see all that it took, all that they have given up to get here. If he really looked he could see it’s right there, in the chemical relaxing of the woman’s impossible straight edges, in the tight two-hand grip of the man driving cautiously through the sleepy white town, careful not to arouse the ire or suspicion of those privileged enough to blend into the scenery. When James cites his Black friend as a source to back up his hollow thesis that people like Ta-nehisi Coates are dividing this country. I take another breath. Inhale peace exhale joy.
People like Ta-nehisi Coates are not dividing this country, but what if it was true? Perhaps division is necessary. Perhaps we need to be disentangled from each other for a bit so we can step back and really look at each other. When Coates writes about the lingering impact of Jim Crow, about Red Lining in Chicago and the resulting wealth disparity between Black and white Americans, he is pulling us apart, illustrating just how much of our differences are manmade, constructed. To say why can’t you just be American or why can’t you just be more like me (which was James’ essential argument, whether he knows it or not) ignores the reality that many privileged white people of the past and present have insured that this cannot be. Black people learned to eat chitlins and pig feet because we were given what was left over, we learned to moan in church because it was the only place we felt our moans would be heard, and we learned to sing the blues because we knew there was only so much the white man’s God would do for us.
Yes, we are all the same, but our differences matter. And if for the sake of the country I have to forget my history because it makes you uncomfortable, and forget your history because it also makes you uncomfortable, then what you’re asking is for a sweet white lie, and haven’t we had enough lies? If you asked many Americans I think they’d say no. After all the call to Make America Great Again is a call to return to the grand illusion that we are a country where everyone, regardless of race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality/religion can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That all one needs for success is grit and luck. It is a call to look permanently away from those of us who were born unlucky.
But it must be said, Black folk have been balancing on the edge of despair for far too long, and it’s hard. So hard to hear even those who would call themselves liberal, those who would name themselves champions for change and equality, who would be allies, who brag about the privilege of meeting Civil Rights Activists and in the same breath call Black Lives Matter activists a group of thugs, or mutter Black on Black crime as I grieve over another soul lost to fear and privilege.
It’s common now to hear folks saying that this country needs to have a serious conversation about race, and I agree. But I would make an addendum to that statement. We don’t need a conversation, we need Black and Brown voices to be heard and respected. We need a conversation where every white person takes a beat, maybe two, to stop and think about the words coming out of their mouths, about who they might be hurting, about the wounds already buried deep in our flesh.about the author