Donald Trump and the Politics of Being Unwanted

The evening of the 4th night of the Republican convention, I went out to dinner with my husband and my in-laws. It was an ordinary weeknight, except that the restaurant was unusually crowded. My mother in law speculated that it was crowded because people wanted to have dinner early before getting home to watch the “highlight” of the convention, where the candidate would accept his unfortunate nomination.

Donald Trump and the Politics of Being UnwantedWe make an unusual group. Me, a plus-size black woman in my mid-30s, and my husband, a white man about 15 years older than me with elderly parents. Sometimes when we go out, they’ll say, “Party of 3?” And we say, “No, there’s 4 of us.”

I’m used to being stared at when I am out in mostly white spaces, especially when I am with my little family. But as we walked to our table, one couple stared at us so hard that they stopped their conversation. They looked uneasy and nervous. And they wouldn’t stop staring at me.

We were seated across from them. Making matters worse was that, due to the crowd, we were seated at what is literally the restaurant’s smallest booth, and I was squeezed in so tight that the table moved every time I took a deep breath. Faced with the choice between asking to be moved, (which would have involved asking my elderly mother in law, who is frail and uses a cane, to struggle to get up and then wait another 15 minutes for a seat), or sitting there hoping dinner would go by quickly, I made the second choice. And the couple kept staring.

I tried to ignore them. I am not sure if it was hostile or curious, but it was definitely one of the several types of “black stares” I have been subject to in my life and we all knew it. My husband said they stared like we were “animals at the zoo.” They stared until the waiter brought them their check, at which time they whispered audibly about getting home so they could watch the Trump speech. They scurried away, and I couldn’t help but be relieved when they were replaced with a friendly looking black couple.

I have wondered for the past year what Trump’s normalization of racism, his liberation of angry white people from “political correctness,” would do to the daily lives of black people. I’m old enough not to be shocked by racism, old enough to have been raised to be “twice as good.” But I’m too young to know what it was like to live in a “George Wallace” America. What will happen when the veil hiding the most virulent hatred from polite society is lifted? I spoke to my mom and grandmother the day after Trump’s fear mongering, hateful speech. After we all offered our multigenerational perspectives, Grandmother said, “You think this is bad? Just wait.”  She did not elaborate further, and the ominousness of her tone reduced my mother and me to silence.

She’s right. My life as a black woman is certainly different than Grandmother’s when she was my age. While I’ve never been free from the literally constant racism (it’s only since I left the work force that I’ve experienced a life without daily microaggressions for the first time), compared to what she went through my life has been easy. And I am heartened by my “woke” white friends who go around shutting down racists on Facebook like a digital game of Whac-a-mole. It is good to see Trump’s demagoguery openly condemned by so many (others, however, seem to have made a deal with Lucifer). And when I woke up the morning after the speech, the birds were indeed singing as the world continued to turn.

Donald Trump and the Politics of Being UnwantedI wouldn’t be a good Democrat if I believed in the dystopian nightmare Trump is selling. But the bottled up resentment that has been allowed to flourish will not be put back soon, in fact it has always simmered on the surface or just below it. We will encounter more of this specific category of people: people who used to be quiet or stick to “code words” who now feel free to stare openly, to comment, to intimidate, to blame us for “division” and “racism” when we have the audacity to remind them that we are black.

In those moments at the restaurant, I knew that not only was I a curiosity, but I was acutely unwanted, a situation created by race and magnified by the social politics of size. As well read and well versed in societal racism as I am, and as sure as I am of my right to exist in public as both a black woman and a person of size, I was frozen, my mind lost to its calculations — whether to say something or stay silent, my discomfort vs. my family’s inconvenience. Compounding the overthinking was the knowledge that these incidents are likely to increase, because I live in a red state where the nonsense seems to speak louder than anything else.

Later that night, the staring couple went home to their living room to watch and applaud a man who cannot speak or read above a 4th grade level, a man who gave a Mussolini speech with “fear of the brown people” as its central narrative. I can only hope at this point that Mr. Trump will be defeated and end up nothing more than just a horrible symbol for white angst. I’m only relieved by the idea that I can and will speak louder — maybe not in the restaurant (it is not always a good idea to verbally confront racists) but elsewhere. Trump has done less than nothing for black people on his own, but his horrifying candidacy has at least inspired us to speak out and assert ourselves and try to affect change.

