On Being Black in White Spaces
George Floyd dies. Riots erupt. My phone is a barrage of texts from white friends -- how are you feeling? I wish you’d asked so long ago.
Photo by Alexander Coltrane
Friday, riots spread through the country; the surfacing of anger Black Americans could no longer bear to hide. My white friends DM me on Instagram. I’m so sorry. What can I do? They are well-intentioned, Obama supporting -- my phone is a barrage of texts from my white allies -- how are you feeling?
Do you really want to know?
I’m always angry. I cannot quantify the anger that pulses through my body; it is hard coded into my DNA. In middle school, my history teacher takes points off an exam because I say the Civil War was fought over slavery, not states’ rights. A white woman rewrites my ancestor’s history in red pen. I bite my tongue; when I retake the test, I write the answer my teacher tells the class vehemently. States’ rights; the white kids sitting around me don’t even question. Nobody asks me, how do you feel?
Photo by Alexander Coltrane
Maybe heartbroken is a better word?
The year after graduating high school, George Zimmerman is acquitted of all charges. I tweet about my frustration and a white classmate takes it as an invitation to debate. My little brother Alex celebrates his 15th birthday the same day Travyon Martin is murdered. Can someone so callously take Alex’s life? My white classmate tells me about Florida laws and the gray area of the case. My heart aches; Trayvon was somebody’s little brother. My classmate questions me often in this social media exchange; never once: are you ok?
Photo of the author's little brother by Alexander Coltrane
Is disappointment more accurate?
Childish Gambino is playing on the stereo. An intoxicated white friend raps enthusiastically along; the n word leaves his mouth so naturally. A friend talks to him about it later. Nobody condones this behavior, but everyone forgives him. I never delude myself into believing my white friends are perfect. But the utterance of the word leaves me with a gnawing feeling. What else is whispered behind closed doors? In my white friend group of #BLM supporting liberals, this person never thinks to reach out afterwards to ask: was that ok?
Photo by Alexander Coltrane from Instagram
What about the fear?
Last New Year’s Eve, blue lights reflect in my rearview mirror, a cop spends an hour threatening to impound my car. He states I have no car insurance. I know girls like you -- did you come across rough times? My cellphone is in the passenger seat with my proof-of-insurance, but I’m too scared of what might transpire if I reach for it. When he runs my plate again after my millionth plea, he realizes he made an error.
Photo of the author by Alexander Coltrane
Without an apology, the officer sends me home, my hands shakily navigate the steering wheel; I hate the feeling of gratitude for the unsatisfactory conclusion.
How can I answer this? I’m tired; I wish you had asked this question so long ago.
By Ryan C.
Former Retail Worker, 26, Atlanta