Reflections on My Experience as a Black Woman in America
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
"You’re free,” they keep telling us. But she would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so… free" - Jesse Williams
Today I had a discussion with my therapist about the resentment I hold related to my experiences with racism. Like so many others, I've been spending the past couple of weeks trying to process everything that is currently happening in the world. In a time that has left Black people like myself feeling hurt, angry, sad and exhausted, many of us are feeling the weight of the murders of innocent Black people, compounded with our own personal experiences with racism.
While for some, the current protests and riots may seem to have come out of nowhere and may not make sense, the truth is they were inevitable. Black people have experienced racism, whether personally or through others for our entire lives. For people like myself, we may have initially been shielded in some ways to only our personal experiences and hearing about the experiences of those closest to us. Now with social media, we are having those experiences compounded to include those of complete strangers.
Research has shown that racial trauma experienced from overt and covert racism, as well as microaggressions, can lead to post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) in minorities. When we experience these instances of racism, it can lead us to fear them happening, which can lead to constant vigilance and stress. I feel that what we see happening in this current moment, is PTSD coming to the surface in a lot of Black people, after a month and a half of repeated traumas.
When I reflect on the racial traumas that I have experienced in my life, I am feeling a noticeable shift in my own thoughts and feelings. Yesterday, I discussed racism with my mom and found out that my first experience happened five years earlier than the first experience I remembered. She told me that when I was two years old, she was looking through a catalog with me to pick out a new doll baby. Each time she asked me which doll I wanted, I pointed to a white doll. When she asked me why I didn't want a Black doll, I told her they were bad, that Black people couldn't do anything good and were stupid.
This story is all too familiar. In fact, in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark presented the findings of their Doll Experiment, an experiment that placed two dolls that were identical aside from skin color, in front of Black children. The children were asked questions like "which doll is the good doll?" "which doll is the bad doll?" There was a clear preference for the white doll among the children.
In my case, I had learned that Black people were bad in my daycare from the older kids. We were living in Boston at the time and my mom has told me that there it was not uncommon for kids, as young as 4 and 5 years old to walk up to Black people and call them the "n-word" unprovoked. This experience was one of the contributing factors to my mom deciding to move us out of Boston.
Over the course of 30 years since the doll baby incident, I've experienced many instances of overt and covert racism and microaggressions. Far too many to detail in this blog, but some that were very key in the way I learned to approach the world. I remember not being served at a restaurant when out to dinner with my mom as a child. In middle school, my teachers decided it was a good idea to have us watch Amistad and I sat and listened to my classmates laugh and mock as Cinque begged for his freedom. My one other Black classmate and I petitioned the middle school director to stop allowing our classmates to wear the confederate flag to school; a battle that we ultimately lost.
In high school, I was required to attend an assembly to listen to Jesse Helms, one of the most historically racist senators in the state of NC, address our school. In my senior year, we were assigned to read The Color People, one of my favorite stories. Our teacher guided us through five minutes of discussion, during which the only takeaway my classmates had was "Celie was a lesbian". There was no discussion about the experience of Black women in the US in Jim Crow's south.
In college, my best friend and I called out a teacher, who was no older than 40, after he referred to us as "the negro population". A group of us had to confront the school administration that failed the Black students in the midst of a shooting that affected our community as a whole. The school administration found it more important to close campus for the Super Bowl parade that happened downtown than for five Black students who were shot on campus and the dozens of students who witnessed and were directly affected.
Early on in life, I learned that my experiences and my feelings ultimately didn't matter to the world. I learned to play the game to get along in a world of whiteness that did not care for or about me. This is how many of us get through and deal with the stress that comes with our experiences of racism. In my case, I made myself small, ensuring that I didn't rock the boat, minimizing my personality for fear of being told that I was aggressive or angry and fearing that I would be shut out of opportunities. I've held onto the stress of being Black and carried the burden of my experiences with me everywhere. It is truly exhausting.
I am making a conscious decision to speak my truth. To be free. At home, at work, with friends. I have spent my life being uncomfortable, to ensure that others were comfortable with my presence. But, until we are all able to be comfortable, I will speak up on what I need, how I am not being supported and what I expect from the places where I work and the people in my life. We can be uncomfortable together until we all can reach a place of comfort. It no longer serves me to minimize who I am for the benefit of others. I can no longer carry that stress. I deserve to feel free. Black people deserve to be free.