One of the benefits conferred by white privilege is the ability to costlessly believe comforting delusions: for instance, that racism is a thing of the past, sepia-toned and half-remembered; that we live in a nation that has largely repented and turned from America’s original sin and that sin’s descendants; that “real” racists are rare enough that they can be safely ignored. White people have little to lose by investing in such cozy beliefs. Black people in America have rarely been able to afford such luxurious lies. This is why to me, and to many other black people, the least surprising thing about Donald Trump’s rise is that he found such a potent vein of support by tapping into xenophobic anxiety and racial hatred.
The burden of remembering any particular truth falls heaviest on those least able to avoid its weight. This is the case with many truths, and it is the case with America’s peculiar racial inheritance. I’m sure there are those who find carrying the burden of being part of America’s conscience invigorating or exciting, but I do not. I would lay it down, but I cannot.
For me, being black in America (and I assume in other places, though I can only speak to my own experience) means living with a certain low-level state of ambient fear (something I have written about before). When I say this, people often assume it means that I can’t fully lose myself in joy or love or happiness. but that’s not quite right.
Here’s an analogy: If you’re like me, when you’re driving, you often partition your mind, devoting a certain amount of attention to actually maneuvering the car, and the rest to other things — relaxing, listening to music, looking at the scenery, checking your phone, etc. But when it is raining heavily, you increase the amount of attention you pay to the actual act of driving: You might turn down the music, sit a bit more upright, tighten your grip on the steering wheel. And even after you become reacclimated, a portion of your mind is still dedicated to attending to your surroundings.
For me, to be black in America is to be constantly driving in heavy rain, to have a small piece of my mind sectioned off and occupied with the act of staying alive. One consequence of this is that I am used to managing fear; I do not recoil from existential threats but rather weigh cost against benefit with the dispassionate calculation of updating numbers in a spreadsheet. I will, say, not walk down this street, but instead extend my route for a block or two to avoid the cop on the corner. Or, I will attend this protest, even though it might mean tear gas or rubber bullets, because the cause is that important to me. In other words, I am strategic with my life and safety. This means that it’s fairly difficult to scare me off from doing something that I think is important with the suggestion of fear, like one might try to scare off an animal by shouting or banging together pots and pans.
This is why when Donald Trump abruptly pulls back the curtains of obfuscation and civility to openly call for violence against those who would protest him, when white supremacy tries to scare us with the anger and hatred his candidacy has supposedly revealed, when it tells those who would oppose its reign that they are in danger if they resist, I have to (wryly) laugh. You cannot intimidate me with a truth I already know. And I have known America for a long time.