I live with two white people and another person of color. The white roommates, one of whom is just White and one of whom is White With An Accent, are very interesting to live with. For the most part, we all get along really well. Sometimes, though, my white roommates do White People Shit; in this specific case, the White People Shit is treating me as their lifeline to blackness.
This isn’t something just limited to my roommates, so stop fake-gasping in revulsion, white readers. A surprising amount of white people in my life, from close friends to significant others to mere acquaintances, have strained our relationships when they decided to use me as their Head Ambassador of Niggadom and decreed that I was their entrance into the scary Black Culture, and that therefore they must plumb all of my knowledge of black media and slang. I understand why they do—not only am I normally the closest black person location-wise, I understand that white people see me as a safe black girl. I’m not “scary” like those other black girls; I don’t seem loud or aggressive or intimidating or whatever other arbitrary labels people attach to black women to dehumanize them.
Sometimes, I forget that the breadth and scope of black culture is nothing but a passing fancy to white people, and I ask a silly question. “Have you seen this movie? Have you heard this song?” And always, I get a “no,” and the soul-crushing realization that the movie everyone around me saw as a child, or the song everyone was boppin’ to that summer, never even existed to them. But then, of course, inevitably the request comes for me to show them.
And I understand. Trust me, white people, I get it. (Quick note: oftentimes, people of color understand your own actions better than you do. Y’know, with the whole “understand white people to survive” thing.) You want to explore this piece of media with someone who knows it firsthand, who has experience and memories. I get it. But god damn, for once, can you watch the damn movie yourself? Why must I be white people’s ferryman on the river Blackness, pointing out all the sights for them to “ooh” and “aah” at? Why are my experience and memories the ones you must plumb to feel some kind of connection to something that wasn’t made for you to connect to in the first place?
Now, there’s always a type of black movie that the white people I meet always seem to have seen, and that’s the struggle movie. Slavery? Abuse? Black pain? Shemar Moore in an awful cornrow lacefront crying? You name it, they’ve seen it. For years I wondered why. Why will you not take us at our The Wood and our Beasts of the Southern Wild, our teenage heartaches or sprawling indie yarns? Why Roots? Why 12 Years a Slave? Not to say, of course, that these aren’t excellent pieces of media, or that white people do not need to be confronted with visual reminders of the racism they have committed and are committing to this day. But what I want to know is, why do white people only seem to want to see these types of (either black-made or majority black-cast) movies?
And I realized the answer. The white gaze seems to have an ongoing fascination with black pain, spanning from public floggings and crowds at lynchings to now, with the white lady the next row back crying at a heartwrenching scene before going outside and clutching her purse in fear when passing a black man on the way to her car. White people love white guilt. White people love white guilt because it allows white people to feel like they’re doing something about racism, when really all they’re doing is crying crocodile tears.
I have watched countless movies with white friends where characters grapple with the realities of institutional racism and the powerlessness and pain they feel, and every time this is what seems to strike my white friends. Not these same characters smiling and happy and showing a full spectrum of emotions.
And always, I felt a weird twinge at the sadness on my white friends’ faces. Of course, it’s sad—racism and anti-blackness and their tolls on the black psyche are sad (maybe the only reason I don’t cry is because if I cried at movies about it, I’d have to cry about my whole life existing as a black person in the US, and, well, that’s an emotional can of worms that most people of color know is easier to bury). But for some reason the sadness never feels genuine, because the sadness is in the face of watching a character suffer under a system that they perpetrate, that I suffer under, and I’m like, “damn, where are the tears for me?”
Maybe if any of this led to an increased racial awareness among white people then I wouldn’t be as annoyed. If you cry, then leave the theater resolved to learn about anti-blackness and to do your best to try to fight the systems put in place by your ancestors, then this gratuitous fascination with black pain would have an end goal. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, I’ve seen white people cry at Roots then try to test the waters to see if I would let them say “nigga.” I’ve talked to white men who will praise 12 Years a Slave in one breath then tell me that I’m wrong about racism in the other. I had a white ex bop with me to Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” then immediately turn around and call a girl he disagreed with a coon. Black pain doesn’t lead to any kind of increased awareness of white people, so why do white people enjoy it so much?
It’s like getting punched in the face and regaining consciousness only to see your assailant sobbing above you. Through blubbering tears, they tell you that they feel for you, that it hurts to see you in pain, that it hurts them to witness it, but no matter how pure the tears they leave a sour taste in your mouth, because no matter how true or real their sadness is, they are the ones who punched you in the first place. It makes you resent. “Who are you,” you think, “to be sad about this? What right do you have to empathize with me when you’re the one who did this? Why are you crying when you’re only going to punch me again?”
