I saw this sign at a protest recently and nearly cried: We are human.
Because I remember the first time I really thought about this phrase. It was at a workers’ strike. The employees were African American. Their “allies” were mostly young white people. And one white woman’s rallying cry was “These people are human too!”
I think I probably heard this expression previously and just couldn’t articulate its utter wrongness. My understanding was jolted into consciousness by that white woman’s face.
More painful yet to see a sister displaying this sign: We are human.
In the past, much of what I have tried to tell white people while doing anti-racist work boiled down to that: I am human too. I have tried to make them see that my experiences, that my very life is valid.
Now I make few personal disclosures. It’s not like others haven’t told the same stories. It’s not like racism is not obvious in the world we live in. If white people want to observe and discuss racism, it is there. If they open their eyes.
But they want a tour guide. They want to watch somebody bleed. Pain as entertainment.
“Can you share with us a time when you experienced racism and how you dealt with it?” she asks, her eyes bright in a flushed face. “What was the worst thing that ever happened to you?”
I stopped relating my experience when I realized incidents that cut me deeply became cocktail-party chatter for others. When I realized that doing so caused white people to have a sense of false familiarity with me. When I realized that they recounted my life as if it were their own, as if they owned it, as if they owned me. When I realized they did so not to make others feel my humanity, but to reinforce their belief in their own.
Picnic lunches beneath a hanging man.
The reality is that I cannot convince others of my humanity when they do not believe it. Or when they have lost so much of their own humanity that they cannot possibly see my own. And the reality is that my attempts to do so make me feel loathing and self-hatred and shame.
If I were truly human, would my humanity be self-evident? If I were equal, would this equality not be recognized?
The answers seem obvious. But history tells me otherwise. Depersonalizing racism allows me to see that it is not my humanity that is actually being called into question. It is the humanity of those who cannot see the humanity of others. And yet this racism is like pouring acid on my own skin. With my own hands.
I tell myself: I cannot seek a reflection of my own humanity in a mirror that is encrusted with racism. Seeking that reflection is like rubbing the dirt onto my own hands, my body, my heart. I cannot find validation in white people. There is no true reflection.
I will not say I am human too.
Although both white people and some people of color espouse the belief that living as a credit to my race is the best way to change hearts and minds, I do not believe this to be true. Because nothing about the way I behave or comport myself does anything to change the deeply entrenched, racist views of the majority.
It does not matter what I do. It does not matter who I am.
My parents took care to keep us clean and presentable. They had stricter rules of behavior and deportment than any of my white friends. Hair always combed and clean. No shorts in public. No bare feet. Yes ma’am and no sir and thank you very much. Good grades in school and impeccable behavior. G-d help you if you didn’t. They came from the “We beat you now so the police won’t kill you later” school.
And yet it didn’t really matter. I am reminded of this years later, when a white woman in an upscale department store glares and refers to two nearby children as “dirty little things.” She thinks they are mine and that I am not “controlling them properly.” I look to see two extremely clean, well-groomed, very wealthy appearing Asian children, a little girl and a little boy, who are laughing and talking to each other. I mostly hate kids and yet I can’t see anything wrong with their behavior. But I see it in her eyes.
Their reflection: Dirty. Little. Things.
I grow up to be an upstanding citizen who yanked myself up by my bootstraps. I did not waste my money on anything that I could be criticized for. No rims on the Cadillac. No car at all, for that matter. No luxury items, shitty food, second-hand clothing, no-name shoes and generic cereal and I did all the proper suffering, working long hours at lousy jobs while going to school.
So when I achieved what most people consider success, I bought the car, the clothes were new, I sometimes bought luxuries and I traveled to other countries. And I was an uppity person of color who got ahead through affirmative action and some other form of cheating because nothing I had was earned. Or deserved.
When I am flying overseas, I get stopped and questioned: How exactly is it that you have the money to travel?
I am suspected of criminal conduct simply because of where I am: A four-star hotel. A tony neighborhood. A professional conference. A business. The upscale department store. Any old store, for that matter.
I am suspected of criminal conduct simply because of who I am.
And I learn the hatred of white people who have less than I do. Who resent wealth and education and nice clothing and a beautiful home. Because somehow this is not how it is supposed to be.
Because I am not human.
Because they are not really colorblind.
Because we don’t really live in a meritocracy.
Because the content of my character has never influenced white people’s thoughts in the same way that the color of my skin does.
Because I can insist on my humanity until the cows come home, but it will mean nothing until white people discover their own.