The strange emotional toll of being the mainstream thought

Illustration by Joelle Avelino

FLASHBACK:

February 23, 2020: Ahmaud Arbery
March 13, 2020: Breonna Taylor
May 25, 2020: George Floyd

FLASHBACK:

January 1, 2009: Oscar Grant
February 26, 2012: Trayvon Martin
August 9, 2014: Michael Brown
July 13, 2015: Sandra Bland

FLASHBACK:

July 5, 2016: Alton Sterling
July 6, 2016: Philando Castile
July 2016: Black Lives Matter protests erupt around the U.S.

Tears fall down my face. I struggle to get out of bed to go to work; can I call out “black” today? I’m so stressed. I’m so exhausted. I’m always on edge, always on alert, looking over my shoulder. Am I next? Why can’t people understand? Why can’t people look at us in the eyes and see our humanity and beauty? Will it ever get better? Do I have the strength to keep pushing, to keep teaching, to keep explaining, to keep advocating? My shoulders feel heavy as if I’m carrying the entire weight of the world. I don’t think I can do this anymore.

FLASHBACK: November 8, 2016: Hillary Clinton loses the Presidential election.

No one cares about the existence or protection of myself and my black brethren. All hope is lost.

PRESENT DAY: June 2020: Black Lives Matter protests erupt around the globe.

This feels familiar. This looks familiar. I’ve been here before, time and time again. But this time I’m not going to let it emotionally consume and damage the one life I’ve got to live and enjoy. I can’t, and I won’t. But, why can’t I move?

I’m frozen.

Walk with me…

Because that’s one of the remaining forms of leisure I can cling to in the middle of a pandemic. It’s 3 months into shelter-in-place, I’m unemployed, and an unusually warm and sunny summer has begun in San Francisco. I walk through my beautiful neighborhood of Bernal Heights and take one of the five routes I’ve mentally conquered and mapped: one route for each day of the week so I can spiritually immerse myself in my unpaid quarantined sabbatical. I reserve weekends for long urban hikes.

Bernal Heights is one of San Francisco’s quintessential neighborhoods, graced with colorful and highly-priced Victorian and modern homes that house America’s white, upper-class families earning lavish tech incomes. Regardless, I managed a way to weasel myself into this nature-filled and historically queer oasis on an artist’s income — like a mole spying from the inside. Actually, that’s how I feel on any given day of my life, no matter the environment.

On my walk, I contemplate the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the world’s response, and my emotions. I feel frozen and stuck as I look around my neighborhood and witness a phenomenon at astronomical levels: I see, “Black Lives Matter” signs and other messages of justice for black people on numerous home windows. These weren’t here before. And now, what seems like overnight, it’s all around me — my blackness indicated on every street corner, sidewalk, storefront, mural, poster, email, and commercial — like a missing child ad on a milk carton. Am I lost? Or Am I found? Should I run, or hide?

And people are staring at me! White people are staring at me, gesturing with head nods and power fists, and trying to interact with me in light of the big black elephant in the room. First of all, I don’t know these people. Second of all, a head nod is the black person’s secret handshake that has now dissolved into a universal greeting while wearing a mask. Who invited them to the barbeque anyway? How dare they!

I should be used to the white gaze at this point in my life because I’m accustomed to being the only black person in the room while constantly proving my character and intellect. However, the gaze is different this time; these white peoples’ eyes that now dare to glance in my direction one second longer than usual, arrest me. I freeze and freefall into my sunken place: Oh no. They know. I’ve been caught. We’ve been found out! They know what’s going on! Run.

But I can’t run. I’m frozen.

Art by Nikkolas Smith

When I see another black person in front of me or on the screen, I feel an immediate kinship. Black skin is this infinite, visible connective tissue that defies space and time and ties us all together. Black skin is our logo — embedded with centuries of stories, condensed into a velvety casebound book cover. We spend our lives, individually and as a collective, filling the missing pages that were burned long ago by our traumatic ancestral past. This is one of the reasons why we fight so much for representation in the media, to heal this connective tissue that was damaged. So when I see my identity being advocated for at an unprecedented frequency and volume, it’s like seeing my portrait plastered everywhere. Their death is my death. It’s a lot to visually process when I’m used to feeling invisible.

FLASHFORWARD: Two weeks later: I receive text messages and DMs from friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

The ice melts away; I can move again, but irritability washes over me.

When non-black people ask me the question, “how are you doing?” or communicates the sentiment, “I know you must be going through a lot,” I oscillate between emotions of pride and skepticism. Why are they checking-in with me now? I realize this communication comes from a place of goodwill and intent, but these words are loaded with a subtext that is one-sided. Despite the reckoning occurring outside my doorstep, these words appear from left-field, from a place of guilt. Why didn’t anyone check-in on me five years ago, when police murdered Alton Sterling and Philando Castille in succession, causing nation-wide protests similar to the ones today? Why didn’t anyone care about my livelihood 10, 15, 20 years ago when this was still an issue? I sense the projection of white guilt and it’s not my responsibility to carry the emotional burden of the privileged.

So now, after acclimating to a world that does not seem to understand or even notice my plight, I feel overwhelmed when I’m confronted with such sentiments from non-black people because it negates the history of my personal relationship to my black identity. How do they know I’m going through something? Can they pinpoint where I am in my black identity development that justifies their concern? I didn’t find out I was black yesterday. I’ve been intellectualizing and emotionally reconciling my position in this world for 32 years and counting, while simultaneously developing techniques on how to buck the system so I can earn at least half of that of the white straight cis man. It’s in my DNA — an enigmatic code passed down from generations before me.

Image by Emily Bi, Senior Staff at The Daily Californian

So here I am, vacillating between emotions of fear, sadness, pride, anger, and irritability — all rooted in my life-long mission to fight for social change. And now that I’ve seen glimpses of it, I freeze.

I realize that I’m short-circuiting because I don’t know how to operate in an environment where some of the anesthetized have begun the process of awakening. I’ve been programmed to fight and to believe that I will see things that the other side will never see or deeply understand. But now it feels like our code has been slightly cracked by the other side. And although that’s what I’ve wanted, I don’t know what to do now that it’s here. I don’t know what to do with this sudden appreciation, recognition, and potential for change, especially when I didn’t think this would happen in my lifetime. I only know how to operate in a world where I’m underappreciated and misunderstood. No one told me this was a possibility; I don’t have the instruction manual for this part of the journey.

My freeze response is due to the fact that I am being challenged to trade my operating code for a better one. I’ve been so comfortable fighting and flying, and building cheat codes to thrive in this oppressive system, only to be awarded stereotypical modifiers such as “independent,” “resilient,” and “strong.” Exhaustion is a habit at this point; it’s the air that I breathe, and the water in which I swim. The very idea that life doesn’t have to be this way anymore frightens me. Because it means I have to build a new code that has not been previously written — one that requires me to relinquish control and co-create with very people who now begin to wake.

I look at my hands, and they are bloodied and bruised. I hear a voice that tells me to, “let go.” So I let go and freefall, not into my sunken place, but into an unimaginable world filled with possibilities and more black joy.

San Francisco-based queer performing artist, creative, and writer that explores black joy. prenolis.com

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