Why Racism Feels the Way It Does
Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Why Racism Feels the Way It Does

The killings of innocent Black men and women sparked the blaze, but…

I am exhausted. So, likely, are you. So is almost every Black American. But it’s not just the weariness, bone-deep, that accumulates over a life of being Black in America. What we’ve been feeling since May 25 is PTSD, the fallout from seeing George Floyd’s life drain from his body, Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck.

While the act was barbaric enough, it was Chauvin’s violent stare that pierced the soul of every Black person who had steeled themselves to watch yet another police killing. It was a look of pure disdain, all his hatred of Blackness concentrated and visible in his eyes — a hate that we have always known as Black Americans, but until recently has been shrouded by a false veil of acceptance and progress.

To look at the popular narrative, you’d think the world was falling over itself in the quest for racial equity. Hip-hop has long been the most consumed and highest-earning genre of music. C-suites have swelled with an influx of Chief Diversity Officers, professional industries host inclusion summits. Forbes chronicles a new class of Black billionaires; White kids dress as Black superheroes for Halloween.

I would have no witnesses, no cell phone footage, should the next Amy Cooper yell to the police the seven words feared by every Black man in America: ‘there is an African American man….’ The mental dance is exhausting.

And then, Derek Chauvin’s stare over the body of George Floyd strips it all away, instantly reminding us that we are still Black in the country of the antebellum and Jim Crow eras. It takes us back to every slight and sling that we have experienced in our lives at the hands of those who assume authority over us, formal or otherwise.

The energy you feel from these uprisings — the fires you see blazing, the shattered glass on the street, the blocking of traffic, the chanting — isn’t just because of the actions of any one or four uniformed officers. It is the collective result of everyday life outside our doors, unconsciously bracing ourselves for the superiority complex we may run into while bird watching.

And it’s not just the outside world. It’s every time I approach my overpriced apartment building in downtown Manhattan. Every time a White person pulls the door closed behind them, standing in front of a glass door while watching me getting the key out of my pocket, not opening the door even when I’ve actually inserted the key. The loaded question of “do you live here?” Waiting a few moments before entering behind a White woman at night, always thinking of the historic atrocity done to Emmett Till and so many other Black men like him. I would have no witnesses, no cell phone footage, should the next Amy Cooper yell to the police the seven words feared by every Black man in America: “There is an African American man…” The mental dance is exhausting.

In 1970, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, MD, coined the term “microaggression” to describe the subtle insults and dismissals African Americans suffered from non-Black Americans. These experiences, he theorized, could impact psychological and physical health over time. Time and time again, Pierce has been proven right. Numerous studies suggest that the uncertainty of microaggressions can have tremendous impact on people of color — in their careers, in academia, and even in therapy.

Last week, the morning after the demonstrations demanding justice for George Floyd had arrived in my downtown Manhattan neighborhood, I went to survey the damage so I could give a firsthand report for my morning radio show. All the big brand stores were noticeably damaged, and had been cleared of merchandise. As I turned the corner to the Nike store, I expected to see similar damage. Nothing. Not a crack, Not a piece of shattered glass. Inside, the shelves were fully stocked. Why?

As I began to try to figure out how the store had escaped unscathed on a narrative, my engineering training kicked in. If I could examine the glass itself, I thought, I could do an amateur stress test to see if it was shock resistant. I began taking pictures — at which point a Nike store employee came up to tell me, quite aggressively, that I had to move along. No pictures allowed. When I asked him to explain why, given that I was on public property, he simply replied that it was “new rules and new laws.” All around us, White New Yorkers were taking pictures just like I was, yet nothing was being said to them.

I became enraged with the spirit of the night before. The singling out. The microaggression. The ethnically ambiguous person of color feeling superior, emboldened by the authority of the swoosh on his jacket, while his Black co-worker looked on in silence. The parallels to George Floyd were uncanny in that moment: a superiority complex from someone non-Black, while a person of color watched in silence, complicit.

Again, the mental dance was exhausting.

A January 2018 study in the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development found that of counselors who had clients reporting race-based trauma, 89% identified “covert acts of racism” as a contributing factor. This is what I mean by “mental dance.” The cascade of questions that roll through our heads daily: Did that just happen to me because I am Black? Am I overthinking this because I am Black? Am I being singled out because I am Black? Is this racist? All too often, the answer is yes, or probably, landing in our minds with an accompanying rush of emotions. This is exhausting.

In a 2007 article in the journal American Psychologist, a team of researchers at Columbia University describe these microaggressions as “microinvalidations”: Communications that subtly exclude, negate, or nullify the thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color. “The person of color is caught in a Catch-22,” they write. “If he confronts the perpetrator, the perpetrator will deny it. While the person may feel insulted, he is not sure exactly why, and the perpetrator doesn’t acknowledge that anything has happened, because he is not aware he has been offensive… that leaves the person of color to question what actually happened. The result is confusion, anger, and an overall sapping of energy.”

This is the normalization of PTSD. We don’t have the privilege to be color-blind, to live in a utopian world where race doesn’t exist, to walk around and engage with others, and not see the color of their skin. That’s because we are forced to remember every day the skin we are in. To remember the injustice of Breonna Taylor’s killing, to see Ahmaud Arbery hunted and gunned down while out on a run — with no confidence justice will be served.

When we say, we are tired, when we say, we are exhausted, this is why. This is the accelerant to the uprisings.