It's tough being black. No shit. It's also tough being a sensitive, introverted, overly considerate, observational, Virgo, INFJ. But it's tough to be black and tougher to be both.
On this blog, I've written about some racial experiences I've had since being in medical school. Even though there have been plenty more instances of micro-aggressive racism, I have chosen not not write about them for fear of redundancy. But I have another issue to present this time. Come with me on a journey.
I am currently studying physical/energetic medicine abroad in Germany for 3 weeks,as part of an optional intensive that my school offers. I started my journey in Munich. Immediately, the Germans made me feel more aware of my blackness,but that's normal for me when I'm abroad. Most people just stare at me really confused. I want to be careful not to toot my own horn but I always look above average, especially when traveling. I get it from my mama. I mean that I tend to dress really nicely. I also am usually carrying a backpack, a dslr camera, reading a book in English, and speaking American English. So i really stand out as a foreign black person in every foreign country I'm in. In other words, I tend to not fit the stereotypes that people have about blacks in other countries . So people stare and it is what it is.
I've always been overwhelmingly aware of my blackness since I have always been in overwhelmingly white spaces. And its worked out pretty ok. Ever since I was a kid, I have gone to amazing private schools in affluent upper middle class white neighborhoods with upper middle class white kids, with of course a few East and South Asians (who though from a similar economic class, added a dose of racial diversity which was always much appreciated by me). Honestly, it wasn't that bad. I've had incredible educational experiences, *Mostly* positive interactions with my non-black peers, and I probably wouldn't change a thing. Sure, I've always wanted to be around more black people. It's nice to be around your people...
Then college happened. And it was awesome, eye-opening, and challenging. I mean college was also overwhelmingly white in the way that prestigious Ivy League universities are. Even though the student racial ratio at my school was just like it was in my other schools during my youth, I was different. At Brown, I was introduced to hidden histories of blackness (hidden in the sense that I never learned them in my earlier schooling), revolutionary thinkers, and avant gard racial, social, political, and cultural concepts that I never knew existed. It was a time of immense growth and I gained a true appreciation of what it meant-what it means- to be a black woman in America. And I am forever changed, thank God.
Now I am based in Seattle, one of the whitest cities in America...it feels like. And I really do love it. It's a great city. I have some great friends/acquaintances. Its green and pretty. There's lots to do. But its still tough. I mean I'm always the only black person every where I am and often honestly feel like the obligatory black friend in my friend groups even though I know that isn't true. But that's what it feels like. And feelings are valid. One thing that I had at Brown, that I don't have at Bastyr, was a real comraderie with white students who were strikingly aware of their privilege- being a part of the most privileged race on the planet- and they talked about it openly. Note: I am not saying that every white person at Brown had or communicated this awareness. But I was lucky to meet dozens who did have that awareness. I do not doubt that allot of my classmates in Seattle have this same awareness. It's just that they haven't made themselves known or perhaps I haven't opened enough conversations to find them.
On that note, I did try and implement a workshop at my school to talk about important issues (namely conversations of race, gender and religion), but the teacher I started planning it with quickly thwarted my plans because he feared that the community wasn't ready and that I would be ostracized by my classmates if I opened up these issues publicly. Which is intense and pretty fucked up. I mean...wow. I truly love that professor. He is an amazing man with a brilliant mind and we will always be close. But that whole interaction was troubling and is jam packed with so much meaning.
Anyway back to Germany.
I don't really like Germany and this program I'm doing is pretty sub-par, but I like the Germans. I really really do. Something about their formal, serious, conservative and polite way really intrigues me for some reason. So even though they stare at me like I don't belong sometimes, they also honor my existence in a really respectful way. It's a weird dichotomy. I've been blessed to travel ALLOt and can draw allot of comparisons to other groups of people, who stopped in their tracks to take pictures of me, point and laugh, refuse to serve me food in nice restaurants, follow me in stores, poke at me and touch my hair, and openly call me nigger or black in their native tongue. So being formally addressed by people with a smile that at least seems genuine, is nice. Yes they still stare, analyze my appearance from head to toe, and whisper but nasty, the Germans most definitely are not.
Being black is hard. Being black abroad is harder. Being black abroad while surrounded by mostly white classmates is even harder. That is why I appreciate "the code".
We black people have lots of codes; some that we follow religiously and others not so much. Sometimes we are good to each other and sometimes we are not. But one code that I have always honored and loved is this: black people always greet each other when abroad. This is something my father taught me when i was a child, as I followed him all over the globe. Whether its on the streets, in a hotel, or at a tourist attraction, there is a formal nod, a quick hello, or an actual conversation that occurs between black people. There's this bond we have-this common understanding that we are the foreignest of foreign, the strangest of strange and the rarest of rare in some of these most racially homogenous settings (ie: Vietnam, Iceland, and deeply rural Germany- just some of the most homogenous non-black places I have been to and felt this bond with other blacks I've run into). Do you follow me?
I'll say this. Sometimes being black means being made to feel like an alien in your own planet, sometimes even in your own skin. This is the burden of blackness. So when you're on what seems like another planet, and see one of your kind, it somehow brings you back down to earth, even if for a brief moment.
You can imagine the excitement I felt this morning when I saw a beautiful middle aged black woman today at the restaurant for breakfast, in deeply rural Germany. The minute we locked eyes, we both stood up with wide smiles on our faces, walked towards each other, said hello, then had a lovely embrace followed by some pleasantries. My teachers and classmates...as well as everyone else in the restaurant stared at us with their mouths dropped. It's like they couldn't comprehend what just happened- and they shouldn't have to. It wasn't for them. It was for us- between us.
