It is generally safe to say that I don’t experience anger very often.
I spend a decent amount of time with joy, hope, grief and even peace. Depression and I send each other flirty text messages every now and then. Anxiety lives with me and my partner in our one bedroom apartment.
But anger – it’s just not an emotion that I know well because I don’t spend enough time with it.
A few months ago I responded to a call for volunteers for the ten year reunion at Townsend Harris High School. My e-mail was met with enthusiasm and an introduction via e-mail to a former white male high school acquaintance. We will call this acquaintance Daniel. Daniel and I were the only two people to volunteer to help organize the reunion.
I knew of Daniel, having interacted with him a handful of times, but we did not run in the same circles. And I knew that he would not know who I was via the e-mail introduction because of my name change.
I met Daniel in a cafe in Astoria, Queens for the sole purpose of starting to plan the ten year reunion.
I sat at a bar height weathered wood table perched next to the brick wall across from the registers eating my breakfast sandwich. I was facing the entrance where I could see the onset of light flurries stirring in the air. The cafe was brisk so I kept my down coat on over my lime green workout top and gray Nike leggings.
He walked through the door, tall and confident with his long sand-colored wool coat already unbuttoned, just as I stuffed another helping into my mouth. I tried to chew and swallow in the milliseconds it took for me to stand and greet him. He excused himself to get a cup of coffee and I sat and waited for his return, taking out my notebook to start the note-taking process.
It wasn’t long before the conversation started to make me feel uncomfortable. He responded to my introductory small-talk questions with really awkward references to race that made me cringe on the inside:
Me: So are you still friends with a lot of people from high school?
Daniel: Oh yeah – all my friends are from high school. I went to DC for undergrad and grad and everyone there is so weird. Like everyone thought I was trying to be Black cuz I use words like “mad” and “dope.” I was like “nah – I’m just from Queens.”
Me: Got ya….
He went on to explain his current place of residence as cheap rent he acquired through his whiteness:
Me: So did you grow up in Woodside, Queens?
Daniel: Nah. I was born in Woodside and then grew up in Middle Village. I ended up back in Woodside cuz the landlord across the street is mad racist, so I got a great deal on rent.
Me: (insert awkward laugh) white privilege at it’s finest, huh?
Daniel: What do you mean by that?
Me: You just said … wait, what did you mean by what you said?
Daniel: That my landlord wanted a white tenant so he gave me a great price on rent.
Me: That’s white privilege.
Daniel: Not really – everyone benefits from other people that look like them. Like if you go into a store and speak the language of the store owner – you might benefit in ways I wouldn’t.
I wanted to curse him out in Spanish.
My fingers closed the book that lay between us and moved it the side to make room for the question that I pushed out of my mouth like a panicked woman pressing the alarm button in an elevator, “Are you telling me you don’t think white privilege is a thing?”
My entire body was shaking. I had to cross my legs and press them up against the table to keep the tremble from entering my voice because I didn’t want to sound weak or close to tears.
He nonchalantly countered my attempts to explain institutionalized racism with the typical indentured servitude argument:
Daniel: I just don’t see white privilege as something real. What specific laws are you referencing when you talk about institutionalized racism?
Me: (after a long pause of trying to collect my thoughts) OK… we can agree that America was built on the backs of slaves, right?
Daniel: Well, are we including Irish people there?
Me: (trying to cover up my WTF thoughts) Sure… if it makes you feel better.
Daniel: Because indentured servitude started before slavery. And slavery was used a lot more in the South than it was in the North.
I wanted to regurgitate excerpts of Alienable Rights by Francis D. Adams & Barry Sanders or the details of Tim Wise’s White Like Me.
I wish I would have said that by the 1670’s the indentured servitude of Africans was on the rise so to keep white European servants and indentured Black Africans from forming a rebellion against the power elite, white European servants were given certain privileges that Black Africans were not, like the right to own land, the ability to testify in court and most importantly the ability to achieve freedom.
I wanted to cite the civil case that changed the course of history in 1640, when three “servants” fled a Virginia plantation. And how when they were captured and returned, the two white servants had their servitude extended four years and the third servant, a Black man named John Punch, was sentenced “to service his said master for the time of his natural life.” And how from there, the states began to develop laws that established that all children born of enslaved people would also be enslaved.
I wanted to give him all the facts, every single law that created the institutionalized racism that still affects communities of color today. I wanted to, but I couldn’t find the words.
I have never been quick with my responses.
When I could no longer take the back and forth, I steered the conversation back to the reunion and scribbled some haphazard notes. I fake smiled and parted cordially.
After the fact, I called a friend from my dusty white Nissan Juke that was mounted on frozen heaps of dirty snow turned ice – my throat raw red with the heat of emotion.
I told her how disappointed I was in myself. How my Black Studies professors had trained me better for this kind of debate. How stuck I felt when I was unable to come up with responses to his casual tone and unwavering smile about how institutionalized racism doesn’t exist.
Or how dismissed I felt when I was able to come up with a semi-valid point and he would respond like a politician, “I don’t know enough about that to have an opinion.” How convenient.
I confessed how weak and defeated I felt. How I was ashamed that I wasn’t able to defend a truth I know to be fact. My friend stopped me from self-flagellating. “Nia, it’s OK. You were just really, really angry. You’re allowed to be angry,” she comforted me.
