A white classmate from college recently sent an email. She recalled that decades ago, I talked to her about racism when we were both students.
We walked across campus as I talked. Perhaps I was trying to explain institutional racism, or racism and Western Civilization, or racism and literature. She told me she didn’t believe me then but that the conversation stayed with her.
I have no recollection of this conversation. It sounds like my younger self — the self not yet exhausted explaining racism to white people.
I'm not sure how to respond.
Explaining racism is exhausting. It’s exhausting to explain to people who don’t believe you, or who look at you with blank expressions. Or, worse, who ask, “How do you know that happened because of race?”
You try to summon the ancestors, who might give you energy to explain. But I no longer want to explain it.
Black people are in pain right now. We wake up each morning to another horrible story about black men and teenagers killed. Black women shot. Black women tackled by police.
And we think about the enslaved black women who were raped, who were subjected to rape at the pleasure of white enslavers. They had no power to defend themselves.
We watch video of a black woman in Indiana protesting. An officer stops her, grabs her arms then grabs her breasts. She reacts instinctively. She pulls away. He throws her to the ground, then sits on her.
We watch videos of police attacking young black men. Sometimes, the video shows the moment of death. We watched George Floyd plead for his life. We watched the life seep out of him. We watched Eric Garner plead for his life. “I can’t breathe.” We watched Philando Castile try to show his concealed-weapon documents. The officer shoots him as his girlfriend streams on Facebook and her little girl watches from the back seat. There’s Tamir Rice, 12, playing with a toy gun in a park, killed in seconds.
We watch 17-year-old Laquan McDonald walking down the middle of the street in Chicago. Seconds later, police shoot him 16 times.
He spins. Then falls.
And we fall with him.
Sometimes, these videos show the arrests of young black men who ask, “Why are you doing this to me? Because I’m black?”
In Tulsa, we see two young, black boys walking in a quiet street — as they should be able to during summer in a “free” country — when an officer suddenly slams them to the ground and searches them. “Why are you touching me like that?” one yells, as the officer pats the teen down near his front pocket. Then the officer unclips the cuffs and says he is free to go.
But the officer just took the teen’s freedom. The humiliation of arrest destroys innocence.
Last week, I saw news that two young black men were found hanging from trees in California. No, I think. This can’t be true. I search The Post to see whether it was true. It is.
This scares me. I'm in tears.
I think of my kid, standing 6-foot-2 — a math nerd who got an engineering degree while maintaining a full scholarship. When he was working as an intern in an engineering company in Washington state, a white man chased my baby boy through town. The man screamed at him, “You don't belong here.” My kid ran into an Italian restaurant for safety.
He told me this story a few weeks later when I visited him. I swear my heart skipped a beat. I tried to be calm. He asked me what he should have done.
“Should I have tried to defend myself?” he asked.
“No,” I told him. “You did the right thing by seeking refuge in a restaurant. Because had you hit him, the cops would have been called and would have targeted you."
Whenever something happens in the news, I call to check on him. Or I send a text. He says he is okay.
But is he really? This is a kid who loves to run outside and play basketball. He's also trying to survive a pandemic. I ask him whether he's wearing a mask that won't scare people. Silence.
I ask how much he’s driving. He says he doesn’t drive that much. When his grandmother passed, she left him her brand new Lexus. Will a police officer stop him because the officer thinks this kid doesn’t deserve it?
I pray for him each night and each morning and each afternoon and between sentences as I write.
Racism is exhausting.
So I’m not sure how to respond to the white classmate who sent a quick note about racism. What would you say?
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