I wrote these words two months ago, but the events of the past weeks in regards to Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles drew me to revisit them today and finally post this…
I take a seat at the diversity training the way I usually do: leaned forward and legs crossed. I nod at a few familiar faces (didn’t I see you at the last workshop?) and settle in for three hours of pair-shares, somber documentary clips, and a zoom through the social justice lexicon. I’m a race vet, fingers stained with ink and eyes hyper-vigilant.
The PowerPoint presentation flickers into being, and I enter the trenches of race education once more.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve attended trainings, seminars, workshops, conferences, and lectures about racism and oppression. It started in college when my brown-black self was still waking up to the words that began to build frameworks around my experiences, around the early moments that prickled because of some then-unknown source. The moments where I felt…off and didn’t understand why. I went to my first race talk on campus as a freshman, and suddenly those sensations took on names.
Microaggressions. Internalized racism. Whiteness. Assimilation.
Learning those words, saturating myself in my country’s history of racial discrimination held a quaint sort of tragedy: it liberated me from the belief that the summary of my past experiences amounted to little more than paranoia. It also clamped hard on my heart when I realized that I have always been an alienated body. Few people named the reality for me, so until that moment in the college auditorium when other students shared their stories, the moments of feeling inferior fell through my fingers–unacknowledged.
I know now there are no stages of grief. There are also no stages for waking up and realizing how black you are. Words were given to me that clarified colors once blurred, so I understood why being the only brown girl in my elementary school class made me self-conscious in crowds, why being praised as “exotic” by strangers raised this gilded fence around my self-image so I was approached as special but also less than normal. Why I lied when my cool Latina classmate in middle school mocked me for getting straight As, and I told her I got a C because only the white kids flaunted their high grades and honors classes. Why my fingers twitched when my white friends reached to twist their fingers in my hair. Why I divided myself into percentages when asked the question triggered by my skin: What are you?
Why I carry the memory of Amadou Diallo’s face years after I saw his story play out on the news when I was a 7. He haunts me still.
Once I had words, sieves to contain and interpret these feelings, these experiences, I craved more. For so long I felt denied from experiencing the weight of all this, these sins done against the communities tied to me by shared story and shared blood. Now I wanted to know all our stories and hear them affirmed again and again and again so the fire ignited in me would never dare die.
But knowing is one thing. Dealing with the cost of that knowledge, the hows and whys of your people’s suffering is another. And in my stubborn, self-righteous heart, I thought that all the interracial dialogues and real-talk had armed me for it, trained me to process my past quickly so I could march to the next battlefield. I tried not to look back, convinced that what lay there couldn’t help me. So I bound past hurts to my chest, reined in my tears, and made smiles my armor.
Then I attended what I thought would just be another diversity training, and we read the article Why I Am An Angry Black Woman by Dominique Matti out loud. These words struck me:
Because when I got married people assumed I was pregnant. Because people who know I’m married call my husband my “baby daddy.” Because my pregnancy with my son was plagued with videos of black lives being taken in cold blood. Because their murderers still walk the streets. Because the nation sent me a message that my son’s life didn’t matter. Because when Tamir Rice was murdered I curled up on the bed and sobbed, cupping my belly. Because my son heard me sobbing from the inside. Because they don’t care about us. Because when I was 7 months pregnant my neighbor asked me to help him move a dresser up a flight of stairs. Because I am not seen as a woman. Because I am not allowed to be fragile.
The moment teetered, held still for a quiet, pregnant moment, and then I dropped away into a crashing wave of everything because that’s what I felt–everything. Every childhood slight crystallized, every silencing word made louder, every murder seen, every spot of color lonely and lost in a pale world–I felt it all. Salient identity in that moment? black, black, BLACK.
The staff and students in the room kept talking, their voices passing over me like distant breezes, but I was untouched. My fingers fisted into the folds of my dress and I tugged hard on my tears, ramming them back inside that pit where Black Girls’ neglected feelings pool.
I am never prepared for those moments where it hits me all over again that I, me, not just a person on the news or in a class lecture, hurt at the hands of Racism. Not as much as others, a voice whispers, and in many ways, that is true. There is so much suffering I have never known. But as a friend reminded me, “Pain is pain,” and when the cobbled walls of a well of pain is pricked enough, with a crack it opens and all that grief floods out.
It’s not even all my pain–it’s the weight of wrong done against people who are treated with suspicion, doubt, and dismissal in my country. It’s seeing it in the news everyday, seeing our government cast blame onto black people, immigrant people, my people while simultaneously neglecting to hear their cries for justice. It’s seeing the polite apathy in too many churches because “our” issues are too political and divisive rather than daily realities.
And yet…when I leave the training shaking, it’s not because of these huge overarching issues. It’s all there in some amorphous sea of grief inside me, but in that moment, I cry for myself. I rarely cry for the little exotic brown girl and the preteen mixed kid who called herself a mutt and the anxious college student on the margins of too many places and the adult woman more comfortable discussing other people’s racial pain from an informed distance than acknowledging her own.
I don’t feel my feet as I cross over pavement because I’m pouring out, every emotion vivid in orange and red–like the dots smarting in your eyes when you look straight at the sun. It’s all there, inescapable because my walls have collapsed. I don’t even care enough that people on the sidewalk can see my tears–I don’t care.
Every thought swells to the surface, unfiltered, and I cry for myself at last.
I am fragile then, whispery cracks webbed across my body so even as I catch my breath and return to work and the day ends, I feel that any slight pressure, a glance, a brush of compassion, will undo me again. I find myself yearning to talk to someone and resisting the urge because I’m afraid that I’ll pour myself through and drown someone else. I have no energy to prop my walls; I want a cocoon where no headlines exist to catalog black tragedies.
What happens to black and brown girls when we stop being strong like the world tells us to be?
I pray that God finds them like he finds me again and again, stumbling on blurry sidewalks, huddling silently on kitchen floors, hugging my pillow under the covers of hushed dark in my room. I have only feeble begging on my lips, but he finds me in that place where the world is too heavy for me and I have no way of handling it.
He calls me hija, quelinda, beloved one as I curl inwards, trembling from the memories he watched unfold.
I don’t ask him for the strength to fix myself and the world and feel better. I sit in my shuddering fragility and ask for Him. There is nothing there but his black and brown daughter, asking for permission not to be strong.
He says yes, and the soft silence that follows trundles me as I pour out into his waiting arms.