A recent article on Medium.com asserted that any Black person can tell you the first time they were called the n word.
For anyone still attached to the belief that we live in a post-racial society, this assertion is shocking. But for people of color, it is the unavoidable reality…one that often leaves them exasperated at how anyone can believe we are post-racial.
In his 2010 book “Decoded,” Jay Z describes the racialized reality of his youth and shares his early experiences with being disliked, judged, or even hated by people who didn’t know him:
Growing up as a Black kid from the projects, you can spend your whole life being misunderstood, followed around department stores, looked at funny, accused of crimes you didn’t commit, accused of motivations you don’t have, dehumanized—until you realize, one day, it’s not about you. It’s about perceptions people had long before you even walked onto the scene.
These words have been a beacon of light for me as I have tried to step up my ally-ship and go harder in the fight against white supremacy. Jay Z’s reflection speaks to the fear that Black folks have been finding ways to cope with for centuries, and that white people, in contrast, have an extremely low tolerance for.
These words have made me think about how strong of a desire and expectation I have to be liked and understood, and how much this is connected to my privilege. As a white person, I’ve grown up with so much less environmental hostility. (Not without exception; I was an obese child and I didn’t go a day without being reminded that my body size made me a target for hate, but overall I’ve experienced a great deal of privilege in the way I am treated.) I’ve been exposed to relatively few dehumanizing experiences at the hands of strangers. I have rarely been accused of wrongdoing. I’m never treated as though I should be feared. When most people see me, they see the white woman they’ve been conditioned to adore and protect. And while I wouldn’t wish the experience of being judged or mistreated on anyone, I have recently noticed how my privilege has made me especially sensitive about being disliked, or even worse, hated.
I really want everyone to like me. I’m a kind, friendly person who tries hard to do the right thing. So everyone should like me, right? But for most Black people, this feeling died (or at least was buried) long, long ago. Most people of color began their experience with being misunderstood or hated in childhood like the Medium author did. Most learned as a teen like Jay Z did that most white people they would encounter in life (and whom they couldn’t avoid encountering) would fear or hate them to some degree. This experience, one that is still unfathomable to most white folks, is something that must be coped with everyday by non-white people just to go on living.
This is certainly not ok, and a world where everyone experiences high levels of hostility from strangers wouldn’t make things any better or more just. But there’s something to be said for the empowerment that can arise when one overcomes the fear of being hated. Sometimes my fear of being hated holds me back from speaking the truth, and to be a real ally I can’t be afraid like that.
Jay Z found ways to get over his fear, both by understanding that it wasn’t his fault and accepting it, and also by flipping it through acting as a trickster:
The joke’s on them because they’re really just fighting phantoms of their own creation. Once you realize that, things get interesting. It’s like when we were kids. You’d start bopping hard and throw on the ice grill when you step into Macy’s and laugh to yourself when the security guards got nervous and started shadowing you. You might have a knot of cash in your pocket, but you boost something anyway, just for the sport of it. Fuck ’em. Sometimes the mask is to hide and sometimes it’s to play at being something you’re not so you can watch the reactions of people who believe the mask is real. Because that’s when they reveal themselves.
This idea of coping with hate by tricking people who believe the mask is real was also spoken on by Amber Rose during her conference and SlutWalk event last month:
…I won’t let that hurt me. So if they’re like, ‘she’s a whore, she’s a stripper, she’s a gold digger…’ What I do is that I, one, don’t give a shit and I live my life, and two, I almost do things on purpose to piss people off…
This coping strategy of tricking or playing with the limited vision of minds made smaller by hate may not seem productive to everyone, but in a reality where you must live your life surrounded by hostility, it can be psychologically life-saving. This is a dynamic which white allies must begin to understand. Not giving a fuck is powerful, and when applied to the right things, it can keep you focused on the work that needs to be done. Work that can change the hostile world that POC survive in everyday (that most white people have no idea even exists). John Metta calls the acknowledgment of this hostile world “the valley of the shadow of death”:
When you ask a Black person to teach you how to be a better white person, you are scratching a wound that has been carved so deep into them that they feel the pain of it in their bones…
They know that whatever pain they feel from their own emotional navigation of these issues, it is immaterial to your desire to be taught about it in a way that is quick and convenient. But most importantly, they remember being forced to walk into the valley of the shadow of death. They remember that they had to do it alone, and that they entered that valley when they were about five. Now here you come all happy and grown up and say ‘Hey, this sucks, right? It’s hot and I’m tired and thirsty. I want to help fix this, so if you could drive me across to the other side real quick that’d be great, thanks.’ And you say this thinking that you are really trying to help. So you wonder, as one reader wondered to me ‘Why do Black people complain about race but then not take the time to help me fix it?’
They remember being forced to walk into the valley of the shadow of death.
Despite growing up in a family with non-white relatives where race was talked about, and despite reading about racism and the civil rights movement from a young age, it took hip hop for me to truly walk into this valley. Through music, hip hop painted a picture of a world that teenage me hadn’t lived in, and allowed me to viscerally experience moments of it. It answered questions about Blackness, then filled me with more questions, and then began to answer those too. The music has also brought me into closer contact with actual Black people, an experience that doesn’t happen often enough for most white Americans.
As white allies, we can’t keep asking for the tools to fight racism. We’ve been given more than enough. The problem is that we are too scared, too stuck in our desire to be liked, to use them. Just loving hip hop has already earned me some misunderstandings and judgments from my white peers, and at times I’ve responded timidly, trying to hide my true self. But I want to stop hiding. I want to face my fears. I want to walk into the valley unafraid; unafraid to let the life in the fair world (I once falsely believed existed) die.
Those [allies] who don’t ask that question spent years preparing themselves for a journey knowing they would never finish, and they entered the valley of the shadow of death knowing that their feet would blister and their mouth would taste of sand and that they would die in this place. They knew that. They stood at the edge of the valley of the shadow of death and knew they would not make it across…and they entered it anyway. They walked all the way to where we are. And they did it alone. Those are the people whom we help, because they are the ones we can trust. They are the ones with whom we share our water, because they have chosen to be with us even knowing they will die here. They alone are the ones who will learn the secret. They alone will die in this place only to experience the death that is not death. -John Metta, “When You Walk Into the Valley”
The death of the version of me who believed my country cared about justice, the me who thought anyone who worked hard enough would get a fair shot at success…that death has been painful. But it is indeed “the death that is not death.” Letting the person tied to those false beliefs die has allowed someone new to be born. Someone who can see beyond the limits of this racist place, someone who doesn’t think in binaries. Someone who has the power to perceive and empathize with experiences different from my own. I would never go back to the red-white-and-blue pill.
To other white allies who may be reading this, don’t be afraid. You are stronger than you think. White privilege has been hurting you, too. Don’t be afraid to let the identity it has created for you die. There is a new beautiful one beyond it, just waiting to be born.