And just like that – I felt some lights turn on in the distance of my dark, sequestered corner.
She was right. The shaking of my limbs and the tremble in my voice – signs that were probably not evident to anyone but me – were rage manifesting itself in my body.
The politeness with which I finished the meeting and hugged this man good-bye was shock.
I’m sure it was also a little bit of fear of not wanting to be the angry Latina woman that gets worked up over everything.
And confusion. Daniel was not an evil person. Self-centered, egotistic and immature – yes. But not a villain. He genuinely tried to have a conversation about something he did not understand.
What he was unable to grasp and what I could not explain was the white privilege exemplified by his being able to live a life in which he did not have to think about these things.
He does not have to worry about the safety of his Black partner or future Black children in a reality that is saturated in racially charged police brutality. He made that clear when he told me he had a cop friend that worked in Harlem and treated everybody the same.
He does not have to live with the racial battle fatigue that stems from listening to microaggressions day in and day out and watching people that look like him being murdered without cause or explanation.
And when the deaths of Black people are not being covered by the news, the history of the violent enslavement of Black people is exploited by the movie industry in hopes of an Academy Award nomination.
This shit is exhausting and draining and gives people of color the right to be angry.
My friend gave up a good hour of her Saturday morning in Seattle to listen to my recapping the back and forth of a classic fruitless conversation around race. She showed me empathy and hashtagged my experience #contemporaryracism when I described his warm smile and invitation to debate the topic further.
I spoke to her as I drove to my childhood home in Corona, Queens, where all my textbooks and personal books are piled into a birch 5 by 5 Kallax IKEA shelving unit. The cubbies are mostly organized by subject: plays, poetry, books written in Spanish, fiction novels, etc. I went straight to my Black Studies cubby and brought five or six books back with me into the car.
I swore I was going to study. I was going to prepare for the next time that anyone countered me and asked what specific laws and policies I was referencing when discussing institutionalized racism. I was going to brush up on the statistics of housing and education access in communities of color.
I was going to memorize a script that would shut someone down the next time they had the audacity to tell me, with a smile on their face and a facade of engagement, that white privilege doesn’t exist.
I did all that and he probably went about the rest of his day unbothered and unaware of the rage his ignorance and words had stirred in me. That’s privilege.
A few days after the encounter, I received text messages from Daniel to follow-up with next steps and an invitation on Facebook to be an administrator for the event page. I felt the anxiety growing inside me like a rubberband ball.
I followed up via text message:
“Daniel – I’m going to step down from volunteering for the reunion. I tried to move on from it, but I realized that the conversation/interaction we had on Saturday made me very uncomfortable and I’m not sure I’d be able to work around that to organize this reunion with you. I would appreciate your removing my name from the Facebook group and removing me as an admin. Thank you.
He responded with one word. Okay.
Later that evening, he sent a longer message that described how he enjoyed “catching up with me and chatting about life.” This is interesting considering he didn’t ask me any questions about my life outside of whether or not I had changed my name.
He also let me know that he was a little hurt that I wanted to pull out of the reunion because of our talk. This was ironic because a conversation about race left him feeling a little hurt only AFTER I acknowledged I was uncomfortable, but it left me in tears and reeling to be reminded that there are still people that believe in the myth of colorblindness.
He let me know that he did not perceive anything I said as offensive and that he hoped I didn’t perceive what he said as offensive. And he ended the text letting me know that he respected where I was coming from and he never had any bad intentions.
I believe his intentions were not malicious. I also believe that he has no idea of the problematic nature of his views. But that does not mean it is my job to educate him or to be expected to put my feelings aside and work with him.
I have a right to be angry. I get to feel that, all of it. But it’s what I do with that anger that matters most.
In trying to make some peace with the anger I was feeling and the shame I felt for not responding in a more aggressive manner, I stumbled across Nicole Chung’s essay “What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism.” She described her personal experience with racial microaggressions at a family party and how she dealt with the emotional aftermath of not calling them out.
“The social pressure on people of color to keep the peace, not get mad, just make sure everyone keeps having a nice time — even when we hear these remarks in public, at our workplaces and schools, in our own homes and from our friends’ mouths — can be overwhelming, bearing down on us in so many situations we do not see coming and therefore cannot avoid. What does our dignity matter, what do our feelings amount to, when we could embarrass white people we care about? When our white relatives or friends or colleagues might experience a moment’s discomfort, anxiety, or guilt?
When I think about the relative size and scope of microaggressions, I can’t help but feel ashamed of my inadequate responses. If these are just small offenses, not meant to wound, why can’t I ever manage to shut them down effectively, ensure they aren’t wielded again and again against others?”
I won’t sit here and bind myself into a promise about how I will stand up in the face of any and all racial microaggressions I encounter. Shoot – just yesterday, I experienced a “professional” white man who shook my hand and proceeded to completely disregard my Black partner. And I didn’t say anything. The social pressure and the shock that these things still happen left me at a loss for words.
I may not be quick with smart verbal responses, but I know I can write a damn good essay. So I will write out my comebacks and reflections. I will chronicle them and hashtag them. I will publish them and submit them. I will let other people of color know that they are not alone. They are not crazy. And they have a right to be angry and respond in whatever way is right for them. Like Nicole Chung did for me.
And I probably won’t be going to my ten-year high school reunion.