When I was in high school, my white best friend referred to me as Nigger.
Sometimes she called me nicknames like Suzie, Suz, “Z,” or my Congolese name, Nginda (she never did quite get the pronunciation right), but every so often, she unabashedly called me Nigger. And I let her.
Stories like these are sprinkled across my life’s narrative. There was the time that I willingly attended a white friend’s “Black Night,” in which we ate fried chicken and waffles, seasoned with salt from a ceramic “Mammy” saltshaker. I was the only black person at this dinner. There was also the time that a white friend and I decided to dress up as each other for Halloween. I helped make sure her dark brown make-up covered every porcelain nook and cranny of her skin, successfully participating in the execution of her blackface costume.
Hypocrite is not a word that looks good on anybody, but as I sit here with my “Black Girl Magic” T-shirt stretched across my body and a heavily annotated copy of bell hooks’ “Killing Rage” resting beside me, I sometimes wonder if the only word suitable for me is, in fact, hypocrite.
These types of stories and the thought of being seen as a hypocrite have brought me so much shame over time. In fact, I have never openly talked about them in my adult life for fear of judgment. I was the black person that white people could point to and say, “But she’s not offended, so why are you?” I was the white person’s exception to the rule. They had me as their black friend, giving them comfort and confidence in donning blackface and saying “nigger” in front of other white people, passing along the false message that these acts of racism were okay—or worse, welcomed. And I perpetuated these ideas.
Shame is a funny thing, though. Shame looks inward and casts blame. Shame causes battered wives to believe that they are the reason their partners raise their fists. Shame causes men and women to believe that they are wrong for not having heteronormative sexual and/or gender identities. Shame causes oppressed parties to see themselves as the problem as opposed to the actual problem of systems that feed them messages of white superiority.
I am deeply disturbed when I look back at these stories, but not necessarily because I subscribed to white supremacy. Problematic though that was, the black history I was taught growing up was that of my aunt’s asylum from Congolese dictatorship and that of my cousin’s tragic death at the hands of rebels on the Congolese-Rwandan border. My parents did not teach me of the traumatic history of black Americans because they did not experience the traumatic history of black Americans. My African upbringing coupled with my predominantly white education left a substantial gap in my understanding of black American history—a history I later realized was and is a significant part of my story, even as an African.
Because of this—because of this realization that black history is indeed my history—what truly disturbs me about these stories has less to do with me and more to do with the society in which I live. What disturbs me is that my white friend was able to walk out of her house with my skin color smeared across her face without her parents batting an eye. My other friend’s entire family participated in his “Black Night,” scarfing down watermelon slices and happily sipping their Kool-Aid. I live in a world where my skin color is a costume and a joke—where a word once used to wrap black necks in nooses became a nickname shouted across high school hallways with a laugh.
These white people—my friends, their parents, and many others—were in a deluded state of post-racism. They claimed not to be racist and had me as proof, so they operated under the false impression that the history of black America (and the white majority’s participation in this history) had been erased. They operated under the impression that if they could befriend a black person, if they could invite a black person into their homes, racism and the idea of race as a whole must have been a thing of the past. And if race and racism were no longer existent, then blackface, appropriation, and calling me Nigger could no longer be offensive.
I, too, lived in this deluded state of post-racism. I once heard myself say, “I hate that there’s even a Black History Month or B.E.T. It’s not like there’s a White History Month.” I didn’t yet realize that white entertainment rules the industry, that literally every month is white history month, and that white supremacy leaves little space for black existence.
This state of delusion is particularly dangerous because it participates in the erasure of black history, it turns the oppressed into the problem, and it bolsters the power of the white majority in ways that maintain the oppression of black individuals. It is an idea that masks itself as post-racial, when in fact, it is what led to my once deep-seated internalized racism.
Part of dismantling systemic white supremacy is recognizing the ways in which you have benefited from or subscribed to it. It takes recognizing the ways this system has woven its way into your being. Only then can we make the necessary reparations. Only then can we resist. Only then can we march forward without the burden of shame chained to our ankles.