I’m not saying white people can’t be sad or empathetic (well, empathy requires a connection of some sort to the emotion the other person is feeling, but I’m sleep) but what I am saying is that white people need to analyze their relationship to black pain. Why did you like this movie? Did you truly think it was good? Did you truly empathize the characters? Or were you fascinated? Did you watch them with a distant sadness? When I see scenes of black pain, I feel it, because I know it. I know the hopelessness and despair and misery that come with trying to survive in a world made to kill you, and trying to fight the weight of a system designed to suffocate you. To white people, I quote Whitney Houston: “But do you know? Do you really know?” I cried the first time I heard Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” I cried to hear a pain I felt so deeply expressed so powerfully.
A white friend used the titular line from that song to crack a joke about how Netflix wasn’t working.
A girl on Instagram was being called out for basically blackfacing, by tanning excessively and using darker foundation paired with box braids and typical “hood” clothing in order to pass as black. In an attempt to defend herself, she posted an image of Tupac Shakur, claiming that she “related with his struggle” and that he’s “done so much for the black community.” Amid all the protests in her comments asking what she knew about the black community (and rightfully so), the struggle line was what got me. This white, European girl heard Tupac speak about the very specific experience of being black in America, and liked it. She liked it so much that she decided that it belonged to her, that it related to her, that in some way, her experience as a white girl in blackface was comparable to the actual black experience.
When Beyoncé’s Formation dropped, black women everywhere rejoiced to have someone singing about the same features that have been degraded for centuries. White girls immediately took to Instagram to post selfies with the hashtag “#in formation.”
White people grow up and live in a reality where everything is theirs, even the things that aren’t. Other countries? Theirs. Box braids? Theirs. The n-word? They’ve been fighting us to have that one for years. White people see other cultures enjoying themselves and immediately want to consume whatever they have. So why wouldn’t white people also believe that black peoples struggles and pain are theirs, that they can relate and understand it?
The strange thing is, this relating to black struggle only seems to take place in a majority white atmosphere. The only white kids I knew to talk loudly about how they repped “their hood” or call their friends their “niggas” were the white kids who had no black friends. There’s a performative aspect to it, the same way that whenever I happen to be in the room while white people are watching something about or discussing racism, suddenly the tears and emotion come out. The same way the wannabe-black white kids perform blackness to seem subversive to other white kids, it seems like the white people around me over-perform their emotions in order to make it clear to me that they’re a “good white.”
But the thing is? I don’t care. I really don’t care if a white person was “so touched” by Roots, or The Color Purple, or 12 Years a Slave. The fact that white people think I would care, and desperately push these facts about themselves into ordinary conversation is what irks me. Newsflash, white people: watching things like The Wire is not what makes you “down” to black people. Not being a racist is what makes you down, and if you worked as hard at that as you did at Urban Dictionary-ing every slang term used in The Wire, you might have more black friends.
Maybe that’s my real beef. There’s a well-known adage that I constantly say to friends on the Internet, and that is “niggas can’t ever have nothing.” And it’s true. We have watched our music, our slang, and our clothing be constantly siphoned off for white kids who want to feel dangerous and different, and we deal with it. But what do we do when they’re not just satisfied with the visual affectations of blackness? What do we do when they want our emotions, our sadness, our pain, our struggle? What do we do when we’re fighting for our very souls?
This is what really sickens me about black pain written by white people, by black characters dying first, by dead black bodies being splayed across the news. Our pain isn’t really empathized with, or respected. It’s lapped up for entertainment, for the “oh so sad” tears, for “good” white people to sniffle and cry, then pat themselves on the back for managing to see us as human for a split second. Our pain is broadcasted for us to stare at stonily and pat our crying white friends on the back, before they go back to calling us “one of the good ones.”
Assholes will read this piece and deduce that I’m trying to say that white people could never and can never feel for black people. I’m not saying that. That’d be a silly thing to say, as the history of anti-racist activism includes many white faces. What I am saying is that I’m tired of white people not truly absorbing black pain and turning it into tangible change and instead treating black pain as an add-on, or a performance to prove how much you care about black people.
Crying at slave movies doesn’t prove how much you care. Correcting your white friends and family when they say anti-black shit shows you care. Listening unconditionally and knowing when a conversation doesn’t need your contributions shows you care. Not treating your black friends like your personal BET subscription shows you care.
Enjoy us in our fullness. Laugh at our comedies, sniffle at our dramas, quake in fear at our horrors. We are more than dead bodies bleeding out; we are more than the sobbing of whipped slaves; we are more than our pain.
Art by Rilo Harris.