When We Black People Say Racism Is Real, Please Believe Us

It's not merely that racism is still rampant in America -- it's that your reaction to it matters.

Jun 5, 2014 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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As a freshman at the University of New Hampshire (I later transferred to Hampshire College), I founded the first black student union in 20 years. 

 
By now you’ve probably seen the viral video of the racist white woman going ballistic in a parking lot in Cheektowaga, New York (about 300 miles from Manhattan) for nearly four straight minutes, shouting the N-word at a black man in his car because, she says, he had frightened her two young children by, he says, starting his car. 
 
Whatever the case, and I do mean whatever the case –- he could have walked up to those children and yelled “Boo! Yah mama’s ugly!” for all I care –- it's still not grounds for blatant, audible, open, all the way loud and live racism. Not grounds for racism at all. 
 
Because here’s the thing: When we black people say racism is real, please believe us. Watching this video, which reveals in cold, clear daylight an indefensible display of racism, I am alternately stunned by the wholly intended sting of it, and enraged by the many, many times I’ve had to argue the case that racism in America still exists, and could actually happen at any time, to any brown person, but always to black people. 
 
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One of the many race-themed collages I've made over the years -- this one from 1999.  

 
And not only argue its existence, but explain its repercussions, as well as how the anticipation of it affects our day-to-day life. If you are white, I ask you to imagine for one minute, how you would feel if you were minding your own business, starting up your car in a parking lot when suddenly a stranger starts screaming in your face and repeatedly calling you a name that in this society is synonymous with utter human worthlessness. A word that evokes a cultural ancestry that was shackled, raped, beaten, kicked, lynched and spit upon every single day.
 
I know you can try to imagine it, but you can’t actually imagine it because it will never, ever happen to you. How could your imagination access such a thing? To be honest, though, I’m less interested in white people trying to imagine what it feels like to be vulnerable to racism or to experience racism, so much as I am interested in white people making a concerted effort at deference to our authority on the matter. 
 
Because your liberalism is not empathic, it’s politic. Your belief that racism is bad is not a gamechanger for us. Your self-serving magnanimity regarding those other white people who had slaves 100 years ago does not endear you to those of us black people who were not slaves but continue to live within the confines of and be punished by the systemic racism that found its nascent stronghold in the institution of slavery.  
 
I know that this woman in Cheektowaga, New York has issued an explanation, or a response, or a radio interview -– I cannot bring myself to listen. Someone told me she mentions that she is bipolar in this response. I don’t care. She is the adult parent of young children and a citizen of America. Get on some medication. Handle your business. Being mentally ill does not mitigate your racist behavior. 
 
Even beyond her vile words, which were plenty enough, her entire stance was communicating: “Stay in your place and don’t act as if you have a right to be here on the planet and treated like a human being.” She seemed rather clear-minded on the matter of her supremacy and superiority. 
 
Meanwhile, this guy in the car, who is filming the incident, with a completely maintained composure, does not raise his voice, does not call her names, only repeats for clarification what she has said and what it means. Someone (a white woman) on Twitter replied after I posted the video: “I don’t know how he stayed so composed.” I’ll tell you how. Experience. 
 
If anyone out there thinks this does not happen somewhere in America every single day, you are wrong. If you think I am exaggerating when I tell you that the cumulative effect of experiencing and anticipating racism throughout my life has made a part of me feel constantly and irreparably enraged, you are wrong. If you are a white friend and have been or will be offended when I argue the sufficiency of your racial awareness, please consider that this is an issue far bigger than you. If you are a white adoptive parent of a black child, or a white biological parent of a black child, and you are not prepared to handle this WHEN it happens to your child (not that any of us are ever adequately prepared to handle racism), start trying to figure it out immediately. 
 
The takeaway here is not merely that racism is still rampant in America, but that your reaction to it matters. It’s not enough to share it on Facebook or Twitter and say, “OMG, this woman is evil!” Or “Ugh.” Or “I can’t.” This woman has now left an indelible, hateful, and fluent mark on the lives of the man she repeatedly called a N****er, her children, and every single person who has watched the video. 
 
Use her impoverished audacity to change the way you think about race in America. Travel to the outer banks and far reaches of the enormity of race and racism in America, and then tell everyone you know to do the same.