Happiness vs. survival: America battles its own emotions
Statues of racists are coming down … but this marathon isn’t close to over
Emotions are a powerful resource. But as children, we are taught that the correlation between your innate feelings and fairness is not real, and never will be. To be black in America is to know that how you feel does not fundamentally matter. It becomes such an ingrained, conditioned existence that it is difficult sometimes to find any hope to express yourself at all, lest you are prepared to pay the ultimate price. As a 10-year-old, it’s a tough lesson to learn.
Yet, when eating the B.S. your own country feeds you, the best attempt you have at sanity is to believe that on some level, it tastes good. Or at the very least, it’s nutritious. At least that’s what you tell people who don’t look like you for fear of being labeled as “angry.” After your existence is shaped, your survival is tested. Then you are expected to succeed.
But don’t get emotional. We’ve got a country to run.
There’s a popular belief that racism is a disease. A fundamental problem that can’t really be ascribed to anything other than nature, which rips through human lives with no regard. It’s an easy metaphor because it at once absolves people of core responsibility, while at the same time adding an air of inevitability, which helps people sleep at night.
Yet, all the symbols and signals around us remind you that at the blink of an eye, your freedom or existence can be extinguished, never to shine again. Today, two of those were removed, on Juneteenth no less. The Minnesota Twins no longer have a statue of a racist who moved the Washington Senators to the Midwest because he didn’t want black folks in his crowd. And Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium took down the garish plaque for George Preston Marshall, a man who nicknamed his football team a slur and was forced to integrate his squad because the federal government stepped in.
After nearly 40 years of trying to reasonably protect my own psychological well-being growing up in Washington against the realities of racism as they pertain to privilege, portrayal, power and people, it almost feels like a trick.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been fielding correspondence from around the globe asking, What can I do? How can I help? Are you sure you’re OK? From well-meaning white folks who throw around words such as “eradicate” and “eliminate” when it comes to racism. It’s obviously exhausting.
Meanwhile, what one of my friends calls the “Oppressor Olympics” – white folks trying to outdo each other with their displays of allyship – are even more annoying. Right now, I don’t really know what to feel. Comparatively, “emotion” almost seems like a word to describe a black-and-white film, when the feeling inside me is in full color.
The truth is, for all the chaotic energy that’s been on display this spring across America, meaningful change has already occurred on a level this American never thought he’d see. Minnesota schools all the way up to the university level just decided, on their own, to divest themselves of the police.
It didn’t take any legislation, or grand decrees from politicians. It took the stewards of a societal institution to simply stand up to another and say “No, thank you.” Incredible how effective that is. And if you don’t understand how drastically impressive a decision it is by the people tasked with educating our children to simply remove what they consider the most unsafe element of their operation, then you aren’t paying attention. Beyond that, in NASCAR, the Confederate flag is now banned at events. Sure, it was ultimately a business decision, but they just made the choice to do so, after being asked.
So, five years after I took a walk down to RFK Stadium, the sports cathedral of my youth, to ask the people who run it why they have a monument to a racist on their grounds, they removed it. And halfway through the non-baseball season that the year before crowned my favorite MLB team champion, a similar act was taken in Minneapolis to destroy the legacy of a man not worth remembering.
Of course I’m happy. I guess I know what that feels like, in the context of racism? Of course I’m excited. Those are real actual structural changes on two levels that have immediate impact. But, I don’t want to let my emotions get the best of me. I’m tryna live.
Black people in America have never wanted revenge. We want equality. So while you and your friends are sitting around smoking bowls and eating avocado toast, black and brown people are still getting gunned down in the street. But there is hope.
College athletes are recognizing their own agency and fighting back against the unfair power structures that have dehumanized them in terms of not just their athletic careers, but also in terms of their blackness. For the first time in my life, black America feels heard. But when we get too emotional, we gotta hear about looting and “finding a common ground” or whatever nonsense turn of phrase that nonblack people use to try to rationalize why they can’t just get behind us as opposed to believing you have to be beside us.
All that is to say the terrible realization that most nonblack people will never be able to understand, even after all this, is that happiness is often contradictory to survival. We don’t need to run down the list of things we do that could and have gotten us killed, because we don’t want to relive that trauma every time we get a text message.
Black America is not a monolith, nor has it ever been. The solutions to the “problems” require us to recognize what the so-called problem is. That step, it feels, has been achieved. Y’all finally believe us.
But on the road to redemption that all of you want to drive on, allyship will not mean the same thing to anyone else as it does to black folks. And quite frankly, now that people can finally perhaps actually see us, Lord knows what the goals will be, to respect our dignity day to day. But I know that I still can’t get food delivered to my apartment building without the delivery person asking if I actually live there. Don’t confuse progress for success. This marathon isn’t close to over.
Earlier this week, in a moment of relative emotional peace, I reached out to a white friend of mine who I respect a lot. I asked him: Why are you all making this so complicated? He said something that blew my mind. After I noted that racism is the most incredible effective disease most people can think of, he offered a different view.
“It’s a f—ing addiction,” he said. “And it only exists to feed itself.”
Statues will continue to fall, careers will continue to get canceled and black folks will continue to survive. But don’t expect anyone to be “grateful” about anything. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for black folks are all entirely separate and contradictory. All we can really hope for at this point is that our survival is more important than showing anyone that we’re pleased.
White America, please continue to fix yourselves. We’ll be over here doing the same thing we’ve always been doing: minding our business. You don’t need to ask us how we are. You won’t understand anyway, because you don’t have to.
Sorry, I guess that’s just me getting emotional.