Bay Academy – Brooklyn, NY: some time between 2002 and 2005
He came up to me and asked if he could touch my hair. I gave him a quizzical look. “Why?” “Well, one of the verses in Lil Wayne’s song says ‘tougher than Nigerian hair.’” We were in junior high. I’ve despised Lil Wayne ever since.
Williams College – Williamstown, MA: Fall 2011
I was in a sociology class at Williams College in the fall of 2011. One day I went to my professor’s office and after learning that my dad was Nigerian, he mentioned that he previously had a Nigerian student and suggested that I read her honors thesis. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that our common ethnic heritage automatically made me eligible for extra reading. Later that semester, this same professor invited me to see a Nigerian art exhibit at the MOMA with him and his wife. I hate museums. I don’t care if the exhibit is African, Native American, or Jewish. But I had not yet received my grades and did not want to be rude. And so, we went. Afterwards, we stopped at a French restaurant where he proceeded to explain the entire menu to me and gush about what a truffle is. Have you tried one before? Have you ever eaten goat cheese? No sir, I have not. But it turns out I have been to Paris. It also turns out I took French for five years. And yet, here I was being cultured. If this were earlier in the semester, I would have given him the benefit of the doubt. I would have assumed his intentions were golden. But he lost me the day I was sitting in his office and he asked, “So as an educated black woman, how do men respond to you when you go home?” How do men respond to me? Well for starters, they’re not psychics, so they don’t even know I went to Williams. But more importantly, how can you assume that most of the black men in Brooklyn are uneducated? While I may have a different educational history than some, we are still humans. They react to me the same way you would, duh.
And yet, I am supposed to come to your class every day and keep my composure. And when the kid from Deerfield Academy proceeds to lecture me on why stop and frisk policies are okay because he feels safer knowing the police are doing their “job” and I respond, “And what is that, harassing black people?”, I’m supposed to keep quiet when you, dear professor, try to silence me because part of your research happens to entail following around the NYPD? Right.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina: August 2015
I needed some quarters for my laundry. I walked into the bank and asked for some. The teller said, “We typically charge a $7 fee for transactions like that when you have less than $1000 in your bank account, but I’ll just go ahead and process it for you.” I am desperately trying to be flattered by the possibility that you thought I looked like a high school or college student, but I am irritated that you think you’re doing me a favor by not checking. My dad is on the other end of the phone and he speaks my thoughts aloud: “That’s racist. How can he look at you and assume how much money you have in your account?” I wish he would’ve checked – my account hasn’t been that low since my freshman year of college.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina: December 3, 2015
My knee has been bothering me, so I’ve started going to a physical therapist. She and I have never had any conversations unrelated to my knee, but today we did. I told her about going to Alabama for Thanksgiving, and she described all the delicious food she prepared for her family in North Carolina. I gushed about this wonderful guy I’ve met, and she listened intently. I thought to myself, “She’s so nice! I’m really glad we had a chance to have a more personal conversation.” She taught me some new exercises and asked me what I’m doing for Christmas. “I’m going home to Brooklyn!” She snapped her fingers in a zigzag pattern, rolled her eyes, and did a little head bob. “Brooklyn!” Maybe that’s what she does every time someone mentions Brooklyn. Her reaction has nothing to do with stereotypes about black girls, right? It certainly had nothing to do with the way I interact with her, because I code-switch so naturally now that I don’t even have to try. I talk one way with my black friends and another way with everyone else. I don’t even think twice.
So far, no one has ever called me a nigger (to my face, at least). I have never had a male relative harassed by a police officer and I have never been stopped and frisked. Yet I find myself dealing with a level of anger that I’ve never experienced in my life. Oddly enough, I prefer blatant racism to the daily micro-aggressions because I don’t have to rack my brain to understand someone’s intentions. The less ambiguity, the better. Let me clarify with another tale from my college days.
[For those of you who may be aware of the peculiar circumstances of the following event, my focus is not the event itself, but my reaction to it]
Williams College – Williamstown, MA: November 2011
Someone decided to write “All niggers must die” in a dorm. The administration cancelled classes for a day and several events were held instead. Students marched to the police department because they didn’t feel safe. There was an open mic in the afternoon and a discussion later that evening. As people marched through campus, I marched in the opposite direction towards the gym. It was probably one of the most awkward moments of my life. Here I was, a black girl, not marching with all the other black people and allies of various races. As people gathered for the open mic, I gathered my books and went to my lab to get ahead on some work. And as my peers walked across campus to participate in the discussion, I walked to my dorm to call it an early night. That afternoon, I ran into a psychology professor who asked if I was going to the open mic. “No, I’m not.” I explained to him that after dealing with daily micro-aggressions, I was not surprised by this event. In fact, I appreciated that someone expressed how he or she felt instead of side-eyeing people in class or being passive aggressive. The professor was shocked. I was irritated that he was blocking the way to my lab. He told me that this event was much different from a micro-aggression. I looked at my skin and looked at his. “Perhaps,” I said. Guess it depends on your vantage point.
Looking back, maybe I should have participated. I am thankful for those who were strong enough to engage in a dialogue about these events. It’s not that I didn’t care – I did, very much so. But I had succumbed to hopelessness. I knew that marching around the campus would just be exercise, so I went to the gym. I knew that those present at the open mic would not be the people who needed to hear what I had to say, so I caught up on work. And I knew that when I went to sleep that night, the world would still be jacked up, so I decided to get a few extra hours.
December 8, 2015
Watching news coverage on the murder of unarmed black men, seeing individuals rally through campus with confederate flags, and learning that someone called my friend a nigger and then sped off has transformed my hopelessness into ever-increasing anger, frustration, and rage. This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you that I read a Bible verse that softened my heart towards those killing my black brothers, or that my heart is filled with hope for a better tomorrow. Not quite. Instead, I find myself wishing that someone would start a rather violent revolution because these peaceful protests aren’t cutting it for me. I look at the events of Mizzou and think, “That’s no victory. Change only happened because financial interests were at stake when the football team went on strike. Had they not, would the president and chancellor still have stepped down?” I highly doubt it.
What I do know is that God is not absent, regardless of how it may seem. I know that He never leaves nor forsakes His people (Matthew 28:20) and that He knows me so intimately that He numbers my tears and puts them in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). When Jesus walked this earth, he was hanging out with those who were being oppressed. As this article points out, Jesus sees color, gender, and class, among other status markers. He understood social inequality and was opposed to unjust power structures. Therefore, I am confident that he doesn’t have his feet up on a pearly white stool. But what does that mean for me from day to day? I’m still trying to figure it out. I am trying to reconcile a desire for change by whatever means necessary, and a conviction to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), love my neighbor (Mark 12:31), and live peaceably with all men (Romans 12:18). However, I’m not sure if these notions are as dichotomous as I perceive them to be – do they necessarily need to be reconciled? They are terribly uncomfortable to balance, but are they impossible? I don’t have the answers. For now, I’m trying to nestle into what seems to be a bed of jagged rocks. And I’m hoping that after some tossing, turning, and sleepless nights, I’ll find a spot that feels okay.