Playing by the Rules: The Myth of Surviving Racism

by Ryan Moody

Don’t ring, text.
I hovered my hand above the doorbell, poised to ring it. As my fingers stretched, approaching the button, I remembered the pact we’d made. I quickly adjusted my motion, sliding my hand into my pocket to pull out my Blackberry. A few seconds later my phone vibrated in response, affirmation that my friend was coming to get me. She slowly creaked open the front door of her house and ushered me inside. We crept upstairs, anxious to begin our sleepover. When we finally entered the privacy of her room, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and grinned at the heist we had just pulled. 

Get out before her dad wakes up.
The next morning, sunlight spilling through the windows reminded me of our agreement. I crept downstairs and out the front door, dialing my mom’s phone number. Embarrassed about the real reason for my early departure, I would tell her half-truths about why I had to be picked up at 8 a.m. on Saturday mornings. “I just wake up so much earlier than my friends and I don’t want to sit around and be bored.” In reality, this arrangement was the result of a humiliating conversation. “My dad is racist,” she apologized. “He just doesn’t want me hanging out with you.”

When faced with racist comments, don’t show your hurt or anger. People won’t take you seriously.
Though I would like to say that I grew up with a strong sense of self and pride in my people, I was taught the difference between white and wrong at a very young age. I learned not to get in the water at pool parties, so I could keep my stiff hair hidden under the heat of my flat iron. I learned to research and memorize the lyrics of John Mayer and The Red Hot Chili Peppers so I could appear knowledgeable about the “acceptable” music preferences. I learned that “for a black girl” was a necessary qualifier for compliments that passed my way. Pretty for a black girl. Smart for a black girl. Articulate for a black girl. Little by little, I was socialized to believe in a shameful “truth,” that Black is an inherently negative descriptor. An ugliness I would need to overcome to be respected, valued, worthy.

So I started to compensate. I began to distill the things that I wanted to do into the things I was allowed to do, given my Blackness and how I thought others would perceive me. As I had more experiences with racism my filter became more refined, and I added new constraints to my growing list. 

When faced with a difficult class in college, never, ever drop it. Especially when you are the only Black person in the class. You don’t want to give credence to the belief that you were accepted solely because of your race and you can’t handle the challenge.

When applying for a job, remove any race-related organization from your resume that a white person could read as radical or self-serving. Black Volunteer Network may stay, but the Women of Color Collective must go.

When cat-called or harassed on the street; just say nothing and keep your head down. You don’t want to be seen as the scary, angry Black woman.

When going out with your Black friends don’t walk together in a large group. Make sure there are several feet between every pair of people so others don’t feel threatened.

When an officer of the law asks to see your license, “accidentally” hand them your school ID first, so they know you are getting an education and will treat you better.

When shopping, always carry the items you are considering purchasing far away from your body, so salespeople won’t think you might steal them and have you arrested, or worse.

My whole life I have been indoctrinated into playing by the rules. I truly believed that as long as we all mastered living within the arbitrary boundaries of what a Black person “could” be, we would be protected because of it. But that just isn’t true. These white lies just try to hide the fact that under white lies one thing: fear for white lives. But instead of challenging this pervasive, irrational reaction, we systematically assuage it at the expense of my people. I saw this in President Obama’s speech after the Ferguson verdict, when he said “the law feels as if it’s been applied in a discriminatory fashion, but I don’t think that’s the norm.” I saw it in the words of the St. Louis County Executive, as he pleaded for people to “think with their heads and not their emotions.” Both men trying to restore a narrative in which the predictable, state-supported murder of Blacks isn’t a big deal. I see it right here, in this article, knowing that the way in which I have chosen to write will make me eligible for compassion and understanding from white readers that I wouldn’t have been privy to otherwise.

Whenever talking about how you’ve been impacted by racism, only share the most overt, irrefutable examples so you will be seen as logical instead of over-sensitive. Explain racial oppression through an unemotional lens so white people will take notice and care.

You may think I’m a hypocrite, but within that tension is the only place my Black experience is allowed to exist. Wanting to show that there are many different ways to be Black, but knowing society will only reward and accept me for one of them. Trying to live in America like these rules don’t apply, but also trying to just *live*. Waiting outside in the darkness for her message that will finally tell me I am welcome to come in.

Posted on October 16, 2015 .