I sat down and after quickly analyzing the faces of my peers at my table, I simply said, "it's black etiquette to greet each other in foreign places where we are the minority". Most people appreciatively nodded their heads and smiled, but one particularly privileged white girl, who I am actually quite fond of, rebutted "that's how it should be for everyone, not just black people." I will refer to this girl as Elle. A couple people of people at the table, including myself gave Elle a quick side eye. But I also have learned in life that it is important to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I moved on. Maybe her comment wasn't meant to silence me. Maybe it was a critique on the human condition. Maybe she meant that it would be nice if everyone greeted everyone. Maaaaaaaybe. Hmm.
Moments later, another classmate commented on the black exchange she witnessed and asked me if I was happy to see another black person, especially a woman . She asked because while we had been strolling in another rural area in Germany, a black gentleman stopped in his tracks when he saw me and we quickly left our respective groups to shake hands and chat for a few minutes. So when Elle heard this, she interjected with a ridiculous account about always feeling black on the inside (something I've heard all of my life from my ignorant and perhaps confused white peers/friends). She continued by talking about how she has always wanted to be black for various reasons, and shared with us a story about how she viewed her black Jamaican maid as family, and after a few instances with black children who exposed her whiteness, she learned that she...in fact... was not black. They called her "cracker", which she explained to our classmates is a "terrible deragoatory term used to address white people since they used to whip their slaves". She claims that she then painted herself with brown paint after school one day to feel better about herself and be black for real.......Um at that point I just left the table fuming.
Talk about privilege. This white person somehow made something that has nothing to do with her ALL about her.
Here I am dialoguing with a curious white peer about my experience as a black woman in a foreign country and my inherent struggles of dealing with the feeling of isolation and otherness. Then I have the most privileged white person I have ever met try and compare her experience as a 5 year old to my whole life experience as a black- though admittedly upper middle class- woman. I went to the lobby to catch my breathe and regain composure. After a few seconds, I decided I would simply confront this girl privately and at my earliest convenience to address my feelings and be done with the whole thing. Confrontation is good.Thats just how i roll. Experience, reflect, forgive, confront, move on. Simple. I had a plan.
But then it changed....
People came outside to join me at the lounge, and while I tried to brush their prying questions off because I HATE gossip ( especially with people I don't know or trust) they kept prying. And I simply said something to the fact that I didn't have a problem with the girl but thought that her comment was indicative of her white privilege and that it was probably a subconscious attempt to silence me even though she thought she was just trying to relate, and truly relating is impossible as a privileged white woman who can blend in or at least be treated fairly anywhere. I also noted that this shouldn't be made into a big thing since I would approach her later on. Oops?
I could feel the tension brewing and I had a strong suspicion that somehow this whole encounter would be skewed and presented to Elle in a totally different way. By the next time I saw Elle, about 30 minutes later, she had this angry look on her face, and the boy I suspected might have told her, kept looking at me. The whole day, several people were avoiding eye contact, Elle would give me half guilty-half angry look across the room, etc. Anyway, I don't really care about the details of what may or may not have been told to her. I just remember feeling hyper aware of my feelings and being mad at those feelings and mad at people for making me feel those feelings...all while trying to pay attention to the terrible lectures this program imposed on us that day!
I felt really uncomfortable. Not because a privilege white girl had just silenced me in front of half a dozen people. But because I was made to feel like the bad guy. No, I was never approached. No one said anything to me. But I could FEEL the tension and I KNOW it was ironically directed towards me and not to her. And thats not cool. I actually felt bad- even guilty for some time, until I replayed the events in my head. I did nothing to this girl or to these people except be black, talk about it and walk away from a ridiculous confrontation that I had full intention of addressing that day. But somehow I was made to feel uncomfortable? I should also acknowledge that my feelings are partly my fault because they are mine, but I still blame the system of whiteness. I shouldn't be made to feel uncomfortable after that exchange. She should. Yet, I was made to feel guilty for essentially being black, by non- black people. In fact, I was made to feel apologetic towards a white person who silenced ME. Do you follow? This cant be all in my mind.
It's some deep reverse psychology shit. And I am not down with it.
I thought about my options that whole day; brush it off, approach her, cause a fuss? Each seemed like unsatisfactory options. Brushing it off MIGHT not accomplish anything. I wasn't sure that she had the emotional intelligence to handle a confrontational encounter. And causing a fuss, though temporarily satisfactory, would confirm to the white public their worst fear; that they are around an angry black woman.
What is a negress to do?
Ultimately i did nothing. And I'm angry about it. I feel this deep sense of disappointment in myself for not being a sort of racial hero. In the past, I'd rise up to the occasion and leave the confrontation victorious- feeling like I did something for the people . But that didn't happen. Somehow I allowed her to silence me. I was tricked and its just so...wrong.
I feel like I was witnessing the colonization of my own mind. I felt powerless and its pretty uncomfortable to write about.
It's crazy to think that all of this stems from just being black. I mean that's step 1.
1. Being black
2. Feeling black in the positive
3. Celebrating co-blackness
4. Making a non-black feel uncomfortable by celebrating co-blackness
5. Being silenced by a threatened non-black
6. Feeling guilty for making a non-black feel uncomfortable
7. Feeling black in the negative
8. Feeling alienated
I really am a part of a system.
I've fallen and I can't get up.
I've promised myself that ill say something to her WHEN she says another stupid thing, but I am not sure I can get over what just happened. And it's less about her than it is about me. And it's less about our little encounter in rural Germany and more about a massive system of oppression that each and every one of us participates in. It's just so huge.
And as I've contemplated this hugeness, I've let time waste away.
Sorry this isn't a happy ending. But I wanted to share.
Because this happened.