Stay Black and Die: Reckoning with America's Racism as a Biracial Black Woman6/24/2015
by Angela Fichter I was a difficult child. In response to my resistance, my mother would often ad...
by Angela Fichter
I was a difficult child. In response to my resistance, my mother would often adamantly exclaim, “Well, the only thing you have to do is stay black and die!”
I would retort back, “No I don’t!”
I understand now that there’s no avoiding either. They’ve now become inextricably linked.
Black bodies are piling up on American soil at the hands of white men — in prisons and graves, and churches—and have been for some time. It’s clear my generation is experiencing a modern resurgence of the Civil Rights Movement. We are moving, but I wonder where to, when so many people don’t understand the necessity of speaking out.
People are dying due to race-based violence. What don’t they understand?
The nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina have now been added to the names of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Tanesha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Yvette Smith, Aiyana Stanley Jones, and countless other black men and women who have all died over race-based violence. I got it before, and I get it now, but now I’m finally hurting. The most recent victims were innocent, as I believe all the others were, and though some of them may have been “at-risk,” come from poor communities, or have committed minor crimes, none of it warranted death.
I don’t feel a particular sadness because these men and women died in a church. I’m distraught because for whatever reason, it has now become painfully obvious to me that to be black is a crime.
I spoke to my father about the recent murders and he was as angry as I am. He understands, but because he is white, he doesn’t know the pain. The pain of knowing that to be black in America puts your life at risk. I don’t blame him, or fault him for his whiteness, but I resent his privilege.
As a child I remember my mother crying over slavery, insisting that the black experience in America goes so much deeper than the white one. I hadn’t lived through that, and I didn’t want to hear it. Every year during her pre-kindergarten class’s annual Christmas show, she whispered to the children they were actually singing Negro spirituals. It was embarrassing.
Now, I get it and although not always tactfully expressed, it was necessary for her to teach me about the struggles of black people and our history because white America is so busy denying them.
I grew up in the Bay Area. San Francisco’s black middle class had long disappeared by the time I was a child. All my life I wanted to evade what was so confronting: blackness and how it was negatively defined and perceived by other people — how we were portrayed in media and handled within institutions. I wanted to create an identity for myself outside white and black confines. In my adulthood, I’ve quickly discovered that growing up in a middle-class neighborhood and getting a degree doesn’t do much to shelter me from my blackness—to save me from the violent and unjust death that befalls so many black lives.
It took a while for me to come around to the plight of a community I was connected to, but so removed from.
I used to tell an old Nigerian friend about how I struggled with the way I was treated by black people and how I didn’t fit in with white people. This friend was ten shades darker, but listened to me without judgment. She consoled me, and then said, “Yeah, Angie, but you’ll never know what it’s like to be a dark-skinned black man in America.” (Or a dark-skinned woman for that matter.)
I’ve learned that to be any shade of black is dangerous nonetheless. My relative privilege only goes so far.
After that conversation, for the first time in my life, I understood that I had been experiencing a disconnect. I was wholly unaware of the struggles many of my black counterparts were facing between living in areas with cancer-causing levels of asbestos, facing police brutality, and the effects of other forms of institutionalized racism. It became another burden to bear and it hurt to realize that despite my sometimes precarious position in the world as a biracial woman, it didn’t necessarily equate to probable death — death of the heart, soul, drive, confidence, self-love and the will to live in white America. It has now become painfully clear to me that to be black and to survive is a continuous feat.
In becoming independent—living and struggling on my own—appreciating my blackness has become a direct response to a nation that doesn’t appreciate me. I have to love myself in a country that wants to see me fail. But I’m not comfortable being black in America, where I’m regularly followed around stores, or where white women clutch their purses and shy away from me on the streets at night. Where I avoid dining in certain restaurants unless I’m in a trench coat and holding a Chanel bag because I don’t want the anxiety that comes with being judged by presumptuous white people.
I live in Europe now. My blackness still follows me wherever I go, but it doesn’t haunt my every waking moment like when I lived in the U.S.
Many of my European friends are appalled that racism exists on such a pervasive level and are offended at the mention of it. It’s not the same dismissal I see from white Americans; rather, it’s a genuine shock, born of progressive values despite living in semi-homogenous societies with relatively recent influxes of immigration. They truly believe that everyone is equal. When I told a Belgian friend that my parents would not have been able to marry had they attempted to do so 15 years earlier, she began to cry, shaking her head in dismay, telling me that’s when she understood that racism is still a serious problem.
Even my partner, a small-town Irish boy with no concept of institutionalized racism, colorism, or race-based police brutality before he met me, sees a problem and it makes him angry.
I wish many more white Americans felt the same. It’s disheartening that white America has a dark history of racism that justifies outrage, yet a man with no connection to the struggle could be cursing at the television screen and visibly distraught over the current state of race relations in America today.
Although there is still some disconnect, it’s refreshing to be around people who cannot conceive of such ingrained hatred or the systematic destruction of a people.
Though I wish I was home to participate in protests, mourn at funerals, engage with those going through the struggle, and be heard, I feel safer here. Still, I’m suffering in silence.
We’ve reached a crisis point and I don’t know how long we can continue to deny “the race problem” and how deeply it’s entrenched in every sector of society, especially the criminal (in)justice system.
President Obama said of the recent Charleston deaths, “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this kind of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. It is in our power to do something about it.”
However, he’ll continue to tiptoe around the vicious pathological racism that lies at the root of all our institutions. I’m convinced the President is much more progressive than his two terms have shown. I’m also convinced that despite his biological whiteness, he silences himself out of fear of upsetting white America. He just can’t go there as a black man. I understand playing politician, but we can no longer afford this silence or this fear.
All these deaths have me wondering what my mother would say if she were alive today. I know she’d be crying and angry over the many slain young black men and women, even though it’s nothing new. She lived through segregation, the 1965 Watts riots, and the crack epidemic. Despite her success and celebration of her blackness, her teaching me about mine was almost always overshadowed by white supremacy. She’d say, “Damn. Can’t we have anything?”
I ask myself the same question when I think of the nine black men and women that died praying in a church last week. Contrary to the bizarre right-wing media coverage about this being an attack on religion, it’s not. This is about black lives, and denying it only feeds credence to eschewing white guilt.
Unspeakable pain has been carried by black people for generations, decades, and centuries, and hasn’t stopped. By continuing to deny racism, we validate the institutions and hateful belief systems that plague the lives of black people and other communities of color. Unless you’re researching (the right) history, you have to be black or brown to truly understand the experience. But you damn sure don’t have to be a person of color to do something about it.
The words of James Baldwin in his 1972 book No Name in the Street still hold true: “If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law's protection most— and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
I’m angry, but mostly exhausted by white ignorance, white silence, and white complicity—and other groups for that matter, who have no interest in demanding equality and challenging racism. I’m also discouraged about returning to the States and having to confront a blackness that is hauntingly oppressed.
But I wonder how my mother managed to live through segregation, grow up in a family that didn’t like white people, and marry a white man. I can only think she was able to view my father as an individual, as human.
I hope more white people can do the same for their black counterparts.
No one wants to live in fear. No one wants to learn how to be black and stay alive.
Angela Fichter is a writer and storyteller. She holds a BA in International Relations and writes about race, color, and culture. You can follow her blog at http://medium.com/@littlewarrior and her Twitter @oangelaaa.