If I wasn’t thinking about being Black, what would I think about?
I think about the murder of Black people every morning. When I wake up, when I leave my house, when I jog around white neighborhoods, when I see the blue-red blur of a police car. I think of Black murder every time I open my phone to see white people’s vacations or dinners with friends or family gatherings. I look at white happiness and I wonder how they can so easily ignore the unjust murders countless Black families in America grieve every year. I look at white skin and wonder how they can discriminate against melanin yet lie blissfully on sunny beaches seeking darker complexions. I wonder what it’d be like to enter stores, go on walks, approach any public space and not worry about policing your face, posture, tone of voice.
George Floyd’s murder has reinforced the sad truth I’ve come to acknowledge after watching this happen to countless Black people, especially Black men, over the years: Many white people don’t think of Black people as human, and therefore as beings who can be killed and mourned. Being a Black woman in America has led me to conclude that Black death is seen as deserved and inevitable, that the murder of Black people is not truly murder unless white people have eight minutes and 46 seconds of proof. They need to see the Black man choke and beg and plead for mercy before they acknowledge him as dead.
I feel silenced and powerless. To clarify: The fear that is associated with Blackness isn’t new to me. White-on-Black violence has always been an integral part of Blackness in America. What is new is white people seeming to care. Loudly. On Instagram, Twitter, in neighborhoods, at protests. Part of me feels emboldened to take advantage of the listeners and do activism work well and boldly. The other part of me is mourning.
I feel like I’m failing my community — those who have died, those who live without a loved one, those who constantly fear death. So many people I look up to are taking on so much emotional work. They’re dumbing down racism for those who have ignored it until now; they’re creating fundraisers, mobilizing coalitions and demanding change. I feel guilty that I’m tired, that I’ve tried in the past to educate people who didn’t care, that I’m scared of taking on the emotional burden of trying to get white people to understand the emptiness of their promises. I never feel like I’m doing enough.
Those who create white liberal spaces, whether that be their Twitter following or the marches they organize, have the best of both worlds. They are able to speak on behalf of Black people without inviting any Black people in. When they are done with their activism, they can settle into white complacency.
But Black complacency doesn’t exist.
There is no refuge. There is such a privilege that comes with allyship — a privilege that can be taken advantage of, whether that’s through substantial donations or protecting Black activists. But white activists can just stop. They can go home, retire their Black Lives Matter T-shirts, remove their temporary Facebook profile photos and never give the movement a second thought. More crudely put, they can decide when or when not to give a shit. Black people cannot.
When I look at white happiness, especially now, I feel angry and hurt. Part of me wants to yell at them, lecture them on all the things I learned about life before 20. Ask them how they would feel if the color of their skin was a target, if they had to fear for their brother’s life, their father’s life, if, if, if. The other part of me feels selfish. I know being white is easy, and normally I can deal with it, but please, please, please. Let me mourn.
Seattle, along with most of the Pacific Northwest, is a white space, with white liberals creating white liberal spaces. Some of these white people believe they have the ability to empathize with the Black experience. When inserting themselves into the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve frequently heard the flippant “I’m not Black so I don’t know BUT,” before they proceed to speak their opinions as fact. That remark is meant to placate the one Black person in the room, whose look of discomfort is often overshadowed by the snaps from their white friends/colleagues/acquaintances.
I’ve been there, sitting silently wondering if I was the one who had it all wrong. This has especially been the case for me when I occupy new spaces.
I had my first real job in Seattle. As a reporter for The Seattle Times during my internship last summer, I got to meet and talk to so many Seattleites. Most were kind, some were misguided. I was once told that it’s great I’m writing stories “for your people.” Another person informed me that they didn’t know where the Black people went but loved the way the city had improved over the past decade or so. An older white man saw my Seattle Times badge and commented that he was so glad The Seattle Times was hiring people for diversity. And I just smiled and nodded. Because I couldn’t be seen as the angry Black woman, not now, in a new city at a new job. Then the guilt settled in. I had the chance to educate and I said nothing. What does that make me?
I’m just so tired and so sad. It’s in my bones and I can’t shake it. In watching the way white people around me have reacted to the Black Lives Matter movement, it appears as if the discomfort that comes after Black death (if they notice it at all) can be swept away with a $10 donation and a placating conversation with other “allies.” For me, for so many of us, almost nothing can take away the inevitability of Black murder. It will happen again. America still teaches racism, allows for white supremacy and continues the funding of the police state. So it will happen again.
I’m not writing to teach readers how to be good allies or what to do to placate their guilt. I’m writing because I feel hopeless. I feel like our Constitution, our education system, and the ways we teach privilege, race and wealth are flawed. It’s all flawed. I have no idea what to do. Right now, people are speaking up in ways they never have before — using their platforms, donating millions of dollars to organizations that need it, pledging to read new books, unlearn racism, and speak to their family members. Activists are taking advantage of white attention and milking it. Thank God for that. But what about tomorrow?
What happens if white people lose their will to fight? If they realize this has been a continued fight for hundreds of years and concede that their black box on Instagram will do nothing to change it? It happened after Michael Brown’s murder in 2014. If it’s easier to forget, then why not. I don’t know if I believe white empathy. So I fear the day of forgetfulness will come, and the days and years after.
I will never forget the pain of Black death. I will never need to be reminded of their names. But will the protesters, the chanters, those who just woke up and saw the inequities, will they just move on with their lives and leave us to fall back into the same systems of institutionalized racism that have plagued this country for centuries? I wish I could believe this time will be different. But I feel like we’ve been here before, and I know what happens at the end of this temporary storm of outrage.
When the protests die down and the social media fury quiets, I hope white people don’t forget.
When they leave their houses, when they look at their children, I hope the calls for a revolution linger in the back of their minds. So when it matters, when they’re about to call the cops on the “suspicious-looking” Black kid in their neighborhood, when they’re calling their colleague a diversity hire, when they’re in the voting booth, a name stops their actions. George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Then maybe they’ll put down the phone, shut up and just think. I doubt this will happen right away. But I hope that this movement will make people check their own biases, especially in a place like Seattle. Just stop and think. Think about how your actions affect the lives of Black people who can never stop thinking about race. Because to us race isn’t new. It defines our status as second-class citizens in our country.
If I wasn’t thinking about being Black I don’t know what I would think about. Maybe fresh air or freedom. Something light. I’d think of jogging or walking or shopping. Maybe babysitting a loved one or falling asleep. Nothing violent, nothing worthy of death.
Natachi Onwuamaegbu: [email protected]; Natachi Onwuamaegbu is a freelance reporter and a former Seattle Times intern.
Natachi Onwuamaegbu is a freelance reporter and a former Seattle Times intern.