Several years ago my little sister, then 7 years old, came home crying from elementary school because a white classmate called her “dirt brown”. I hugged her and told her I was sorry that it happened. A full two decades older than her, I watched as she struggled, brows furrowed with frustration, to wrap her mind around the new knowledge that she was black. Before this, she had no idea that anything separated her from her friends in our predominantly white, working-class suburb in Massachusetts. I call this our Before Times; those first few years as a Black kid in America when you’re blissfully unaware of the fully insane, invisible force of racism rooted deep in the soil of your country. A force so strong that it causes otherwise reasonable human beings to loathe complete strangers for the color of their skin. So much so that they kill them because of it. Repeatedly. Out in the open. With impunity.
First my sister fought back tears, wounded by a bully who made her feel different. Then she became angry as it dawned on her that she was being ostracized and ridiculed for something she had no control over. “I didn’t ask to be Black” she said, as if stunned by the sudden and dizzying loss of agency.
Like all of us who came before her, her only options in those early moments of realization were to either hate white people, or hate her blackness.
I watched as my sweet, sarcastic little sister crossed into The Reality; a completely new dimension immediately following our Before Times that marks the moment a Black person is initiated into racism. It’s the first trickle of understanding that for the rest of your life, you will have to either conform to whatever a white person is demanding of you in the moment, or possibly be subjected to humiliation, poverty, and, way too often, death.
My crossover happened in the early 90’s at a 7-Eleven in North Miami Beach. I was around the same age as my little sister, perusing the candy and gum rack the store strategically placed at a child’s eye level. My Mom was just a few feet away at the register, paying for two gallons of milk. I noticed I was being watched by the store clerk and didn’t understand why he kept his eyes trained on me when there were other people in the store. Why was I the only one being stared at? Then I slowly realized he thought I was stealing, because I was black.
As I grew older, the trickle became an onslaught. I got followed so much that I learned to smile and say hello to retail staff who trailed behind me. I learned not to make u-turns in white driveways, or pull over and take phone calls in white neighborhoods, lest the white owners suspiciously peering out their windows call the police on the African American inexplicably idling near their property. It didn’t stop there. At school, I tried to outperform my classmates to win the favor of teachers I could tell had low expectations of me. When eating out, I tried to prove a point by overtipping rude wait staff who gave me bad service because they assumed I wouldn’t tip well. At work, I did what my friend Rose called jazz hands, a performative gushing cheeriness that was necessary to avoid being perceived as “aggressive”.
In The Reality, white supremacy is the arena in which Black people are forced to play out our lives. Like gladiators on the floor of a colosseum, desperate to survive, we battle it out against all odds to reach the ever elusive Black Excellence. Then, in a great M. Night Shyamalan-like twist, we learn that there’s actually no way to win the game. It didn’t actually matter if you were Oprah or LeBron or Beyoncé. Instead of finally being accepted for all of your effort, white people would resent you for it. So much so, that they’d elect a petulant fame-whore masquerading as a businessman as the President of the United States.
But Trump is only a symptom of a bigger problem. Long before he arrived, Black people in America watched white people get to live in what I call The Lie, a purposefully oblivious, see no evil hear no evil quasi reality of their own creation. While we were stuck trudging through bleak and unjust Reality, they got to have normal lives in quiet suburbs where racism didn’t exist. While they were protected, we were surveilled.
Often, The Reality and The Lie would converge. This happens when white people, in order to maintain The Lie, twist Reality to form an entirely new dimension I call The Crazy. In this place, we watch as white people simultaneously scoff at the idea of privilege and use the police like a concierge. Here, white people say things like “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter”, forcing us, in the midst of our pain, to exist in a place where wrong is right, and up is down. In The Crazy, it’s acceptable for police forces to shoot their own black citizens but not white supremacists, to deploy the National Guard on protestors all while refusing to charge three cops.It’s the place where we’re asked to believe that a man who was choked to death for 9 minutes on camera, in fact, died of natural causes.
Once you’re in The Crazy, the only thing left to do is stand back in awe at the utter pointlessness and stupidity of it all. To simply gaze upon this hulking, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt apparatus called Racism that whiteness clings to for dear life. To accept that racist white supremacists would rather destroy a 243-year-old democracy than live peacefully with black people.
But there may be hope for us after all. George Floyd’s murder has caused a once-in-a-generation rip in the space-time continuum. For a brief moment, the walls have come crashing down. Now that many more have joined The Reality, it’s become difficult for politicians to hide the terrorizing racism of the police. It’s become harder for our Mayors, District Attorneys, and City Council Members to divide, confuse, and distract us with racist dog whistles. Too cumbersome for newspapers and news anchors to center the conversation around George Floyd’s character or criminal record as a way of justifying his death- a tacit way of excusing the killing by demonstrating what had been suspected all along; that he was no good anyway.
As mad as I am about the callous taking of a life, I’m also deeply moved by the beautiful protestors of all races flooding the streets shouting ‘Not one more”. I’m overwhelmed by their generosity of spirit, their willingness to risk their lives for others. Black, white, Asian, Latinx, American. All of us, fellow citizens, collectively feeling the aching pain of loss, standing together, fighting for what we know this country can be.
We have a rare chance right now to free ourselves, to finally be let out of The Crazy. We can give up The Lie. We can change our Reality. We can heal broken hearts and save our wounded democracy.
We do this by maintaining pressure on our leaders- all of our leaders- to prosecute the officers involved in George Floyd’s murder to the fullest extent of the law, and to defund and demilitarize the police.
For once, even The Crazy is too crazy. For once, it’s too insane, even for them, to hide who the real criminals are.
For once, it feels like we're all in the same place.