Racism like Death

Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With”

This past Sunday, I sat in the Evreux cathedral, contemplating.

I anticipated the moment when a woman or man would come down the aisle with a small basket and look me in the eye, waiting for a donation. I, like always, would refuse them.

But why? Why could I not donate even a cent? Why had I never even allowed my(adult)self to do it?

What good reason did I have to deny God my money?

***

France is mostly Catholic. According to the CIA World Factbook, 63-66-percent of the population identifies as Christian, most of them falling under Roman Catholic.

France is also mostly white. It is estimated that 85-percent of all French people are.

Neither of these statistics is official, as it has been illegal since 1872 for the state to collect information on ethnicity or religious beliefs. It may be suggested that this contributes to the country’s reluctance to address racial issues, at least from the American perspective.

For example:

The first time I was in France me and my parents got pulled over. My father had left the fog lights on.

The second time, during some discussion I cannot remember the topic of, my study abroad professor—of French origin—found it appropriate to pronounce the N-word out loud.

This third time, within the month and 11 days I have been here, I have had a French student say I looked like Serena Williams. Later the same day I thought I was safe when a French teacher of English, while telling me about how her students were learning about Norman Rockwell’s painting of Ruby Bridges, emphasized “this terrible, terrible word,” before exhaling, nigger.

While I would like this to just be about national cultural differences, I am not only a black woman in an overwhelmingly white country. I am a black woman in a program comprised mostly of white Americans.

White Americans who find it appropriate to say nigg— with a soft a, or Negro, in the context of a joke.

The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not “get over” the loss…you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

I should’ve began this piece with the story of how my dog died this past summer. How it hurt when he first left, and how it hurts every time of think of it now.

But like facing death, facing racism is—at least for me—a never-ending processing of pain.

No matter how much you may prepare for it, the act always happens more suddenly than you imagined.

The initial turmoil inside you is so great and so unexpected that you cannot bear it alone. The reality of time engulfs you, and every second that passes is one further away from before this terrible thing happened.

The pain spills over onto a friend or family member because it has filled everything inside of you already.

After it only empties out enough so that you can barely function, you are pushed to move on. While everyone and everything around you continues as before, you walk around bloated.

Eventually, it morphs and you begin to question yourself. What could I have done? Why didn’t I do more?

The feeling of powerlessness; the emptiness that it becomes makes you angry. There was so much at stake, and in the end, you did…nothing. You let it happen because you are weak and not worthy. Not worthy of love, not worthy of being.

All this cycles and flares randomly. Mostly the emotions spike separately, sometimes all at once.

Eventually, they deepen far enough to be remote—the valleys carved out by pain fill with rivers and grow over with green. But they remain valleys.

I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear! I mean, really, no fear. If I could have that half of my life—no fear…

Nina Simone, What Happened Miss Simone?

In all the times I faced racist acts in France, I said nothing. I was, and remain, ashamed. The pain of the moment, compounded by my inaction, has plagued me.

I have gone over discussions I have had with friends and acquaintances about race and identified the arguments and the passion that drove them. Where were those articulations when I needed them most?

My friends and family know of my feelings, but what use are they on people who already understand?

After all the rehashing, I have concluded that I can no longer hate myself for not reacting. While I can continue to feel the scorn of inaction in reliving those moments, I must use it not to abuse myself but to prepare myself for the next moment.

I have to find the strength to counter someone’s comfort. I have to find the courage to stop conversation, not matter how long it has progressed since the act, and declare my pain.

I have to declare my pain.

***

As I stood amongst the cold marble in the cathedral, it struck me, why I would never give money at mass.

I owed nothing to this church that justified the enslavement and murder of my ancestors. I owed nothing to its corruption. This material institution was not what I believed in. I would not push myself to accommodate it.

I did not, and I do not, need to conform to a standard set against me to be vindicated. If I am to truly to find peace, it is not through the happiness of others.

I am done suffering for their comfort.

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