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How racism became our zeitgeist

One African-American woman considers the culture's obsession with race


Priscilla Ward
October 26, 2017 11:00PM (UTC)

“A people thus handicapped ought not to be asked to race with the world, but rather allowed to give all its time and thought to its own social problems,”  — W.E.B DuBios

It’s a crisp autumn night, but my best friend and I are cozy at an Oktoberfest party in East Harlem on a Saturday night. For her, it’s a college reunion, but for myself, it’s just a house party with a bunch of people I’ve yet to meet. The crowd is a mixture of black, white, Asian, gay and straight people. I’m sitting, observing the crowd of plaid wearers, trying to figure out whom I should talk to. I weave my way in and out of conversations following my friend’s lead as she catches up with old college friends.

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The party is beginning to wind down; conversations are no longer muted by the loud music. Instead, the top 40 playlist is turned down to an audible volume. I’m seated in the kitchen talking to the guy next to me; we don’t have very much in common, but the obvious thing is that we’re black. Our common place gives me the okay to talk about race, even in this casual social setting.

When I run out of normal get to know you small talk, it’s easy to bring up racial injustice. It’s like a broken alarm clock in me that can’t be turned off, unless I’m on vacation someplace and don’t have access to the constant news cycle or social media. Instead, the alarm goes off every day, creating a ritual of how I’m supposed to see the world, my place and whom I’m meant to do life with. I wake up, scroll through Twitter, check the front page of news websites and watch viral clips. Every time I pick up my phone, I’m notified of a divisive statement by Trump, natural disaster, sexual assault or the black community’s encounter with the police. It has rebranded so much of my thinking, twisted and perverted it over the last couple of years.  

The turning point of my thinking belongs to the night Darren Wilson, the officer who murdered Michael Brown, was acquitted. More and more instances of police brutality began to go viral after this, creating what seemed like a thoughtful argument for why media should begin shifting their attention more heavily to issues facing the black community. As a media professional, to me it was clear that it all boiled down to ratings, metrics and Google trends.

Post Ferguson websites such as Mic.com, Huffington Post Black Voices and Youngist.org weren’t the only ones I turned to for their take on issues concerning the black millennial experience. Now I could go almost anywhere and find the latest news on race. It was now at the forefront — a dangerous display of black trauma, looping videos of black death could be found everywhere and protest felt routine

From that point on, the ugly, the sinister, the impacts of racism have held my attention in a binge-worthy way. Black trauma and pain reverberates in and through me. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Gardner. Sandra Bland. Kalief Browder. DeAndre Harris.

Black bodies are hanging everywhere, in headlines, on Twitter and over me. And with this there is an overwhelming expectation that as a black creative, I’ll have a quick-witted point of view for each new transgression against the African-American community. I prepare a response, anticipating the inquiry, even if black Twitter hasn’t handed me the microphone or verified my authenticity with a blue check. 

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People like Ta-Nehisi Coates have forged careers eloquently explaining the impacts of racism to the broader white audience — many of whom stand by in shock — without sugar coating it. Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the singing of the national anthem in response to police brutality and racial injustice experienced by the African-American community. His act of civil disobedience was too disruptive to the NFL’s racist legacy, one that requires athletes to honor the anthem, despite the controversial third stanza which suggests that the blood of all the former slaves and “hirelings” on the battlefield would wash away the pollution of the British invaders. Kaepernick was fired for not participating in the singing of this racist tune. A storm erupted in the twittersphere; many watched and rallied around him being rehired by the NFL. Since then, the media has hawkishly zoomed in on any athletes choosing to take a knee, making sure to announce who is and isn’t participating. At a certain point, the dramatics of it all feel like we’re watching a play. Racism seems to boost ratings and get good clicks.

Race and racism have become a pain profiting industry. Fake Melani, Hazel E for her colorism comments, Richard Spencer — police deployed to his event in Florida, Roger Goodell — he addressed NFL protests during a press conference -- are all trending at the same time. Content will be created around each of these by writers, especially black writers, in an attempt to maintain relevance.

