Earlier this week I sat down to watch an episode of the Office with my roommate. It was an early season of the office, one that I hadn’t watched in few years. I had forgotten just how sexist the “Pam is so hot” subplots are in the office: Michael Scott staring at Pam’s breasts, telling her to be hotter, asking her to show more skin. I was laughing at the first couple until I realized that they just kept coming and coming. I looked over at my friend and she was not laughing. I began to feel uncomfortable at my own laughter. What was it exactly that I found funny about these jokes? Was it the outrageous show of sexism, Michael Scott’s lack of a filter, the cleverness of the writing? I think, deep down inside, I found I enjoyed the ridiculing of this female character and seeing men put themselves above her. It was sad but I didn’t stop watching…
I mentioned to my roommate that I had forgotten how sexist the early episodes of the office were. She gave me a blank look, the kind of look I have been known to give white people laughing at racist jokes. It is a look that can mean a lot of things. The umbrella meaning is best translated as: so do something about it. It is the look marginalized people give dominate groups when they look to those they oppress to take away their guilt. I recognized a few minutes later that that’s what I wanted from her. I wanted her to tell me that it was okay to keep watching, that it didn’t mean I was sexist if I thought it was funny. She didn’t and she should not have been expected to.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that moment and I’ve been replaying my roommate’s look over and over again in my head. It has caused me to think about the ways in which I ask people to assuage my guilt and the ways in which I am expected to do the same for others. It has caused me to think back on all the old habits I learned in Falcon as self defense mechanisms. I have mastered the non-threatening tone, volume and syntax to use around white people that is just Black enough for them to believe it’s real and white enough not scare them. Dropping my g’s and enunciating strategically is almost second nature to me now. I am reminded of all the years I spent subtlety perfecting creating distance from myself and those Black people.
I remember getting into a debate about crime with an older wealthy white man in my native Colorado Springs. I was a teenager in his house, in his space and desperately wanted to be accepted. I remember remarking about how I hate that every time the “Black Community” got up in arms about a police beating the victim was a criminal, a crack addict: someone who deserved it. I used the statement to segway into the fact that it obfuscates the real beatings of innocent Black men, women and children but… I realize now that the second part always fell on deaf ears.
It felt bad at the time…
It still does….
But not being welcomed in that space would have felt worse….
I realize I had mastered this Booker T. Washington like tight rope dance, mitigating white anger to try a slip a few progressive ideas through the fog of white supremacy. It gave me access to white spaces to an amazing degree for someone as dark and not-wealthy as myself while allowing me to not completely whitewash who I desperately wanted to be. I went into National Honor Society meetings, Parade of Champions award nights, and eventually the University of Chicago still proud of being Black. It seemed like a decent trade off; access to educational privilege at the cost of ignoring white racism. I remember sitting in an AP history class, the only Black student there, and seeing friends, classmates, crushes and even teachers look at me when they told a racist joke or accidently called someone colored. They gave me the same look I gave my roommate, they wanted me to tell them it was okay, that they weren’t really being racist, even though they were.
I learned in elementary school that there was only one way to respond to this look. I learned that if you said that a white person said something racist they wouldn’t invite you to their birthday party. I also learned if you ignored their racism it just got worse and they would eventually stand silently as their other friend called you a nigger and your whole class laughed. I learned if you cried they would just call you a faggot. The only thing you could do was make a joke.
Needless to say, I’ve cultivated a sense of racial humor since the first time a group of white kids laughed at their nigger. Around the same time I learned that white people don’t like it when you bring up race, you have to wait for them to bring it up first. I also learned [the hard way] that black people and white people have a very different definition of what it means to “bring up race.” For my white friends growing up, code words like urban people, inner-city poverty, “people from Fountain” [a personal favorite] were okay but saying Black was vulgar. Yet, as I mentioned before, you had to call white people out on their racism or else it just got worse. So I’ve gotten better, funnier and more nuisanced as time goes on.
I learned another funny fact about white people in the course of avoiding their anger. Liberal white people can be just as segregationist as conservative white people subconsciously. The trick to get liberal white people to say– let you join their study circle without them constantly looking at you like you are going to steal their laptop—is to make them feel guilty. Basically, the best way to combat liberal racism to make them feel guilty about it or, to continue the metaphor, to make a joke about stealing their laptop. Soon guilt will replace suspicion and they will casually go to the restroom and make a point about asking you to watch their laptop. When I really need access into a white space, like a study circle in college, I learned it was best to make my Blackness something not at all scary. Fortunately for me, and I suspect many of other Black kids finding themselves in white spaces, Dave Chappelle was popular at the time. Quoting Dave Chappelle is of course intrinsically rewarding and it is also a great way to show white people you are “down” and not going to get upset at their
racism race jokes.
By the way, you can laugh. That last paragraph was funny. I laughed writing it. I laughed because, truth be told, I’d rather not cry.
If I’m honest, and I suppose I should be, I’m really angry. I’m really pissed at how often I am expected to joke and laugh away white racism. How often I’m supposed to pretend that I’m not afraid of white spaces but I am.
I said it.
White people scare me.
I have to 25 years of experience telling me that at any moment any white person can assert their whiteness and exclude me from a space, a conversation, a job or even my housing. What scares me most is that much of the time, especially now that I’ve left rural Colorado, white people don’t even know they are doing it. They remain blissfully unaware of their power until I joke about it. Yet every day I have to deal with micro-aggressions that are only micro in a relative sense. They are only micro compared to time my brother got ran off the road by a group of white teenagers cursing at him, compared to the times I had to joke my way out of an ass kicking, micro compared to the times someone threatens to lynch my sister on OkCupid.
Every time I find myself in Virginia I have to walk to through crowds of white people who refuse to acknowledge my humanity, refuse to look me in eye and recognize I am there instead of expecting me to move out of their way. Those looks, those looks through me, terrify me more than the looks of expecting me to say something to assuage white guilt anger me. I have learned, through 25 years of being Black in America, that the look is not only a look of disregard.
It can also be a prelude to violence.
I’m tired of pretending I didn’t have to be afraid of that look or mitigate that look to prevent traumatic emotional or physical harm. I’m tired of arguing with white women about male sexual harassment vs white violence. I’m tired of equivocating my harassment by white people on a daily basis because it’s not polite or is not talked about as often as sexual harassment. I’m tired of talking about those Black people to fit in. I’m tired of worrying about what it means that these jokes are now reflexive and automatic knee jerk reactions. I’m tired of asking women I respect to excuse my sexism…
I’m tired and I’ve run out of jokes…
I’m going to apologize to my roommate when she gets home. What I did was not okay. She will probably say its no big deal.
She’ll probably make a joke about it…