couple of weeks ago, I was in the Dallas Fort Worth airport with a long
layover. I spent the time on my laptop, catching up on grading. Out of
nowhere, a white man sporting a camouflage baseball cap and a khaki
rucksack hitched over one shoulder began pacing back and forth in front
of me, muttering, “Brotha Man.” I rarely type that word out, I try not to
ever say it, but sometimes, you need to say “Brotha Man,” instead of “the
N-word.” Sometimes, you need to represent the world as it really is
despite the discomfort that reality may cause.
I thought I
couldn’t possibly have heard that man correctly. It was the middle of
the day. The year is 2013. The terminal was crowded. Then this man
looked right at me, raised his voice, and said, “Fat ass Brotha Man.” Yes,
he was talking to me.
We often have grand ideas about what we’ll
do in such moments but I was stunned; I was frozen — angry, scared,
humiliated. I wanted to cry or disappear but I couldn’t do either. I
couldn’t let that man see how he had found a vulnerable place. I
couldn’t let him see how, in too many ways, I am a barely healed wound.
Not one person said anything; I was surrounded by people.
the time, I mentioned the incident on Twitter and people told me to
alert security. That is, of course, the rational response to irrational
behavior. I didn’t want to move, though. I didn’t want him to take
further notice of me. I didn’t want him to hurt me. I was scared because
here was an angry man, who was either mentally ill, or comfortable
enough in his racism to speak this way to me in plain sight. If he would
simply, unprovoked, call me “Brotha Man,” there was no telling what else he
might do. That’s what is always fascinating about racism — how it is
allowed if not encouraged to flourish, freely, in public spaces, the way
racism and bigotry are so often unquestioned.
As luck would have
it, that man was also on my flight to Seattle. I was dreading the
flight, four hours and change, and the possibility that his behavior
might escalate at 37,000 feet. Fortunately, he was at the back of the
plane and I was at the front. I never saw him again. I hope before long,
I never think of him again.
But this is not about sad stories.
Something uncomfortable and racist happened. That incident in the
airport was neither the first nor the last time I will be called a
Brotha Man or worse. In the realm of racial injustice, this was a mild
infraction, I am profoundly privileged, sticks and stones, whatever.
When I consider what impoverished and disenfranchised people of color
deal with every single day, I can nearly laugh that incident off.
happened is still a true story, one that is indicative of the
pervasiveness of racism, and how no part of your life is ever truly free
from it. Privilege only reaches so far. I suppose I am grateful, in a
twisted way, that this pathetic man was in the Dallas Forth Worth
airport to remind me.
I don’t particularly enjoy talking about
race, at least not like this. I don’t want the whole of my writing or my
intellectual energy given over to race because I have diverse
interests. But here we are, again and again. Conversations about race
are often too contentious. People are set in their ways. I can admit
that I am. Nothing I write here is going to change much of anything. We
can fight the good fight and try to increase awareness. We can pin our
hopes on the fragile notion that it gets better, while realizing that in all likelihood, it does not.
was reminded of that moment in the airport, of the terror of being
harassed by a strange man, surrounded by people bearing silent witness,
offering their silence as consent, because I wrote an editorial
for the Los Angeles Times about blackface and Halloween costumes, and
what these choices reveal about the people who make them. Popular
culture is my primary beat, it’s late October, and people have been
acting crazy. Of course I was going to write about this topic. But then
someone asked why I was worrying about something so trivial when many
states are dealing with serious voter suppression problems. And many
others said, “What’s the big deal?”
There is an odd assumption
that compassion and care are finite or that critics can be everything to
everyone — commenting on everything simply because they can. That’s not
what cultural criticism is. People don’t have to perform their outrage
about a given issue for that outrage to exist. It diminishes cultural
criticism to demand constant vigilance.
I am well aware, for
example, that voter suppression is a serious problem. If we’re going to
consider degrees of magnitude, which is a masturbatory exercise at best,
voter suppression is the more serious problem. Or is it? People who
feel entitled to wear blackface either out of ignorance (Julianne Hough
using blackface in her Crazy Eyes costume) or malice (idiots using
Trayvon Martin’s murder for costume inspiration), are complicit, to
different extents, in the dehumanization blackface represents.
1787, legislators from the Northern and Southern states agreed on the
Three-Fifths Compromise during the Philadelphia Convention. These white
men took it upon themselves to decide that three-fifths of the slave
population would be counted for the purposes of taxation and
representation. Voter suppression, like blackface, is a form of
dehumanization. It is a modern version of the Three-Fifths Compromise.
Voter suppression is legislators deciding who is and is not deserving of
civil liberties and participation in the democratic process, largely on
the basis of race and class. The tide has been turning for Republicans
and if they cannot win hearts and minds, they will enable the
legislation they need to keep those with unwinnable hearts and minds
Legislators and voting officials in North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Kansas, Arizona and other states
are working vigorously to manipulate the democratic process by any
means necessary. Of course I care about these initiatives and the people
who are disenfranchised. I’m reading as much as I can and learning
about modern voter suppression because I don’t yet know enough to
contribute meaningfully to the conversation. No one is helped when
cultural critics use their voices irresponsibly.
“Get over it,” or
so it goes when we talk about the legacy of racial oppression even
though the effects of that legacy are plainly visible. It would be ideal
to get over it, to move on. Most of us do not want to
have these exhausting, infuriating conversations about race with
audiences who are unwilling or unable to truly understand where we are
coming from. But here we are, more than 200 years after slavery, still
quantifying how people of color should be measured in the eyes of the
law and those whom those laws mean to rule.
Roxane Gay's writing has appeared in Best American Short
Stories 2012, Oxford American, the Rumpus, the Wall Street Journal and
many other publications