A lot of people are surprised that I talk and write about race. I get lots of breathless has-something-happened-whatever-is-wrong-clutch-your-pearls-type of questions from various people. I imagine that it seems out of character to most folks. I’m the cool black girl that you work with. I’m the black friend that you tell other people about. The one that you would even, you know, date. I’m the Black Unicorn – not like all of those other black people. Not like those black thugs that you see on television – the ones who use the race card and are always race baiting.
So I imagine that people are shocked when they friend me on FB and get to see my profile. Or even the folks who have known me for awhile are taken aback by my posts. Because what you’ll find on my timeline is that I talk (and write) about race. A lot. The kicker is: I just don’t talk about it with you.
Allow me to tell you why.
There are several reasons why I am not likely to discuss race with the general population and several of these reasons are why I don’t even talk about race with most of my friends.
You’ve probably never heard this term before, but Number 6 is the main reason why I don’t talk to you about race. By Gas Lighter I don’t mean arsonist or pyromaniac. In fact, the actual term is the verb “gas lighting” – only I’ve turned it into a noun — and it comes from this 1944 film where a husband tries to make his wife (and everyone else) think that she is crazy. He even dims the gas lights of the house and when she comments on the darkness of the room, he tells her that she’s seeing things.
Gas lighting is used in psychology to describe a form of abuse whereby a person makes another doubt their sanity.
And that’s exactly what talking about racism is like with most people. It always follows this familiar script:
1. Something racists happens to me
2. Bystanders stand and watch.
3. I talk to someone about it afterwards.
4. Said person tells me something along these lines: I don’t think that was racist. Maybe his cat got eaten by a raccoon last night and he’s really sad about that. You’re probably just over-reacting. Everything’s not about racism, you know? Well what did you do to him? You shouldn’t be so sensitive. Maybe you should so some self-reflection. You know, one time this black guy cut me off and I’m certain that it was because he was racist. Everyone can be racist. I’m sure that would have happened to a white person too. And I mean, you can’t prove it was racist. You can’t know that for certain!
5. I bang my head against a wall and vow never to have this conversation again.
That is exactly what talking to you about race and racism is like. What I experience can’t be true. Not because it didn’t happen to me but because you can’t wrap your mind around it. You don’t believe that racism is prevalent or even exists so you gas light me and come up with every reason why what I’m saying can’t be true– instead of believing what I’m telling you. It’s bizarre to have people (friends even) not just deny your experience, but be absolutely willing to argue with you about it and then completely dismiss what you’ve said. That just can’t be right.
The entire experience used to make me doubt myself and what was happening to me. Hey, maybe that racist joke that the Executive Officer told wasn’t really racist, Maybe I am being too sensitive. But after the 3rd joke and multiple incidents, it made me angry. I’d want to shout: I’m not crazy! This is really happening.
And I’d meet with silence and blank stares.
Apparently systemic inequality and institutional racism are just figments of my imagination.
Talking about racism makes me think of the Candyman. If you remember the movie, Candyman was an urban legend who would show up and kill you if you said his name five times in the bathroom mirror (I’m certain this movie kept 90’s kids WOKE for weeks). To most people, racism is the Candyman of black people’s imaginations. In fact, racism only exists because we’ve looked into the mirror and said its name the requisite number of times. If we would kindly stop talking about it then it would disappear. Just think: we’d never have housing inequality or longer prison sentences for the same crimes or police brutality if we would just shutup about racism.
Except in the movie, Candyman wasn’t an urban legend. He wasn’t some imaginary friend that Helen had made up in her head. He was real. And though invisible to other people (who all thought that she was crazy), the Candyman wreaked havoc and destruction all up and through Helen’s life.
And that’s exactly how racism works. Cord Jefferson calls it the framework of plausible deniability built up around racism that makes people of color wonder
Am I crazy or is that racist?
You’re not crazy! I wish someone had told me this years ago. That double standard that happens to only you in your office and the abuse and racist jokes that you have to put up with? That’s racism. It’s not irony or hipster racism or something you need to lighten up about. The Candyman is real and he is happening to you.
I’ve been around this block long enough to realize when I am being gaslighted and that’s probably why you and I don’t talk about racism.