Experience has taught me that humans notice my brown skin before all else, and see all else through the lenses of what my brown skin means to them. For instance, while walking through a department store with my two young children, one of whom is continuously running circles around our cart and every object within a three-yard radius, the other one banging on his seat and alternately singing and screeching at the top of his lungs, myself at my wits end, trying to grab everything on our list and get out of the building alive, I have received warm smiles of empathetic understanding from those who have been there before me. And I have received scoffs of disgust and proclamations of, “There goes another breeder!”
In other words, as a brown woman living among white folks, I am frequently read as “the problem” in our society. To translate what the middle-aged white lady said about me in the previous paragraph: Since I am a mother of two young children, I must be a welfare queen, breeding for the purpose of mooching off hard-working white people. My husband and I are assumed not to be in a committed relationship, as I am reminded when a camp site receptionist refers to him as my boyfriend, or when a vocal Trump supporter glances pointedly at our family in a restaurant while loudly griping about their own warped, unfounded reality, in which immigrants ruin American values by moving here and having children without getting married.
But weighing more heavily on my shoulders than the constant barrage of casually violent assumptions about my existence being a burden and blight on our society is this: the blame POC constantly carry for our own oppression. At this point in American history, it would take an extraordinary level of intentional ignorance to not acknowledge race as a serious point of contention in our country. People everywhere are being forced to wake up to this centuries-old reality, even if they didn’t want to see it before. But we have a president and a large portion of the population focusing on the complaints of those suffering injustice, reacting to our complaints as if we are the cause of all that is currently wrong.
NFL players like Collin Kaepernick were called “sons of bitches” recently, by the Bigot-in-Chief himself, for daring to protest police brutality and the systematic white supremacy ruling our land. All over Facebook and in everyday interactions, I hear people expressing rage at Black Lives Matter protesters for blocking roads and showing any amount of anger, calling for us to be run over or shot down like animals. Even when white supremacists rise up, threatening our very existence with deadly displays of force, as witnessed in Charlottesville, people of color must share the blame. Can you wrap your head around this abominable distortion of the concept of fairness? There is a side of this “racial conflict” which wants to wipe non-white, non-Christian, non-straight/cis/patriarchy-worshipers off the face of the planet, and there is side standing up and refusing to let that happen. And both sides are seen as equally at fault for any violence that this “conflict” creates–the conflict over whether or not I have the right to exist. The length to which this white supremacist society will go in order to absolve itself of any responsibility for the destruction it creates defies the limits of logic and human decency.
The absurdity even bleeds into progressive circles, where POC are asked to defend our motivation in standing against those who want us dead. We are told that if we hate the people who want nothing more than to our children off the face of the planet simply because our children dare to exist, we are just as bad as those terrorists and just as much to blame for the struggle we are simply trying to survive.
We are always the problem. We are always to blame.
This is a theme tackled perfectly by June Jordan in her devastatingly poignant piece entitled, “Poem about My Rights.” In it, she describes many ways in which rape occurs. On international, intranational, community-wide, and intimate, personal levels, people are constantly oppressed and violated, simply because of our existence, non-compliant as it is with social standards of normalcy–white, straight, westernized, carefully dressed. Jordan righteously rages over the blame leveled on the disenfranchised for our own exploitation, saying:*
I have been raped
cause I have been wrong the wrong sex the wrong age
the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the
wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic
the wrong sartorial I
I have been the meaning of rape
I have been the problem everyone seeks to
eliminate by forced
In other words, I know this play like the back of my hand. First, you violate my right to be. Nation-states, government agencies, social majorities, men who are physically stronger than me–you overpower me and take away my right to say, “No!” Then, you tell me it was my own fault for dressing or being a certain way that you just don’t like. You make me the problem to justify your own crimes against me and absolve yourself from the guilt. Jordan brings her indictment against continuous human predation to a magnificent crescendo, asserting, “I am not Wrong; Wrong is not my name.” In other words, “Yes. Something is most certainly fucked up, here. But the fucked up thing is not my existence, and I will not let your misplaced blame shackle me any longer.”
I have been thinking about this poem a lot lately. It seems to settle more deeply into my bones with each passing day, with each new wave of blame crashing over Black and brown communities, poised to finally drown marginalized groups everywhere. I was thinking about it the other day in the pediatrician’s office when I was given a form to fill out about our family dynamics, and I had to come up with a response for how often I’ve been feeling hopeless or depressed. I didn’t have room to write “Of course I fight hopelessness and depression every damn day. I’m a Black woman living in a white supremacist nation-state. The logical, human response to the constant psychological violence we face is hopelessness and depression. And, guess what? My response to rampant social cannibalism, to this accepted and applauded destruction and demonizing of the disenfranchised, is not the thing that’s wrong here. My hopelessness is not the problem that desperately needs to be addressed.”
Instead, I circled an option to indicate slight to moderate hopelessness and added, “Since the election.” That part was bullshit. White supremacy has ruled this land since long before Donald Trump took his first breath. But the election briefly sums up for me everything that is wrong and has been wrong with this nation since its inception: Namely, the systematic dehumanization and exploitation of non-white, non-normative human beings for the benefit of the socially privileged, and the blame placed on us for our own oppression, and all the evils that flow from it.
The checkup happened, my kids got their flu shots, and when screams of outrage from my smallest ensued, I was assured they would be given stickers at the front of the office. They were not. Instead, as I nailed down the next appointment, making a casual remark about how quickly the year has flown by, I received a monologue from the receptionist about how she has no choice but to work, her pay rate won’t keep up with the cost of living, and that it’s just the world we’re living in today. I hustled our crew out to the minivan, sifting through the woman’s response, trying to decode it. Perhaps she is a progressive working woman, discouraged that the minimum wage is lagging behind inflation rates. Or maybe she sees me dressed in leggings and a stained tunic, not wearing a wedding ring, struggling to get through the door with my two young children, both of whom are insured through the state, three minutes late for our appointment, complaining about the election results, and she thinks, “Here comes another breeder!”
I wanted to tell her that my wedding ring hasn’t fit since my second pregnancy, and I just haven’t found the time to have it resized. I wanted to tell her that I work my ass off as a mother of two, and that, while we can’t afford childcare, I do babysit and write to help our family make ends meet; it’s just not always consistent and not enough income to insure my children. I wanted to show her degrees and certificates and make her see how, although I am most definitely a mess who struggles to keep herself dressed and get to my children’s appointments on time, I have worked hard for the recognition I rarely get, and I make contributions to my community. I wanted to defend my right to exist.
But I why should I have to? My existence is not the thing that’s wrong, here. We are not the problem.
*Lines cited are 92-101 and 109, Jodan, Poem about My Rights. You can read the poem in its entirety at this link https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48762/poem-about-my-rights, from the Poetry Foundation website. And you should.
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