When “Good People” Are Racist

One thing society has done effectively, up to this point, is to demonize racism. People in polite society know that spitting at black people, calling us names, openly denying us entry to places and other overt signifiers are racist behaviors. We know that racism is bad, and therefore it must follow that being a racist must make you a Bad Person. But can someone be a “good person,” and still be racist?

Overt racists make categorization easy. I know where I stand with them, and as long as I’m not being physically threatened, I can spot them easily and dismiss them. They cannot help but make themselves obvious.

But there’s a messier aspect to this. We have pushed racism underground so effectively that much of the time, people hold beliefs that they think are not associated with race at all. I’m talking about covert racism, the kind so hidden that it has people walking around like ghosts who don’t know they’re dead. And in this post-segregation, post Civil Rights, post Rodney King era, being around these unaware racists really messes with your mind.

"There aren't enough words to describe the mindf*ck of being surrounded by people who are "normal..."When the Trump candidacy began to pick up steam, my frustration and anger at the vitriol he incites caused me to hear in my head the voices from all over the spectrum of racial awareness. I’d just made a major career change, so I was still processing that along with a natural uncertainty about the future, and initially I blamed this for the nightmares I was having.

But dealing with racism had been a big part of my life up to that point, and the way it stood out was not only in classic-style overt racism, but in microaggressions. Leftover was the trauma of being unable to advocate for myself (beautifully described here) or respond to those who said such things for fear of putting my own position in jeopardy.

There were little slights and big slights, too many to count. The jobs where I was hired by phone, then showed up in person and was met with a deep breath and a long silence. The ladies in the lunchroom who kept asking me if I’d watched the latest Oprah. The professor who handed out papers to the class but routinely forgot me: “I didn’t see you there,” she always said. (She probably didn’t.) People who grabbed my hair to give me “compliments.” The endless complaints about the Spanish bilingual program from those who’d forgotten I was a bilingual teacher. The whispers I heard about Obama. The louder comments I heard about Obama. The diversity meetings hijacked by coworkers who said they would gladly work with black people as long as they were qualified. The people who told me I was “articulate.” The coworkers who didn’t recognize me outside the office.

Each of those things reflects very common patterns of absorbed racism, although they can seem truly innocuous out of of context.

I’ve written a little about my experiences with racism as a teacher and the literal choice between keeping it real or keeping my job. But the comments I overheard and beliefs that were expressed often came from people I worked or studied with, who considered me someone they liked. They worked hard, they were dedicated to their jobs, they loved their families. Several of them would have welcomed me into their homes. And if you asked them, they would have said they would work with anyone of any race, could teach any student of any race fairly, that they abhorred racism and pulled out their MLK lesson plans every January. I knew these people too well to categorize them as “bad.” In fact, they were good people.

What this meant for me is that I was constantly dancing in between these lines. Every so often, I’d get a professor or coworker who was overtly racist (“Brown people are bad!” etc.) and found over and over again that while their comments were annoying and even painful to hear, they were easier to deal with — I could categorize them. It was the others whose voices kept me up at night, whose interactions gave me headaches and high blood pressure and just plain stressed me out. The ones who were nice to me, the ones issuing my paychecks. There aren’t enough words to describe the mindf*ck of being surrounded by people who are “normal” and “good” but who also, deep down in a place they can’t even find, do not consider me to be as much of a human being as they are.

If someone is even remotely accused of being racist, their impulse is to be revolted, to feel guilty, to shame the accuser, to pervert the facts. Other white people quickly distance themselves from the accused, shame them, fire them, wash their hands of them and say “Things are fine now” and shut down the conversation.

“It’s a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it’s scary to them… It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color.”1

If you grew up knowing nothing other than “racism is bad, don’t be a racist,” you are probably lacking any sort of framework with which to talk about race with any nuance. You believe people are equal, without realizing that what you really believe is the status quo (where “people” = “white people”). You have absorbed it. This can be true even if you grew up in a “multicultural” environment. It is true even if you grew up poor. So when you interact with a black person, you have assumptions and biases that you don’t even know are there. In fact, what you are experiencing is a different version of reality.

