A year ago to this day, I wrote a well-received essay titled “Am I a ‘house nigger’?” exploring the various privileges that exist in my life and how they are what I supposed to be a “rigid juxtaposition” to the stereotypical black experience in this country. I wanted to come clean about how the various privileges afforded to me have put me where I am today—at an elite university, living in one of the most expensive parts of the country, sharing champagne toasts with billionaires, with unpaid internships at my fingertips. (Note: My family is definitely not insanely rich, but I’ve always lived quite comfortably.) I hoped my essay would let people know that although I have worked hard, I am mainly a product of the privileges afforded to me—privileges that are not given to so many Blacks and other people of color who could be smarter, more qualified than myself; and yet are held back by the hand dealt to them by hundreds of years of history.
This is a different kind of essay. It is not an attack on white people, nor was it ever. It is an attack of the inability for many to acknowledge or even have the experiences to be able to recognize their privilege.
I am not special by any means, but I have had the unique experience of growing up in two worlds—one few get the simultaneous privilege and awfulness of experiencing. On one hand, as a middle schooler, I spent Florida winters drenched in Juicy Couture velour track suits paired with the sheep skin Ugg boots; My ‘Return to Tiffany and Co.” heart sharped chain necklace sparkling with the matching bracelet and ring set. For a casual $1,000, my little neck, wrist, and finger were happily drenched with silver. As described in a previous essay, I was given the education, the cotillion classes, the love from both parents to thrive in a world built for the white man. On the other hand, the same little princess dressed in Tiffany’s and fresh out of her winter cotillion class was called a nigger for the first time.
What I thought was an isolated incident turned into a series of heartbreaks over the years. Boys telling me they could never bring a Black girl—especially one as dark as me—to meet their mom, overhearing workers in my house asking my mom if she was the maid, violent words from golfers asking me how I got into the neighborhood when I walked alone, being told to look more closely at Black and Latino shoppers when I was working in a clothing store, seeing the fear in my mother’s eyes for my brother, being treated kindly whilst hanging out with all white friends and poorly whilst hanging out with Black or dark-skinned Latino friends in public. Things I was ashamed of admitting.
Merely human, people whose perceptions of Blacks were shaped by media rather than interaction use a semi-formed perception of my race to gauge my level of hostility, my socioeconomic status, and my intentions.
And shamefully enough, I harbored many of the same perceptions towards Blacks that I was struggling with combating myself. Poisoned by my environment, I was socialized in a very white world and, thus, had a very ironic view on the intersection of class, race, and socioeconomic status for years to my parent’s dismay. Regardless of my youthful ignorance, I was very much a dark-skinned black woman. I came to painfully understand how the negative stereotypes form in people’s minds because they formed in me– about myself.
Combing through years of self-hatred for the darkness of my skin, the kinkiness of my hair, and even the shape of my head, I was able to mentally combat (and am still actively combating) the perception of Blacks and other POCs spoon fed to me by the world. And, still, regardless of my personal journey to being better, I know that I am the only real-world interaction many of my white friends and acquaintances have with a black person:
I am bright. I am cheery. I am polite and as eloquent as can be whilst meeting and getting to know people because I feel burdened with debunking stereotypes that whisper that I am aggressive, unintelligent, lazy, and ugly. And, still, I know that there are many who do not have the distinct experience of getting to know, to really know, a black person to disprove these terrible things put in their mind. Many have not had the opportunity or seen the need to reach out and know that people of color have to navigate the world in a different way based on the perception forced upon them. And for that—although dwindling quickly amidst video proof, scholarly papers, and endless articles highlighting the mistreatment of African Americans—I am slightly sympathetic for the well-meaning racist (I say “racist” for lack of a better word).
To me, the well-meaning racist is the cherry cheeked, sunny personality that believes color-blindness and love, rather than paradigm shifts in systematic structures and mental brainwashing, are what will solve racism. They were taught to follow the golden rule, but never educated on how hundreds of years of history are the premise for how humans behave today.
To overlook how the unconscious racism in well-meaning people kills Blacks and Latinos at a disproportional rate is to contribute to a system that allows this to happen. To my friends and acquaintances who have navigated the world in a white-coated bubble, I am not here to tell you what to do or how to use your voice—that is up to you. What I am saying is there is a different world you’ve probably never seen– it is not made up. I know this, because I have seen them both. One of them can be quite scary*.
Admittedly, I am coming at this issue from a point of privilege that nearly invalidates every goddamn thing I have to say. Sure—I am called a nigger** every few months by angry men on the street, but there is much worse torture than being called a word. People with less privilege than myself certainly have it much worse than I, a little princess from the coast of Florida. But, doesn’t it make you think? If a little princess from the coast of Florida, sheltered from the worst of the world, is profoundly effected by racial politics, how deeply seeded is the racism that shapes the black experience?
In other words, if you want to know how pervasive racism is in our world– look back to me. Even in the land of sweater vests, sear sucker shorts, and country club memberships, I am still afraid of the police.
**(A big ole’ thank you to my incredible white and non-black friends who are woke a f and fighting the good fight every day. It means the world to us.)
*A Letter to the Boy who Called Me a Nigger: You Have Irked Me.