To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. – James Baldwin
Some years ago, I sat in a discussion panel and posed a question to the racially mixed audience: “How many Black people over the age of 40 in this room have been diagnosed with hypertension or are pre-hypertensive?” Every Black person in the room raised their hand. This event took place in Cambridge, Mass., and the majority of Black folks in that room were college-educated professionals.
While hypertension can strike anyone, it disproportionately affects Black Americans. There are the stated risk factors, such as inactivity, smoking, family history, high dietary intake of salt and low intake of potassium. There is also what I have come to believe and that science is increasingly backing up, and that is that the stress of being Black in America takes a toll on the physical body and it plays out in higher rates for things such as hypertension and diabetes. Researchers are just starting to look at the link between racism and maternal health but we need to start looking at the cumulative effects of racism over the course of a lifetime.
A few recent news stories really brought home just how racism is woven into the daily fabric of life for Black folks and other non-white people.
A 14-year-old boy gets lost and decides to go to the nearest house to ask for directions. Instead of getting directions, the homeowner grabbed a gun and shot at the child because in this white person’s mind, a Black child knocking on his door could only mean trouble. So rather than using one’s words, the homeowner decided a bullet would be better. Thankfully, the homeowner missed and the child is OK—or at least as OK as one can be when you wake up late, miss the school bus and get lost trying to walk to school only to be met with gunfire.
If that story wasn’t enough, the second story of the week will definitely get the blood pressure elevated. Imagine arriving at a coffee shop early to meet a friend—you get there first so you decided to sit at a table and wait for your friend to arrive. You figure you will place your order once your friend arrives. This type of daily event is truly the minutiae of life. Except when you are two Black men waiting for a business acquaintance at Starbucks, where it was decided that you are a threat. So the police are called and the next thing you know, you find yourself being arrested despite the protest of fellow patrons who loudly proclaim that you are doing nothing. To add insult to injury, your colleague arrives and tries to explain to the cops that they were meeting with you but the cops have already cuffed you, phones are out recording the incident and what should have been a random coffee meeting has become a trip to the clink and hours worth of detention. Your crime? Waiting while Black.
While it’s easy to blame the individual homeowner and the Starbucks employee for bad decisions, these situations are larger than certain individuals. These stories are about how Black bodies in public spaces are always deemed suspicious and that is because suspicion of Black bodies is deeply embedded in our collective psyche. When we (that is to say, mostly white people) see Black people outside of the “socially acceptable” spaces (serving people or entertaining them), suddenly their right to inhabit the space is questioned. This is why Black CEOs and executive directors can regale us with stories of being assumed to be the help at dinner parties and why we had a Black president and Black attorney general who could tell us stories about being seen as suspicious.
It’s why I passed down to my kids, the same wisdom that was passed on to me: Don’t touch things in public, keep your hands visible, don’t use the bathroom at an establishment without buying something there—and the list goes on. The idea being that if we can be respectable enough to the white gaze in public spaces, it will keep us safe, or at least safe-ish. It’s why I have bought more unwanted items in small shops than I really want because in the end, I don’t want to be seen as suspicious. It’s a shitty way to live and at middle age, I am tired of it.
We can’t discuss racism without acknowledging how it plays out in our daily lives and how for Black people, it’s not always about the issues that make the news but the daily blows and assaults that sit in your soul and start to fester. It’s also about the times when white folks are complicit and don’t do enough. In the case of the Starbucks situation, it seems white folks did speak up but at that the same time, it’s a reminder of how fucked up it is that we must be grateful that people are starting to do the right thing. Doing the right thing should have been a given for decades now, and yet it’s still not the default. Because for every white person who will speak up, there are far too many more who will freeze up or simply stay silent.
We also have to ask ourselves why when white people feel uncomfortable in the presence of Black people, either the police are called or guns are brought out. What is it about white comfort that negates the existence of everyone else?
After a decade-plus of writing about racism, I am getting tired and yet, I keep on keeping on because I can’t depend on others for my liberation.
However I leave you with this thought: Think about how you interact with non-white bodies and particularly Black bodies in white spaces and be honest with yourself about what you see and feel in those moments. If you are a non-white person, how do you stay healthy in those moments when you feel your existence being questioned? Do you release the pain or is it settling in your body?
Our work is dismantle this system but we can’t do that until we are honest with ourselves.
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