The racist garbage in the back of my brain

Every time someone shares the image of the cartoon supposedly depicting Serena Williams,* it hurts. It’s like a stab. Stop! Stop showing that to me! I don’t want to see that ugly racism!

I’ve written about the internal, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual process I’ve been going through over the years, working to shed my own racism and step out of the fish bowl of whiteness. One thing I refer to quite often is “the ugliness” or the “racist thoughts I know I shouldn’t have.”

I’m going to write “out loud” the things I have frequently discussed with white people offline. Maybe it’s the rules of whiteness (see Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility for more on that) keeping me quiet even more than fear of harming any more people of color.

As I said, seeing the image that’s supposed to be Serena Williams is jarring and upsetting. In a similar vein, watching documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s 13th that have clips from The Birth of a Nation make me physically uncomfortable. I have sometimes fast-forwarded so I wouldn’t have to see the vile caricatures of Black people as subhuman.

Why are they so awful to see? Of course, seeing people depicted as less than human just hurts my heart. No one did anything to deserve such violent and disgusting treatment. Words fail me when I try to express how wrong I think the images and ideas are.

They are also awful to see, I now understand, because they’ve been a part of the way I have seen the world. The way I see Black people was built on racist imagery and ideas like that comic. To be clear, I was never exposed directly to The Birth of a Nation. I have no memory of being exposed to overtly racist imagery or ideas, although I’m sure I was exposed to them (think antique stores with “kitsch” like a “lawn jockey”). If anything, I was raised in the era of Black is Beautiful. (I won’t go on a long rant about my background here. Just know that I’m being entirely honest when I tell you that no one I know ever used the N-word, ever, unless they were explaining something awful that happened and even then I don’t remember them saying the actual word. The racist garbage in my brain didn’t come from overt racism expressed in my presence.)

Here’s what I found out about myself, and I feel very sure I’m not the only white person who feels this way: I found out that when I looked at Black people I was immediately thrust into the mental gymnastics of keeping the racist imagery (that I didn’t even know was in my head!) out of my mind. I saw full lips, and oh my god without even realizing why I was in turmoil inside, I felt uncomfortable and it turns out I was trying to not see Black face or other “old-fashioned” racist images. I saw groups of Black people laughing loudly and moving freely with expression and something felt not-quite-right but I didn’t know why. It turns out there was a part of me—a part that I recognize now isn’t actually me—that associated those louder sounds and freer movements with centuries’ old stereotypes (similar to the horrific comic that’s supposed to be Serena Williams). I swear, I didn’t even know I knew about these stereotypes until I started getting curious about why I couldn’t just be normal around Black people.

I looked into the old, old stereotypes. I’m talking about during slavery and post-slavery, into reconstruction and into Jim Crow. I’d examine them and I found they were there, hidden in corners of my awareness that I didn’t really know was there.

Guess what? With practice, I’m finding I can get them out of there. It hasn’t even been that long (a few years) and most of the time, I can interact with Black people without feeling oddly nervous or overly friendly. It’s because I saw the ugliest garbage was taking up space in my being and it didn’t belong there.

I still don’t want to see the comic that’s supposedly about Serena Williams. It really does hurt my heart that Black people are still subjected to such disgusting treatment, and it hurts my heart that we white people are still so damaged that we don’t see Black people as fully human. But I’ve experienced waves of liberation, and I’ve had deeper connections with people of color, including Black people, since I sorted through what racist trash was cluttering up my brain and began the process of getting rid of it.

I don’t know how to change the world so white people realize how wrong that comic is, but I do know that I can change how I interact with the world and I can help my white friends do the same. That’s not nothing.

* Editor’s note: If you have somehow managed to miss the story about the Serena Williams cartoon, here is a take on it by The Root. We don’t wish to give the cartoon any more play than it has already gotten, so we aren’t posting it here, but do be aware the image appears in the article linked to above.


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Colin Kaepernick and Nike: The good with the bad

Do you think Colin Kaepernick ever gets sick of his agency being stolen from him? I do. I get sick of it. I mean, if every time I did something people went out of their way to find whatever they could to be offended by and no one even tried to understand why I did that thing, I’d probably get sick of that pretty quickly.

What will it take to get some of these white people to actually acknowledge just one of the things Colin Kaepernick is talking about?

I mean, he says, “Let’s talk about police brutality.”

Here are their responses so far:

“No.”

That’s it. That’s all of their responses. Sure, it’s dressed up a little bit. Sometimes it sounds like

“That’s not how you address this issue.”

“Shut up and do your job!”

“Protest on your own time!”

“I don’t agree with what he’s saying, but I respect his right to say it!”

“Nike is bad!”

All of those responses are a refusal to address the issue.

And that one about Nike though…

There’s a man starving to death. He’s crawling slowly, panting. Dying. Then he finds, of all things, a Twinkie. He unwraps it and takes a bite. He immediately starts to improve. His blood sugar begins to balance. His heart rate evens out. His vision is clearing. He begins to take a second bite, but just before he can a very well-fed man with a mouthful of cupcakes interrupts him to explain how just how unhealthy Twinkies are.

The well-fed man doesn’t see the situation of the starving man. He doesn’t give the starving man healthy food or show him how to get it. He definitely doesn’t consider what could have led to their food disparity in the first place. No. Instead the well-fed man continues to lecture the starving man, all the while convinced he is helping. But he’s not helping. Can’t even understand him, talking with his mouth full like that.

Right now, this is how it feels to listen to some of these white people talk about Colin Kaepernick and Nike.

Like it or not, our world is run by governments or corporations. Too often it’s just a terrible knot of the two. As a Black person, I look at the government side and I don’t see myself represented. But from the police all the way up to the president, what I do see is a whole lotta motherfuckers who’d just as soon see me in prison or dead.

Then I look to the corporate side. Not much there either, but now I see Nike. I know it’s not ideal. It’s not even good, but it’s a whole lot more than what I had just a few days ago.

Yes, I know Nike does some very evil things and no, and there’s no excusing it. They exploit brown people in every way around the globe. But what they’re doing right now, giving voice to a man who is trying to stop the police from killing me and mine, it’s a good thing.

Both things can be true.

Yes, they are just trying to capitalize on a social justice movement, but they’ve also supported LeBron and Serena.

Both things can be true.

The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) is evil. Giant media conglomerates perpetuate all the evils in the world. The whole planet would be infinitely better off without any of them. But ABC brought us Shonda Rhimes, who has helped to normalize Blackness in immeasurable ways. You don’t stop the evil that is ABC by clutching your fucking pearls at Shonda Rhimes.

Black and brown suffering on one part of the world does not cancel out Black and brown suffering on another part of the world. It’s not zero sum.

Both things can be true.

But really, the thing is this. I don’t give a fuck what you think of Kap’s choice of corporate sponsor if:

  • You haven’t already stolen the agency from every white public figure with a corporate sponsor.
  • You haven’t acknowledged that the actual problem is a world in which a Black man needs a corporate sponsor for you to even acknowledge him.
  • You own shoes or clothes or a car or a device or any other goddamned thing produced by brown, enslaved hands.

We live in a world of corporate hegemony that is an overwhelming horror tangled into a generations-long knot made from every kind of string, wire, rope and chain. It’s a knot that needs to be untied and I hope you’re one of the people trying to untie it. I just hope you’re not gonna spend all your time on these goddamn shoelaces.


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Photo of Nike campus courtesy of Nike Inc.