I find myself occasionally chiming into the theatrics of it all, but doing very little in person beyond joining a hashtag, re-tweeting and having what feels like the same text conversation with a friend. I’ve caught myself putting caution tape around my relationships with white people. I’ve intentionally distanced myself from white spaces, in order to protect myself. I’ve joined black organizations, attended black networking events and curated my social life around being in spaces where I can go “there” when yet another transgression impacts the black community.

Re-tweeting and chiming in on Twitter about one racial injustice to the next is almost robotic, creating a case for blaming everything on whiteness. Instead of ever challenging the narrative with a new way of thinking, I’m simply tattooing racism on me, so that it’s always with me, not forgotten.

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So, sitting there in that East Harlem kitchen talking with a new acquaintance, it was completely commonplace to bring race and racism up at the party. I lead with the Kalief Browder documentary, which I had just finished watching earlier that day. The guy I’m talking to hadn’t watched it yet, so there isn’t much volleying back and forth about the series. Instead, I steer our conversation in another direction — there’s black privilege — I don’t remember the statements that came before this one, but this stuck to the walls. Someone overheard my comment and chimes in, no there isn’t. By this point, all the white people have left the party, and myself and five other black people and an Asian are in the kitchen.

The open conversation turns into mini breakouts; everyone has his or her own opinion. The conversation eventually fizzles out, without plans of follow up. We pick up our baggage and leave.

After a while, these conversations get old and redundant. I know they do, when I listen to myself. “Don’t you have something more uplifting to talk about?” My parents ask constantly. Whenever they asked this, I wonder why they aren’t joining in the conversation. Weren't they children of the 1960s, impacted by race rioting following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Didn’t they live through Rodney King, Prince Jones, and a seemingly endless list of people taken by a system the devalues black life? They tell me prayer is the only solution, but let’s be honest, distancing myself from white people has felt like a work of self preservation more often than not. The media has influenced my opinion, alerting me that I should keep a safe distance from white men in khakis toting torches, white men in uniform and emo looking white boys that favor Dylann Roof.

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I can’t imagine myself not bringing up race. I wish my memory could serve me well. My mother was raised in Queens, NY and my father in Columbus, GA. But the era and cultural climate in which they were raised doesn’t seem to define their approach to life now and how they choose to see people. My parents didn’t raise me to make a case for war against whiteness.

After recycling the same dialogue and feeling less and less hopeful, and now that Trump exhaustion has set in, their question to me is finally starting to click, although I still constantly find myself giving in to conversations that only end up pointing the finger at white people. But my background is much more nuanced than this -- it was never just black and white. But lately I’ve sheepishly brought in so many ideas from mainstream media without personal exploration or consideration.

My parents have always done the work of making sure I had a diversity of friends and opportunities that didn’t fit into the framework of stereotypical black life. I’m black, Christian and I have friends that reflect Martin Luther King’s Dream.

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I never had to choose a singular over a plural when it came to my blackness. I played golf, liked tea parties, I knew how to ski and I did ballet. The work my parents put into making sure that I had a diversity of experiences carried over into my pursuit of friendships throughout my life.

To this day, one of my closest friends is white. I feel comfortable talking to her about everything, including the impacts of racism. Our conversations go deeper than living in a place of fear. We discuss the things we’re creating to help craft the same unity that exists in our friendship, showing that this is a worthy undertaking. We’ve gotten to know and appreciate one another’s nuances as opposed to writing each other off even before an introduction.

Despite the looming present, it’s a worthwhile journey to take the time to understand someone different. Making room for a diversity of friendships in Trump’s America resists a narrative that brands racism as the totality of all conversation. Constantly buying racism has drained me, creating little time to cultivate relationships that are nuanced and focus on more than just my historical self.

I’m more than a past generation’s sins, submission to the color line and inability to hear one another out over a loud playlist, playing “race!racism!/black!/white!” The noise of culture has always been loud, but it’s important to turn it down and listen to one another, instead of just buying the pervading idea without any real research or understanding.

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Priscilla Ward

Priscilla Ward is an over-caffeinated, D.C.-based writer, running enthusiast, music explorer, and founder of BLCKNLIT. You can find her tweeting @Macaronifro.

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