Academia functions under the umbrella of higher learning, where the affiliated melanated bodies feel as though they have consummated success in arriving at said institution of higher education with the prerequisite of low self esteem in tow. The low self-esteem is beaten into the student turned scholar, who fights a series of figurative and literal battles designed to create a curve in their spine.
Today, after showing up on time for a course on vernacular literature, I sat at the head of the table and placed my small purse in the empty chair next to me. Before I describe the series of events that came after, I want to point out that all seminar classes are held in a conference room with about 30 seats. Most are occupied with the bodies of students, but it not uncommon for a coat, bag, or book to occupy vacant chairs—especially after class has started.
About an hour into class a plain white girl with bleached hair, pale skin, and thin lips shows up—the room reeking of cigarettes upon her entry. She walks past two full-figured black women whose belongings have taken over two chairs. She then walks behind me, and begins to sit on the side chairs before loudly stating the following:
Catherine, do you mind if I sit here?
Though presented as a query, the interrogative framing veils a demand. It is worth noting that her “question” disturbed the lesson that was taking place, but given that the commotion was a blonde white girl antagonizing a vocal black female student—everyone quickly looked away—sure not to bear witness to a pervasive white evil that violently assaulted the instructor and every black person in attendance with one blow of sheer disrespect.
Nevertheless, without making eye contact or even acknowledging this individual, I began to move my things. But I suppose my pace was not swift enough for the white woman. Before I could get my things out of the chair, she picked up my planner and moved it to the windowsill.
This racist psychopath was quite deliberate in her actions. She walked past two empty chairs. She also acted the way she did in a protected environment. Finally, she operated with the intent to provoke an outspoken black student. The issue I have here, well… there are a myriad of issues with this. I will say that the issue is not my belongings being in the seat, or my cavalier indifference to her belligerence. As articulated by Dr. Francis Cress Wesling in The Isis Papers, white antagonize blacks because of their issues in confronting their lack of color, or what Dr. Cress Wesling calls albino-ism.
So, in exercising privilege in acting callously without any repercussion, and in attempting to provoke a black body to engender a violent reaction– a racist creates a pathway to easily emerge as a victim to the angry black woman. Doing none of this grants color to the colorless, but it provides a pseudo victory in seemingly having something that the melanin bearing individual does not have. This is of course an escapist perspective—but one that engenders the systemic structures from schools to neighborhoods— designed to convince the melanin-dominant race that they are powerless.
The described scenario mirrors what blacks in past and present settings experience as they are walked off the sidewalk by white people, or basically sat on in public transportation by whites who feel “haughty” blacks are “talking up too much room.” I could write a collection of essays about the experiences encountered on the train where I face aggressive behavior from white men, because I sat comfortably in my blackness while they had to stand in the discomfort of white male privilege. White entitlement to space, is a common display of power. On a much grander scale, space with regards to community and land ownership, in general, is a power-privilege consistently withheld from blacks since their arrival in America. As demonstrated by the sit ins during the 1950s and 1960s, whites were granted an opportunity to see the power created by myths called laws and legislation– granted access to sit down and engage socially while blacks were not served at all, or restricted to a standing snack bar—functioned to grant whites esteem, simultaneously denigrating black self-worth.
What is possibly most troubling about this scenario, is the reaction of a melanated classmate, significantly older but utterly oblivious to the dimensions of racism. After the violent behavior of this racial psychopath, my classmate was noticeably more enthusiastic and receptive to this white female’s desperate attempt to make the teacher forget an entire semester of tardiness and general incompetency. This is an issue, as black unity is essential in dismantling the hold of the white power system. To my melanated classmate, the white female’s actions were individually antagonistic to an outspoken black women, a woman labeled haughty in her refusal to succumb to the invisibility expected of her as a being of black female form. What my melanated classmate is unable to understand is that she was not eliminated from this act of violence, but indirectly included. She was not targeted by this white female, because she is not perceived as having a power that needs to be seized. It is her instant denouncement as power-bearing that is an insult in ideology—but overlooked by the melanated who also bear a stance of envy and awe towards those who proudly occupy a space they vehemently eschew.
In thinking of this scenario, my mind recalls a comment I find myself well acquainted with, with regard to adversity: choose your battles. When I hear this comment, is always from those who chose a version of cowardice as their daily mode of escapism. Thus, the phrase “choose your battles,” translates to “pipe down.” These words are an invitation to be less , to appease those who oppress. No black person chooses battles—before a black body even takes their first breath—their battles are chosen for them. The global paradigm of racism chooses a series of battles that all of black descent encounter as a shared experience separated by the hollow label of white dominance. Thus, it is in sheer confusion that one advises another survivor of racism to choose their battles. It is in consciousness that one can act or advice others to choose how to fight these battles.
It is imperative to note that whites desire, above all else to be central. In fighting their adversity with physical violence, or any act of impulse—the black victim shifts to the villain caricature carved out by white intention. Acting out of impulse, also centralizes he or she, who should not be more than a passing thought, or opportunity to illustrate racism for any black person. In physically retaliating a racial terrorist, the black body not only stoops to the level of an invalid, but reduces themselves to reactionary when they could be revolutionary. Taking respect is a mental act, that once produced cannot be seized by those who have no soul, or form, unless we, the pedestal to which they stand, give it to them. Blackness is power—we as a collective just have to realize and relish in this truth.
But ’tis far easier said than done. I too feel the burning sensation to react. The tinge of anger rise in my spine, the thoughts of retaliation pouring through my mind like a photo-book. This is power that if not best used will engulf the black subject, and produce the mythic villain illuminated by white deception, a sentiment Audre Lorde captures in her poignant poem “Power:”
I have not been able to touch the destruction
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I best her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”
It is the ability to distinguish between poetry and rhetoric that enables the black body to see their victory. It is an inability to distinguish between poetry and rhetoric that convinced many to believe segregation, not racism, was an evil that needed to be extinguished–an error that as King said in reflection, led blacks into a “burning house.” A statement I recall and take in, as I write with the white supremacist soot eternally embedded in my soul.
In closing, the cliche saying that “Whoever is trying to pull you down, is already below you,” is most prevalent with regards to the black collective. We constantly encounter whites and non-blacks biting at our ankles, simply because we are the most high. So if for no other reason, choose to fight all battles in a way that ensures your crown remains firmly on your head.
Black Power ❤