Being Black in America means I am constantly grappling with my race and how it dictates my place in this country. I’m not just American, I’m African American — these two identities are not separate. They are very much intertwined. It is because of the tension between these two identities that I know, although I love this country, it does not love me back.
My experience of being Black in America has meant listening to racist babble while keeping a polite smile on my face. It meant crying to my mom in the second grade when a boy said he couldn’t be friends with a “monkey,” and listening as another student threatened to kill me in the fifth grade because of my race. It meant having self-esteem issues when boys in high school told me they couldn’t date “Black girls,” as if I needed another reminder that I don’t fit the beauty standards adopted by American society.
For years I was ashamed of my Blackness, of my community, of our history. I thought that if people didn’t know I was Black, I could pass in society as being something different, and I would gain more respect. As I’ve gotten older, I’m no longer ashamed of who I am, but of who I was.
In the past, I allowed myself to succumb to the torrent of abuse hurled my way for no other reason than the fact that I am a Black woman in America.
When “friends” told racist jokes, I forced myself to laugh. When people used the “N-word,” I smiled along. With every incident, I found myself making excuses for others: “They can’t be racist, I’ve known them my whole life,” or “They were just making a joke” or better yet, my favorite, “Racism doesn’t exist anymore.”
It felt like that might even be true — that racism in America didn’t exist anymore — when Barack Obama was first elected president in 2008. I thought that we, as a community, were finally important, that we would be taken seriously. But I was soon reminded that wasn’t the case.
People told my parents they only voted for Obama because he was Black and “our people” stick with their own kind. As if my parents would base their judgement not on his proposed policies, but the color of his skin. And with every year of his presidency, I watched as my hopes diminished, as I was reminded I’m living in a country that doesn’t love me back.
I watched as our first Black president and his family were ridiculed, even called monkeys — an insult with which I too was familiar. The disrespect and hatred directed at Obama in his eight years was unique to his presidency and fueled by racism.
In recent years, I am reminded that I am living in a country that doesn’t love me back everytime I see stories on the news about my brothers and sisters being killed by police — not enough a part of this country to be protected by it. From Orlando to Cleveland, I have been reminded of the threat of violence I first encountered in fifth grade. I have watched as Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner were killed in the streets and as Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland died in police custody.
Growing up Black in America, I learned quickly that my life was treated differently. These lessons have made me cautious and scared of the world around me. Interactions with authority figures leave me with a sense of dread.
But the truth is, I am angry. I’m angry and I’m scared and I’m tired. Every day I get up with the intent of making my life, and the lives around me better, in the country that I love. But it feels like any progress I make is only temporary, sure to be snatched away. That is how I have felt particularly following this election cycle.
With the election of our new president, we’ve seen the “hidden” racists come out of the dark. I’ve encountered both subtle and overt racism, but never in this quantity. His rhetoric has made it seemingly OK to voice hateful speech. We’ve seen effigies lynched from trees and racist messages left on properties.
I always knew this hate existed, but suddenly it seems more widespread.
And it’s not just the Black community being targeted. It’s all communities of color, all communities that speak differently, that practice religion differently, that dress differently than the stereotypical white American.
I now feel afraid and uncertain of where hate may be lurking — this constant struggle of fear and uncertainty is my life. But it is also the lives of thousands of other Americans of color across this nation. And while I may live in fear, I won’t allow it to dictate how I live my life.
I will continue to fight, even when this country tells me I’m not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough, because if growing up Black in America has taught me anything, it’s how to survive. But I will do more than survive, I will thrive. I love this country, but my experience has taught me that this country doesn’t always love me back. I hope one day it will.
Chelsea Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.