The Costs of Being Black & Afraid in America
Housing, traveling, socializing, and more
There are definite financial costs to being black in America. If you haven’t read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s reparations article, start there. Lately, though, it’s the more subtle, emotional costs that feel the most burdensome. These are the problems that money can’t solve. These are the costs that hurt the most.
Apparently, there is plenty of affordable housing all over the nation in cities like Omaha. I keep hearing great things about the liberal nature of Asheville, North Carolina, or Austin, Texas. Detroit is super popular for white millennials looking to buy a house on the cheap. I visited Madison, Wisconsin, last October and the farmers’ market really is as amazing as people say.
None of these places is very diverse, though. Madison’s amazing farmers’ market and seemingly liberal values doesn’t necessarily make it friendly. As someone who grew up in a town that was 82% white, I don’t really want to put my potential future kids into that situation, because it sucked. Exposure to diversity matters when it comes to eradicating racist attitudes. Living someplace homogeneous is quite simply not an option if I want safety for me and mine.
Living someplace homogeneous is quite simply not an option if I want safety.
On top of that, there’s continued housing discrimination all over the place. I have a sneaking suspicion that one of my recent landlords extortionately raised the rent and was then super rude about it because she sees me as “one of those black people” rather than a responsible tenant, despite my pristine track record. I don’t like that I have this suspicion. I don’t like the sensation of “pulling the race card.” I don’t like having to acknowledge that people judge me negatively because of my perceived race.
Road trips are great. I went on them as a kid with my (white) grandparents. But nowadays I get nauseous thinking about being pulled over by a hepped-up power-hungry cop in rural anywhere for a minor traffic infraction and then ending up another bloody black body.
I recently noticed that a high school friend was on vacation with her husband along the Gulf Coast of Alabama. Maybe I hold bad and inaccurate stereotypes, but when I think about a relaxing vacation with my (white) beloved, I don’t imagine having a very nice time in a part of the country that didn’t officially legalize interracial marriage until 2000. Even then, 40% of voters voted against that legalization.
Don’t even get me started on AirBnB.
When my heart is shattered over the news of yet another black human murdered by those who are supposed to protect us, it’s hard for me to be around my white friends. Most of my friends are white, so that means it’s hard for me to be around my friends, period. It’s hard for me to connect with their life issues when I’m acutely aware of how much more physical freedom they have in the world than I do. It’s hard for me to speak bluntly and honestly about the sometimes-crushing fear I carry with me because I know that it makes them uncomfortable; I know they can’t fully understand the profound existential despair that accompanies black skin in America.
Sometimes while riding in cars with white people, a white person will light up a joint. Every time this happens, I have to assess whether it’s worth asking them to put it out, whether it’s worth pointing out that should we get pulled over, I’m about a gajillion times more likely to be arrested as the only black person in the car, as the only dreadlocked person in the car, even if it’s not my weed, even if I’m not smoking any of it.
In these instances I wish I could telepathically share this video that’s been cycling through my Facebook feed for what feels like aeons. I wish I could instantly transmit the fact that women who end up in police custody for whatever reason are more likely to experience sexual assault. Or, you know, die. I have to balance my anxiety with the desire to be chill. It’s getting harder and harder to be chill.
I grew up with the white side of my family. My grandparents still live in the town I grew up in. The last time I visited them, on the drive into town from the train station, I saw six cars with confederate flag bumper stickers. I saw two flag poles with confederate flags flying below the American one. I tried to have a conversation with my 83-year-old white grandmother about the constant low-level sense of fear I carry with me these days, and she responded by explaining how she avoids that sort of news coverage. Because she doesn’t have to worry about it happening to her. Because she hadn’t thought about it happening to me. Because she prefers not to think about it, she has the privilege of not having to think about it unless her granddaughter brings it up. (She’s since apologized. She’s still white.)
What’s funny is that this grandmother of mine has read The History of White People twice. She will often refuse to use the word “race” now, because “it’s an invented construct,” even though it’s a construct with real impacts on how people live. A house is a construct, made by humans, affecting human lives. Race is the same thing. But for black people in America, the house is a prison. For white people, the house is so nice they can forget outside exists.
I’m currently dating a white man. His (white) brother and (white) sister-in-law recently moved to a moderately small town in Mississippi, and they bought a house there. It’s a beautiful house, with four bedrooms so that they can have visitors as often as possible. Over a late lunch recently, we chatted about my partner and me flying in to New Orleans and then driving up to their home to spend a few days with them. Sister-in-law talked about how friendly everyone is in their new hometown, how great Southern hospitality is. I smiled and nodded, asking about garden space rather than, “I wonder how active the KKK is there these days, given the history?”
My (white) cousin lives in Minnesota with her two (white) children. I’ve had the impression that the Twin Cities’ diversity has helped it be a little less segregated than where I live. Then Philando Castile was murdered while trying to obey a police officer’s orders. Now the usually pleasant thought of going to visit has a thin sheen of horror.
I’ve been trying to think about how I might someday have to explain to my children why they don’t have the same freedoms as my cousin’s kids. Why they can’t behave with the same impunity. Why they have to work harder to prove their worth. Why the police might kill them and get away with it.
When there’s a 100% guarantee that your kids will be black, and you continue to see black people killed because of their blackness, it’s hard not to be preemptively terrified. It’s hard to think about having The Conversation not be about sex but about death, about interacting with cops, about balancing demure politesse with the rage of humiliation and injustice. It’s hard to think that this conversation will have to happen before they are twelve.
It’s hard to think about having The Conversation not be about sex but about death, about interacting with cops, about balancing demure politesse with the rage of humiliation and injustice.
There’s a strange, dark hope for barrenness lurking in my heart these days.
WHO TO TRUST
Not the police, it seems.
I’m lucky. I don’t suffer from clinical depression or anxiety (yet). I’m not suicidal. I live in a (majority white) safe, lightly-policed neighborhood. I don’t have to suffer the indignity of drug testing to receive welfare benefits. I have a job with health insurance. My family is able to provide me with financial support should I ever need it. I have a degree from a top-tier university. I’m a woman, and “being murdered by police” is one of few areas of life where women have a better time of things.
But I’m black. No cop is going to ask for my CV after they’ve decided I’m dangerous and my skin color is a threat. Powerlessness in the face of an abstract death is universal, but lately, I keep seeing my death played out again and again and again. It is not abstract. I am so far from free I want to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
The only thing keeping me from being the next Sandra Bland is pure, blind luck.
Diana is a reader and writer from the almost-South. She currently lives in the Midwest.
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