I spend all day talking, thinking about talking, writing about talking, talking into microphones — talking, a lot. It’s what I do as a broadcaster. But every now and again I find myself avoiding certain conversations. Say, when it’s reported that our prime minister’s go-to costume on at least three occasions has been engaging in racist cosplay.
As a Black woman, talking about racism and all it entails is a spiritually exhausting, physically taxing, intellectually draining undertaking.
So, when something like blackface makes headlines, the kind of headlines that are relentless and unavoidable, I am very particular about the individuals I choose to speak with. It’s not necessarily just folks with whom I share a lived experience; it’s those who have expressed through word and actions that my “sensitivity” goes well beyond identity politics.
Then there are those I’d prefer not to talk to at all, because I know exactly how that conversation would go — I know whose feelings will take up the most space. At some point in the conversation, I’m going to stop liking them, or myself, or the words we’ve exchanged. Eventually, things will get very uncomfortable. My face hides very little.
Over the years, I’ve become quite adept at ducking out of conversations that I don’t have the energy to engage in. But I can never truly avoid the news cycle, especially when a certain prime minister’s conduct makes it impossible to ignore. I, and other Black, brown or Indigenous people, are left listening to everyone else having a very loud conversation about us. It’s like overhearing someone’s phone call on public transit, only it’s commentary about you and the very essence of your pain, your history and your humanity.
That has been my life these past few weeks — being told how I should be, think and feel, uninvited and out of the blue.
My job is not to be an audience to ideas and musings that are important to you today, but forgotten about tomorrow.
In coffee shops, where generally I am the only Black face, I have heard white folks speaking loudly about what is or isn’t wrong with minstrel shows, today, in 2019, the Year of Our Lord. And I’m pretty sure these conversations dial up a few decibels when I’m clocked a few feet away. Thank you for your hyper-woke, needlessly loud soliloquy, your chance at residual redemption from a real Person of Colour. Yes, I can hear you — and yes, I am glad you enjoyed Othello — and yes, at least the prime minister apologized — and yes, who among us hasn’t engaged in the disparagement of a whole race of people?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
The peace of your own home is broken. In my bathroom the other day, drying my hair, I heard my neighbour dissecting the Trudeau news as clearly as if he had been speaking from a dais outside my window — an older white man speaking confidently of turbans, and costumes, and kirpans, and the leader of our country. I had to shut my window with a quickness. The spirit needs a rest from the opinions of people who have always held the dais.
And, friends, that’s the best of it. The worst of it is being seen as a source of white folks’ absolution, a confessional to friends and colleagues.
It plays out the same every time — the soft knock on the office door, the tentative but somehow aggressive invitation to “talk” about, you know, blackface (she whispers). The earnest eyes, the choked voice, the confession to a very, very well-meaning tribute to Michael Jackson in the fall of 1992, an ode to Diana Ross in 1988.
It’s right then as I am forced to imagine my co-worker as Diana Ross that I seek out the words of Audre Lourde: “What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?” I want to tell them the hard truth, but mostly, I am trapped. More truth means more engagement, means one more shot to my psyche. Truth can be risky, the risk that my frustration will be read as anger or that a flash of anger will be read as aggression. I am a Black woman. I know how this plays out.
If truth is what you’re looking for, then let me offer this morsel: the more bombastic or publicized the racist affront, the more I dread the days ahead of arguing for my humanity and talking through my pain with people who fail to acknowledge that it is one of a thousand daily cuts. Your over-the-cooler chatter is my hot, silent tears in the bathroom.
My job is not to sit, and smile, and nod while you offer up scenarios in which clear-cut racism is a matter of debate (pro-tip: blackface is one such scenario). My job is not to coddle, or condone, or offer opinion and solace, or a place to rest your guilt because the idea of allyship is still confusing (there are books for that). My job is not to be an audience to ideas and musings that are important to you today, but forgotten about tomorrow. If you want to have a conversation, bring me a coffee, take a seat and let us figure out how to dismantle this thing.
Don’t worry, I’ll be here, thinking about all of this. Every day.
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