I was infuriated by a racist remark, but so programmed to wash away my anger that I almost didn’t do anything.
Last year, I was working an event for my job as an R.A. The organization Dear World had come to our school, and in case you don’t know anything about them, they have you write phrases that mean something to who you are on parts of your body. I had already taken my photo, so I was standing by the door and answering questions that people had about the event.
In walks an older white gentleman.
If you take a look at the pictures I took, you’ll notice that I had someone write phrases on my forehead and arm in black marker. That’s what everyone was supposed to do. That’s how the program worked. So I’m standing by the door with my phrase, and this older white gentleman makes his way over to me. I recognize him, but I’m not sure from where. “He could be a professor in Theatre & Performance,” I think to myself, but I’m usually able to recognize the main professors in my major, even though, at this point, there was a popular one I had yet to take a class with. He asks me what the event is about, I tell him, and he nods, saying some generic statement like “That’s really cool” or “How fascinating.”
Then he looks at my arm and goes: “Wait, black on black, huh? Does that show up in the pictures?”
Um, excuse me?
I freeze, unsure how to answer that. I give him an awkward chuckle, reminding myself to hold my tongue since, once again, I’m on the job. I reply, “The picture came out really well, actually.” I make sure to make it known that I’m uncomfortable, though, so I shift my weight and look around the room, hoping to make eye contact with someone who will come over and intercept this interaction. I find no one.
After a moment, he’s still smiling with all his teeth and says, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”
I reply, “Uh-huh,” even though I’m thinking, “If you shouldn’t have said that, then why the f*ck did you say it anyway?”
I forget how I was able to extract myself from that situation, probably because I was too busy thinking about how to process what was just said to me. My initial reaction was to tell someone, anyone, just so I could relay the story out loud and speak it into the memories of others. I don’t know why that was my first reaction. Maybe it was so I didn’t have to deal with the absurdity of the racism I had just faced alone. Maybe I wanted to tell other people so I could gauge their reactions and see just how upset I was allowed to be.
Everyone I told was almost equally as appalled and disgusted as I was. And I purposefully use the word ‘almost’ because no one could have ever been just as appalled and disgusted as me since they were experiencing the occurrence second-hand, while I had to stand and live through it first-hand.
I kept wracking my brain for solutions. The only one I could find was to tell some in the department, but at the same time, I wasn’t sure if he was even a professor in my major. I wasn’t even sure he worked at the school at all. I had no solutions because I had no facts and I had no facts because, like with most passive racial occurrences, they happen so fast that they’re gone before you can even process what’s happening while the person is standing in front of you.
If he was a professor and if I could prove he was a professor, I wanted to send an email. At least, part of me wanted to send an email. There was another part of me, a tiny little whisper at the back of my head that kept whispering, “Just leave it alone.” I kept finding myself thinking, “maybe you heard it wrong” or “do you really want to email his supervisor – what if he gets in major trouble?”
I kept trying to find ways to put myself in the wrong, to make it so that I was over-reacting. Even though those around me were super supportive and were validating my anger, I still felt like I was wrong for getting offended. And furthermore, I felt even more wrong for letting it bother me so much. Who was I to become upset about a racist and anti-black conversation? There were those who had faced much worse, right? I had a job to do and other things to think about, right? How dare I take so much mental energy to confront a moment that had gone and past, right?
I later found out that the older gentleman was not a professor, but was actually an elderly person who frequented Theatre & Performance classes (hence why he looked so familiar), so there was no one to report him to. There was no one to send an angry or disappointed email to. So I had to sit with that occurrence and the fact that what had happened bothered me so much.
And even worse: I had to sit with the fact and confront the issue that I had tried to invalidate myself. I had to sit with the fact that I had tried to rewrite a memory that would not go away. I had to sit with the fact that I had tried to do the very thing I preach against doing.
That’s the way we’re taught, though, as people in groups who are marginalized or oppressed by inherently systemic and societal forces. We’re taught that we must second-guess every offensive saying, thought, or occurrence that happens to us. We’re taught that we must burn these memories into our brain so fiercely so when asked to recall, our memories are crystal clear so that no one can triple- and quadruple-guess us and get us flustered to the point where we become unsure ourselves if what we’re claiming happened really happened. Calling out white men on their racism is unheard of and, historically, it’s outright dangerous for black women. So, even if he were a professor and I was crystal clear on what had happened, I was still hesitant about calling him out on his racism.
After all, I didn’t want to be that black girl.
I didn’t want to be that black girl who cried “RACIST” just because she couldn’t take a joke.
I didn’t want to be that black girl who tried to tarnish a white male professor’s name.
I didn’t have and there was no way of gaining enough clout for me to risk being that black girl.
I couldn’t afford to be that black girl.
So, I sat with it. And I took to Facebook and wrote an extra long post about it, and people were sympathetic and everyone wanted to give me solutions on how to deal with the racist white man, but no one had solutions on how to deal with the little black girl inside of me who was shaking with fear and trying to grapple with how alone she felt.
What did it mean that I had wanted to sit and be complacent if this person had been a professor? What did it mean that I was willing to convince myself this white man had did nothing wrong in order to just forget? What did it mean that I’m now just publishing this article almost a year after this incident happened?
I have no solution for how to stop self-invalidating if you’re a woman or person of color. I have no quick tips or possibly flawed guide of how to navigate this treacherous territory. I’m at a loss myself, honestly.
The only advice I have for people struggling to not invalidate themselves when society says they should is to keep reminding yourself that you are valid in what you feel. It’s a journey, and it’s one that only starts once you recognize you’re doing it in the first place.
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