If we un-demonize racism just a little bit, maybe we could talk about it. And then we could talk about coded racism, covert racism, institutionalized racism, white privilege. Maybe people wouldn’t panic when they hear the word “black.” And we could overturn the myth that racism is learned. (It isn’t — it’s absorbed.) People like the ones I worked & lived with for so many years would be better able to ask questions and hear the answers without shutting down.

And people like me… well, people like me wouldn’t have to keep wondering what we’ll say or not say the next time someone we have to work with or maintain ties with says something to demean us. We could breathe a little easier. We could be a little more free.

Edited to add: This essay from the Huffington Post, published the same time as this blog entry, describes what it’s like to realize you have absorbed racism as a white person. He says, “Black people aren’t asking for an apology, they are asking for an acknowledgement of their reality.”

  1. DeAngelis, T. (2009, February). Unmasking ‘racial microaggressions’ Monitor on Psychology, 40(2), 42. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/02/microaggression.aspx

On existential fear while being black

On our way home from Chicago, on a road trip before we were married, my (white) fiancé, now husband, was driving and he was going a little fast. I told him it was night time, we were in Arkansas, and he should slow down. Soon we saw the lights behind us, and I was frightened.

I put my hands in my lap, visible. I made sure my engagement ring was visible so there wouldn’t be a question about why I was in the car. I put my purse down on the floor. I didn’t talk. I didn’t move. I looked straight ahead and froze. The officer came to the window, said “good evening.” He asked how my husband was doing and my husband said, “We’re fine, how are you officer?” They had a conversation. (!) The officer let us off with a warning and a “Merry Christmas.” I don’t know if he saw me.

When we drove off, I told my husband I was afraid, and he said, “But it’s just a traffic stop.”

Well, we had some conversations about that.

My husband is brilliant and sensitive and so he understood very quickly the difference in life experience between him and I, in fact I would not have married him had he shown an inability to do that. And he is one of my greatest champions. But part of the joining of our lives together, as it is with any couple, is a comparison of life experience, and I don’t think either of us realized quite how different life in general had been for the both of us. Chief among those differences is fear.

Like most African Americans I know, I have an innate distrust of the police. (Wait — this is the point where I have to stop and say that I’m college and grad school educated and have never had any sort of record and don’t know anyone who does. And that yes, I have met some good and compassionate cops. And since I finished this post as coverage was coming in of the police shootings — *of course* I condemn what happened in Dallas.) One of my earliest memories of the police is being a little girl in the back of the car when the police officer pulled us over so he could tell my father our car was “too nice” for people like us. One of my most recent interactions, just a year ago, is being screamed at by an officer who didn’t like the way I walked to my car. He screamed so loud that I didn’t know who he was talking to, so loud that it was obvious his goal couldn’t have been anything other than my subjugation.

The thing that’s difficult about being afraid of the police is the helplessness — if the people who hold the power of law will not support you, who will? But the fear extends beyond this.

When we travel, I try to watch where we stop because there are some areas where I’ve had some trouble. When we have flown together, we (well, I) have nearly been denied rental cars and airline seats because the people in charge didn’t believe we were “together,” in at least one case after we had shown ID (with our matching last names and addresses). So I worry about getting separated and stranded somewhere far from home. When I go to the doctor, I prepare myself for whatever demeaning thing will be said to me, and worry whether my complaints will be taken seriously. If I apply for a job, or get a new job, I have to wonder how race will affect things and how much time I’ll have to spend being some coworker’s diversity coach. And in the years that my husband and I have been planning for children, we’ve had many conversations about “the talks” we will have to give to our son or daughter.

There’s a level of fear that I think all African Americans carry with us as part of our burden. Much of the time things are fine, but there is an undercurrent of worry and cautiousness in everyday life that my white husband will never have to know. It’s different from regular every day anxieties; it’s more like a cloud that surrounds the world.

When people are failing to understand why we’re protesting, when people are just baffled that anyone would be angry at cops; when people say “well if you’re not doing anything you have nothing to fear,” when they tell us to just work harder and get a job, they are failing to acknowledge that the difference isn’t in skin color or in cultural history but that our very lives are different, and that they are different because of racism. They are gaslighting us, and they are not acknowledging our daily fight.