“My hiking trip was so weird,” she starts the dinner conversation. “There was a woman, and she was just there topless. And then there were these kids,” she pauses before continuing the statement with somewhat uncertainty, “and they, they were black. And they just kept on using the F-bomb.”
“They probably just weren’t taught right, you know?” a guy at the table offers.
You think it’s strange that she mentioned the race of the children who used the F-bomb, but not of the woman who was walking around the mountains topless. As though the children’s behavior was somehow inherent to their blackness, whereas it was still clear that the woman’s (more extreme) behavior was not a product of her whiteness. So you tell her this.
“Oh, but I don’t think you’re like them. I know that you’re not like that,” she assures you.
Still, you’re not satisfied, but, as a senior in high school, you do not quite know what more to say. Your tongue cannot wrap around the words to explain that it is not difference that is the issue, but the registration of difference as inferiority or pathology. So you remain quiet.
You are a child of the colorblind generation, a daughter of a post-racial society. You bridle your tongue and learn to code-switch without even realizing it. You learn not to be an ABW (Angry Black Woman) or a Sapphire because people do not like you that way, and you do want to be liked. You temper your words. You temper your countenance.
Still you crave the language, the vocabulary, the consciousness that you have not been given to articulate your experiences. Your tongue never seems to fit quite right in your mouth. You are frequently reminded of this when your white friends say, “Oh, you don’t sound like other black people” or “You talk like a white girl.” That they mean this endearingly is even the more painful.
You are a child of a colorblind generation. Yet, when your white counterparts observe that you perform well in school—indeed, perform better than they do—they assume that you must be “part-white.” Not because you necessarily “look mixed” (whatever “looking mixed” actually means). Rather, you could not just be black and as smart as you are.
After they get over their surprise, they grow accustomed to you being the one spot of color in their classes. Sometimes, they even allow you to be the one spot of color in their friend groups. In fact, when people say that they are not racist and proudly proclaim that they have one (good, sometimes best) black friend, it is you to whom they are referring: You are that one (good, sometimes best) black friend.
Yet, after having dinner conversations about topless women whose races do not matter and children who drop the F-bomb whose races do, you know that being a token is different from being valued. Being liked is not the same as being valued. You can be reduced to the sassy black friend who can magically transform into an animal spirit, or a reconfigured mammy who nurtures people’s souls with colloquial truths like, “Ain’t nobody got time for that” or the cool/swaggalicious/hip black friend without being a person. In those situations, you are merely an accessory.
You are the daughter of a post-racial society. Yet your brother is bullied in his middle school where he is one of a few black students. He is called a n----- and told that he looks like a black hobo. When he reaches out to his teachers for help, they dismiss him and assume that he has somehow provoked these microaggressions that, in truth, don’t feel that micro.
But maybe, maybe you’re just making it up. Maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe it’s you who cannot transcend difference. Maybe if you stop talking about racism, it will go away. Just like if you stop talking about sexism, it will go away. Doesn’t silence make things go away? Maybe meritocracy is real. Maybe what Moynihan named the “tangle of pathology” does not obscure the histories of social, political and economic exploitation and marginalization of peoples of color. Maybe if black people just tried harder to extricate themselves from it, we’d be OK. Besides, did not Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream come into fruition after his tragic death? Did not the shedding of his blood wipe away the United States’ transgressions perpetuating oppression?
But wait…why was MLK murdered in the first place? And what about Fred Hampton? And Medgar Evans? Emmett Till? Amadou Diallo? Trayvon Martin?
So you begin to retrain your tongue and try to heal the places in which it has been broken. You learn a new language, one that has words like “advocacy” and “hegemony” and “privilege” and “disparities” and “inequities” and “intersectionality.” There are times, though, that you seem to get lost at the intersections. For just as you do not see yourself while flipping through the magazines as a consistent representation of beauty or desire, you do not see yourself as the intellectual whose production of experiential and scholarly knowledge is respected as legitimate or rigorous when you peer into the ivory tower. You lament sometimes that your tongue never seems to do enough work.
Or maybe your tongue is just tired of dancing.
Destiny Hemphill is a Trinity junior. Her column is the first installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of the Black Student Alliance.