Wrestling with silence
Wearing gear from Xavier Woods’s ‘UpUpDownDown,’ Kyle shows love for fellow Black nerds. (Photo by Kyle V. Hiller.)
When this movement goes quiet, what will be left for Black people?
The momentum and the scale behind this movement since recent events in Minneapolis staggers me for two reasons. First, it’s been invigorating to see so many stand up for Black Lives Matter and against police brutality, and to have real conversations around defunding the police. I never thought that people would rally like this, in these numbers, for more than a weekend. On the other hand, I’m skeptical. It’s also staggering to contemplate how it’ll feel if all this energy dies down and returns to silence.
My own kind of silence
For all my years, I’ve been in a battle against myself for the sake of myself. Navigating the professional world as an adult, I adapted, assimilated, and code switched so much that I lost sight of who I was and who I wanted to be. My identity was secondary. It was niche. My Blackness was a cool thing white people made awkward jokes and references about at parties. It was them reaching out, appropriating my melanin as a means to connect with me. Few made an effort to get underneath the superficial. Thus, my Blackness was often met with commentary about how white it was. That was the reason I quit my last food-service job five years ago. I was done being everybody’s negro.
The root of my need to escape permeated other aspects of myself. From the clothes I wore, to the interests and hobbies I took up, to my posture, to my walk, to the way I spoke with people and what I spoke about. How I pretended to know about the things white people obsessed over in pop culture instead of simply admitting I have no idea what they’re talking about (seriously, y’all keep talking to me about Friends like I care) and how I grew meek when I wanted to open up about my own passions.
But then, what were my passions? I hardly ever had the chance to process that with my white peers, who essentially dominate the creative and professional circles where I reside. So I kept silent, patiently waiting for the day someone asked what about you?
I want to believe that this is that day.
Articulating the fight
Acquiring the right vocabulary to describe this complex can take years. There are books, essays, and podcasts about it. Some folks dedicate their lives to dismantling it. When someone you look up to, someone who looks like you, says it succinctly, straight from the heart, you finally feel seen. You finally feel heard.
When I was young, I was a huge wrestling fan. I started watching it mostly because it was all my friends would talk about on Tuesdays and Fridays at recess, following episodes of RAW and Smackdown the nights before. I’m still a fan. The WWE has grown up, interlaced with nerd culture, and started advocating inclusivity. Sure, it still has its problems, but so do other forms of theater (yeah, I said it). I follow many of the Black and POC wrestlers, but my favorite is Xavier Woods. He posted a clip from a podcast last week with words that hit home:
“So when you do everything that you possibly can—you educate yourself, you learn to be an athlete, you learn to play an instrument, you’re in AP classes, you’re doing everything that you can. And you’re doing it because you want to learn these things, you want to understand these things,” and he pauses here. His voice cracks, and his eyes shift as he sniffles. He pushes through to say more—it’s difficult to say. “But then at its core, because of the way things are, my entire life I’ve had to spend trying to figure out how to present myself as nonthreatening.”
The sentiment resonates, and it’s not something everyone gets. “If you haven’t been in that situation or understood something like that, it’s a lot, because even though someone might hate me, the onus is on me to deal with it. Not on them. There’s no pressure on them to deal with their hate, or their pain.”
That was me working at my last service job. I was the only Black person on staff. The majority of the guests were white. I was voted the best-dressed employee two years in a row. Why? Because I had to try harder to be accepted. I had to appear nonthreatening. I had to work double to be seen as competent among those guests and coworkers.
“My parents had to give me this information not so that I could be smarter, not so that I could do better, but so that I could stay alive,” Woods concluded in the clip. “That was the first goal in our house—it was survive amongst people who might not want you to survive.”
Normal for whom?
Seeing white people stand up right now is encouraging. Having so many of my white friends reach out to me and offer to help in a variety of ways—it’s great and I’m proud of you all. But it’s not enough.
When this movement wanes and the noise stops, what will be left? What will have changed? Life for white people will go back to normal. For me, normal is riddled with identity crises, exhaustive code switching, and a voice diminished, compromised, and unheard. Normal is being threatened while being told I am the threat. For me, normal is a struggle to survive.
These weeks have been long. But to go back to the way things used to be would be devastating. For the first time in my life, I hold a glimmer of hope. I hope that Black people will get to hold something else more substantial when this is all said and done.
Whatever the case, I’ve been wrestling with a silence inflicted for far too long.