Before we started the asana portion of yoga class (the poses,) my teacher talked about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I borrowed it and, even though it’s a physically small book, it’s dense and requires thought after each paragraph.
Mr. Coates calls white people “people who consider themselves white.” Being white is an illusion, just like being fat, smart, funny, argumentative, pretty, black. We cling to an identity so we can negotiate through society. (Yoga teaches us how to avoid these pitfalls but that’s not relevant in this post.)
Sometimes we try to appear as something different than what we are. I have the luxury of hiding my Jewishness if I want. Or I can exaggerate it if that serves me better in the situation. With race, there is no hiding or changing to influence an outcome.
In my early 20’s, I chose to buzz my head to ⅛ of an inch. Without changing anything else about my appearance or behavior, I was welcomed into the LGBT community in a way I had never been before (and haven’t been since growing my hair.) Back then, no matter how boring my blue jeans and t-shirt, people assumed that I either 1) had style but was lazy getting dressed that day 2) was gay or 3) was a boy.
I never cared what they thought until walking alone one night in NYC. An old sedan of teenage boys slowed down and leaned out the windows to scream “dyke” and “queer” at me. If they had wanted to physically hurt me, they could’ve. I’ve always known how to watch my back as a woman but this was my first experience in having to watch my back as a “dyke.”
Mr. Coates has always known to protect himself as a black man. To protect his black body. In Between the World and Me, which is a letter to his son, he addresses the physical harm being done to black bodies through institutionalized racism.
He writes, “And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body… Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed.”
Last night my husband was watching a video clip he saw on Twitter. I looked over his shoulder at the 5” iPhone screen and saw a black man pulled over and being questioned by the cops. I asked, “Did this guy get shot?” He explained that the guy was champion MMA fighter Jon Jones and the police released the footage probably because Jon Jones is famous and did not end up dead; he ended up with a few tickets. But my assumption speaks volumes.
I grew up in NYC but now I’m a white lady in a white town, with a long braid and yoga pants. I fit in even though I’d usually rather not. No one considers my sexual orientation. I can choose to avoid homophobia just like I can avoid anti-semitism. No one knows anything about me unless I choose make it known.
To be Black in America is no doubt exhausting. Or to be Muslim. (Or to just look Muslim.)
What is it about your identity that makes you watch your back?