I always know what’s coming when strangers start wondering about my ethnicity …
I’ve got my mask pulled on tight at work, and in public spaces right now. I’m keeping my ears open, spying for the benefit of my own psyche. What are they saying? Who can I trust? I finally got a good night’s sleep, and felt my reserves and resolve snap back.
I’m afraid. But not really for me. People I know, the water was already hot, but now it’s getting ready to boil over. The traditional targets of oppression, the new ones we’ve added, they’ve been feeling the heat for their whole lives. There wasn’t even much of a reprieve for a lot of people during the Obama years. There were legal victories, and gains. But there was other stuff, too.
I’ve felt this before. Like, in times when I can feel things get divisive around me, along lines of race, nobody gets my ethnicity right, except in one kind of case. I’m white. I’m jewish. I’m arabic. I’m latino. I’m maybe chinese? I’m whatever. More people get it wrong, because, more people suddenly start asking, and wondering, and making assumptions. The only time they get it right is when someone wants to use it to put me down. I’ve been through this before. People ask when the cultural waters reach a certain temperature.
I got to class last night. We’re reading sketches. A white guy in my class writes a character called ‘Mr Ono’ and I volunteer to play him, because literally no one else will. The writer scolds me, “Hey, make sure not to read the guy in a racist way.” The white kids in the class laugh. I read the character. It’s all pidgin English. Like, straight racist. I just read the lines, flat. The week before, a black girl in the class, who was clearly feeling uncomfortable as the only black girl, spoke up. She was worried about using her voice, or writing pieces about white people. We all assured her it was a safe space, she could write whatever, and we’d avoid censorship.
I remember saying I thought it was okay. So, she comes back with her pieces, and she just writes black women, with their voices. But the creepy white guy, who’s not that funny, adds racism into a sketch that he doens’t realize is about colonialism. Like, the comedy from the character is I guess that he can’t speak right. The sketch itself is about a white couple who wants to be the only occupants of an ethnic restaurant, and who drive everyone else away. I catch the black girl’s eye in my class, and roll my eyes a little, and we break eye contact. We both know. I don’t say anything, during the critique. Because, I don’t care. Like I said, at this moment, I’m keeping my ears open. Who can I see? How calm can I stay? It’s a time for picking battles, and, I don’t care about these folks. I listen, and the instructor does ‘the voice.’ Asian people know it. “Me so sorry.” The white kids laugh. I don’t react. I don’t laugh, but I don’t get angry, either. I get back into the groove of the class. I know that the mask, I don’t want to reward the racism. But, I don’t want it to roll my cool, either. I already know what’s happening, because, I’ve been here before. This happens when white people want it to happen.
Because it’s a losing game. It’s why, when my black friends say they don’t trust white people, I’m not aghast. I’m sad, because they’re speaking a truth that I wish I could fix with my own two hands, across the world. I’m sad because I know if the ‘wrong’ white person hears that, they’ll be offended. My job at that point will be to regulate their feelings, reassure them it’s okay. If I don’t do that job, they’ll get angry. If there’s a woman of color in the room, it’s her job. If there’s a white woman in the room, it may be a toss up between the two of us. If there’s anyone browner than me in the room, it’ll be their job. Most white people don’t even know these rules exist. A lot of other people just play by those rules, and don’t realize it, or even see it.
It’s the everyday, ordinary reality of black people, and a lot of other people of color. It’s a sometimes reality for me because of my privileges. My privileges allow me to never encounter those situations when things are below a boiling over point. It’s obvious. The reaction to Black Lives Matter by a lot of people, including people I thought I knew, tells me everything I need to know. Things were already harsh in Obama’s America. Black people, native peoples, women of every color, all caught in vices at different levels of tightness. But caught in a vice nonetheless. The vice got squeezed on people, and now, there’s a small vice on me.
I’m keeping my ears open. For the happy ones, cheering Trump. For the ones who don’t think it’s a big deal. They’re all telling you who they are. How much you can count on them. How they’ll behave if things go as wrong as they could. I just want to listen. And pay attention. People will show you who they are. When they do, believe them. If you know that person a long time, they’ll keep showing you, at the same kinds of moments.
We’re human, so we make mistakes. I’ve helped the wrong people. Supported the wrong movements. Done the wrong thing. If that’s never happened to you, then you’re either lying to yourself or not trying. All I can trust is that those mistakes have taught me enough to make better decisions. I have my dreams, the art I’m working on, the things I will actualize in my life, and that’s all still there. But now, it’s time to pack up that bag with all the ‘just in case’ things you may need in these times, and take a deep breath, and walk with the people you can trust. I learn to trust them. They learn to trust me. It’s important.
I breathe out. I inhale for four counts, hold my breath for seven, exhale for eight. I do it again, 7 more times. My mask is still on. My expression is flat. I can let people project whatever emotion they think is on my face, and I can listen, and know what they’re feeling, no matter how much they want to try and hide it, or pretend otherwise. Reading a Ph.D.’s worth of books on psychological empathy, living it, and having the right kind of experiences can teach you those skills. I’m lucky. I have hope my body will hold out. I can keep myself calm. I can bring what I need. I can strive to be a help, and never a burden.
I can choose to say no, by picking my battles. There’s a long walk coming.
I have to be able to help people to their feet as we go.