At Times Like These, I Hold My Breath

This morning while reading a memoir by a popular author, I came across the word nigger. My kind of book. A white writer who is honest in their writing.

As I read, I tried to pay attention to my feelings. The writer wasn’t being hateful or ignorant. Instead, the writer was relaying an overheard conversation, in a public place where there happened to be no black people present at that particular moment. How did I feel reading that? I bet we all wonder about that, how another reader might be feeling as they read a polarizing word, one with the tendency to elicit visceral reactions.

A couple of years ago, during a slow day at the office, a few of my co-workers thought it would be okay to tease me about a customer who made it apparent that he had a crush on me. Out of nowhere, these white, female co-workers who I had known for several years, who never once discussed any race issue in my presence, decided to spotlight the interracial aspect of an attraction to me by a customer who kept finding excuses to loiter in and around the office. Among the four women who were laughing at my expense— one of them saying through a strange, awkward smile, Oh he likes that dark juice!— there was one woman, J., who had the presence of mind to steal careful glances at my face, and refused to laugh. J. had smiled half-heartedly and was staring down at some invisible spot on the floor more than she looked at any of us.

At the time I smiled, feeling embarrassed and unable to think of an appropriate response. Don’t you hate that? When you can think of nothing smartass to retort to shut down a conversation or cleverly grab the last word in the heat of the moment? I think it is the curse of being an introvert, a tendency to be at a loss for words in unprecedented exchanges with blabbermouths, and then thinking of all the things that could have been said long after it’s over. I was just so surprised and embarrassed. We were all friends at work but we weren’t THAT close. Fuckers. Whenever I reflect back on that day I soothe myself by fantasizing about slapping one of them in the mouth, seeing my hand print left on a jaw, and watching a little blood trickle on her lip.

Alas, that was not to be. All I had for reaction was a racing heart, flushing face, and knee-jerk breath holding, a knack carried over from childhood in unpleasant times.

No matter our color, ethnicity, or cultural background, everyone reacts differently in discussions on racial matters— and by discussions, I’m including written words. In my experience I’ve regularly seen three responses: 1. Refusal to participate 2. Eager to participate 3. Curious, but quiet observer. Of course, there are gray areas in between, but those are the basic reactions I’ve seen in racial discussions in mixed company.

There was a time— when I was a younger reader and found my appetite for writing whetted— when I thought that I could be a writer who abstained completely from discussing race in her prose. I used to think, I am a human being before I am anything else, surely I can write neutral stories, stories everyone can identify with. There are plenty of writers telling stories devoid of racial slant— thank goodness!— otherwise how would so many of us have ever developed our affinity for books and reading? No awkwardness, just fun, thrills and adventure. In my reading experience I’ve often sought escape through books, finding stories which made me laugh as well as cry. But I must admit, a really good story can catch me off guard, and touch me in rarely touched emotional places, causing me to hold my breath, if only for mere seconds.

You know what it’s like to live in a country sizzling with racial tension, while avoiding discussions on race?

You like stand-up comedy? I love it. Years ago, when I was a Florida resident, some friends and I went to comedy show one night. I laughed so hard I cried and peed in my panties a little. One comedian had a routine where he described typical crackhead behavior. He said he once saw a crackhead on the street running from someone who was chasing her, probably because she stole a candy dish or stapler or something. He pointed out that because she was a crackhead, her sense of perception differed drastically from ours. When she lost steam, she hid behind a light pole feeling absolutely certain that she was thoroughly hidden from view. I’m pretty sure I slid out of my chair and onto the floor, clutching my stomach because I laughed so hard at that joke. (Maybe you had to be there, drinking all the vodka/cranberry drinks I had, I don’t know).

That joke stayed with me. It would take years for me to admit the crackhead-like behaviors I exhibited in numerous episodes of my life. Refusing to write about race as a black person in America is like a crackhead hiding behind a light pole. Not talking about something everyone else can see does not make it disappear.

Shit happened. We share history. None of us escaped said history unscathed. As I read the word nigger this morning, I held my breath and then I moved on. In a more extreme example of racial tension, my co-workers embarrassed me. We got through it and continued working together amiably for a few more years. I had bigger fish to fry than some harmless faux pas by bored colleagues, my own personal demons were calling.

But don’t miss my point. Just as we annually prepare our homes and vehicles for seasonal weather changes, so too ought we to check the pulse of our intersecting cultural lives. That’s why we’re here, for the connection. Isn’t that one of the main reasons why we read? Aren’t we all regularly peeking in on each other’s lives. Isn’t that why we check our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds? We are humans having experiences which impact ourselves and each other. On top of that, we are attached to loved ones, and of more particular import is our attachment to the youth, guiding them for our posterity.

As for reading? Well no, not every story requires the racial slant. But unless we exclusively enjoy pretense and lies (or unless we’re crackheads), racially themed stories will need telling too.

Nothing wrong with a little breath holding as we get life done.