From an outsider’s perspective, say, from the purview of a citizen whose great-great-grandfathers were land owners, voters, arbiters of the unamended Constitution, we spend a lot of time lamenting. We deflect our own savagery by blaming it on their ancestors. Our hearing turns conveniently selective when they insist that they are not their ancestors. They know full well that, after our brief exchange — wherein they will glumly wonder, How can black people be so unforgiving? — they will go home and turn a key in the lock of a house they’ve either purchased outright or will pay off before the age of 30. They know how easily they qualified for their low-interest mortgage. They know their parents’ pristine credit, ensured by their grandfather’s investments and assets, inherited from their great-grandfathers dividends, insured by their great-great-grandfather’s land ownership, made that possible.
And they know our great-great-grandparents — both of them — and their six- and seven- and nine-year-old children worked that land with no pay. They know neither generation had anything to hand down to our grandparents. They know we inherited not assets, but in most cases, debt. They know that if our parents benefited from the Cosby-fication of a Black Middle Class, it was as recently as the late 20th century and was not achieved without the splintering of entire communities. They know our gains can often be threatened — nay, ravaged — by the strong winds of a single recession.
They know that, when we are poor, it is not often because of bad breaks, bad investments, or passing on the right kinds of plentiful opportunities. It is because we were written into the annals of this country’s history as 3/5 human and, centuries later, we are still seen by many as such.
It is because they get to deny this, even as it profits them, even as their satirical publications bandy about their particular brand of ironic hipster racism and they get to laugh, defend it, and call us (and our nine-year-old youngest-ever Best Actress Oscar nominee) oversensitive and incapable of comprehending satire — incapable, of course, because we are missing those vital two-fifths of humanity that house the white man’s funny bone, presumably.
And look at what white folks’ humor hath wrought: renderings of our president, his wife, and their daughters as apes, as Hottentots, as savages; ridicule of our athletes as animals; co-opted use of an incendiary racial slur as a synonym for friend; rampant Islamophobia; incessant hypersexualization of our men, women, and children.
Forgive us our straight faces.
From our own vantage, we are exhausted. Too often, we are winded, expending so much oxygen on explaining in detail to those who surely must already know how our humanity has been impinged and why we are deserving of verbally unmolested heroes and schools that do not subscribe to a playground-to-prison pipeline for our children. We’re positively spent, managing the endless task of finding and heralding more First Black _____s to Ever ______, spent after having to point out that, if all things were equal, we would’ve stopped “pioneering” in fields they’ve dominated and from which we’ve been historically barred, ages ago.
If we decline an opportunity to attend their “healing racism” initiatives, if we remain silent when they ask us why we don’t have to wash our hair daily, if we sigh with deep exasperation when they say they “don’t see race” — even as nooses are still being hung at schools, crosses still burned on laws, sentencing still disproportionately favors harsher penalties for minority offenders, and the few black actors we’re allowed still can’t enjoy their nominations and awards the rest of us having to wonder if they’ve only been offered them because they played criminals, slaves, pimps, or domestics — we have our reasons.
And no, if you can’t possibly imagine what they are, we’ll waste no further air elucidating them for you.
We have our own means of navigating what this country has apportioned us — and they are intricate, communal, and, at times, quite deeply flawed. But if we are to always be treated as abstractions, having the form of humanness but not the entitlements thereof, we will continue to keep our ways clandestine and our cards close to the vest. We will accept their apologies as publicly as they issue them, while being as slow to trust their sincerity in private as they are to believe we’re owed them in the first place.
It is not so difficult, overcoming. You need only have ancestors whose flesh was cracked open like melon rind and torn from their limbs by hounds. You need only have children who can continue to smile when adults, hiding behind anonymity, call them the kinds of names they are never allowed to repeat. You need only have the grace to accept “heartfelt remorse” from people whose ability to produce such was made suspect the moment they thought to offend your children, in such particularly callous ways to begin with.
We’ve grown good at it. It is the one thing privilege cannot buy.