I’m tired but I can’t get myself to sleep. I didn’t sleep much last night either. I sit at my desk in my bedroom. Outside it’s dark, warm, and humid. I can’t rest; I can’t sit still; my mind keeps turning and turning, spinning like the blades of a windmill in the face of an approaching storm.
It’s the mask, you see. I can feel it on my flesh, on my face. And it’s slipping. I can’t remember a time when I was so aware of it, that mask of the safe, calm, educated brown man and the pulsing sensations of the black man underneath. Maybe “mask” is the wrong word. Maybe “second skin” would be better. It’s not fake, not studied. Just a kind of shield to help me deal with the white world that swirls around me.
Most of the time, it’s not a struggle. We all, I think, have many “me’s” inside. The gendered me, the professional me, the spiritual/religious me, the partner me, the parent me, the sibling/child me. Very few of us could walk around in that raw skin that admits only the things and people that touch us most. It would be too bruising. Too tiring. But I’m tired tonight. Exhausted. Which means the second skin isn’t working. Not for this one. Not for the most heinous civil rights crime in nearly 50 years. Not for a terrorist attack that so many seem bent on insisting isn’t a terrorist attack.
I’ve lived most of my life surrounded by white people: good, bad, indifferent, brilliant, hateful, nurturing, loving, supportive, racist spiteful. Human. And because of that, though I’ve known from first-hand experience the reality of racism, I’ve never felt tempted to the wholesale characterization of white that some black people I’ve known sometimes indulge in. I’ve known that white supremacy existed, but I’ve also held in my heart the kind, loving white faces of so many who helped me become who I am. And that will never, I hope, change.
But after Charleston, for the first time I feel a disquiet in my heart about white America that I’ve never felt before. It is a deep sadness, a grief that’s taken hold of me, and I’ve spent the whole day walking around, holding it, because I’ve had no place to put it. I don’t feel hate or anger, at least not yet. The best name would be despair.
For me, this isn’t just another shooting—horrific as the mass shootings over the years have been. For me, this feels like a truth that white Americans haven’t wanted to tell themselves. You see, I woke up today convinced that this country is sick to its soul. And that sickness is the unacknowledged racism that is as deeply rooted in our culture as any other force. We can’t look at it; we can’t admit to ourselves, as a nation, that it’s there. Because if we did, we would also have to admit how essential a part of the American identity it has always been. Brown skin has never in our history been valued in the same way that white skin is. Ever. This has been true not just during slavery; not just during Jim Crow; not just during the high tide of the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s. Not ever.
We can look at school, crime, housing, jobs, education, health, even racism itself, and the message has always been the same: There’s nothing wrong with the lot of brown people in American that brown people can’t fix by just being better. If we would only stop being lazy, get a job, be responsible, dress better, speak better, get married, stop having so many children, go to school, work harder, dream bigger, dream smaller, earn more. But last night, a young racist armed with a gun gave the lie to all of that in the Bible study of an iconic black church. He snuffed out the lives of nine hard-working, educated, devout, upstanding, welcoming, civic-minded, caring human beings because something in this nation told him that their blackness gave him the license to do so. The history I know tells me that even if he is the only one who pulled the trigger, he didn’t manufacture that idea on his own.
But as bad as last night was, however wrenching and draining the experience, today was worse. Today, as I went about my activities and errands with my children—to the park, to tennis lessons, to the gym—no one anywhere mentioned what happened last night at all. On TV and radio, in online comments on stories, we drew the usual lines. And I realized this is really the long playing out of a family saga. This is the kind of family secret that festers until the stench permeates everything so much so that it becomes impossible for some family members to admit it’s there. Because to admit it would mean having to admit something terrible at the core of the family itself.
And the weight of it made me want to be alone, to bury myself in some silent place where I could grieve and weep and rock back and forth and listen to the blues until I could fall into a dreamless sleep. But in this country, there is no such place. And so I walked around in this second skin that I feel more and more on the verge of tearing off, which frightens me not so much for myself but for the force that might unleash. The force of an honesty more terrifying than any violence. And it’s coming.