“…The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” — Rosa Parks.
I was actually in London the first time I was ever called the n-word. I was walking by the River Thames as a group of four white boys on bikes rode in my direction and as soon as they came upon me one of them spat on my shirt. As I looked down and stared in shock at the greenish-brown phlegmy glob, they rode away and one of them turned back and called me a “fucking nigger”. The last time I was called the n-word, was when I worked as a server/bartender at a restaurant in Cypress, Texas (a part of the greater Houston area that is fairly conservative in their beliefs from my experiences) called The Original Shack Burger Resort. I had heard a rumor at the time that the owner, Joe Duong, had been referring to me as “the nigger”. He denied it when I confronted him. A couple of weeks after that, one of my coworkers, Joseph “Hot Mic” Marshall called me a nigger behind my back and to my face during a Sunday afternoon shift. The only reason he got fired a whole 2 weeks later was because two managers that I was cool with had to express to Joe how bad the optics would look if he decided to keep Marshall on the staff. I sent an email detailing how unhappy I was with the situation at the time. I never got a response or anything from the owner or the rest of management. The first time I was called the n-word, I was 12 years old. The last time, I was 28 years old. A lot happened in between.
I’ve heard ESPN personality, Bomani Jones, discuss a phenomenon he referred to as a “woke moment”. The idea that whether or not you realize that oppression exists today, there’s a moment when the scales are pulled from your eyes. The glass of the illusion shatters and you realize, not just how pervasive the oppression is, but also how dangerous it can be. Some people had their woke moment when they watched Rodney King get assaulted by LAPD officers on video. Others had theirs when the officers involved in the brutal beating were acquitted of their charges. For some people it was watching how the country responded to the people of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, prompting Kanye’s famous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” moment. Or maybe you saw just how certain parts of the country reacted to the first black president being elected in America in 2008 (while I was at Baylor, a noose was found hanging on campus the day after the election ended). And for some people maybe it was the murder of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2012.
I knew racism existed and I was aware of it, but I’d never paid credence to just how it might affect me I had never had to. Being born and raised in Nigeria afforded me the privilege to grow up and live in a country where the overwhelming majority of people looked like me. So I didn’t understand race relations when I got to Waco, Texas for college at 16 years old. Baylor University had had a history of systemic racism. Black students were not allowed to attend Baylor until 1964. Yet, 40 years later, I still experienced microaggression after microaggression and my friends later would teach me how each of these statements had been racially tinged. Like people assuming I was at Baylor because I was an athlete (if you knew what I looked like, you’d understand how preposterous that thought was). People would ask if I got into Baylor because they needed to make a diversity quota. Getting pulled over constantly for driving a shitty car or for driving a car that looked too nice for me to own. Police asking me to step out of the car when I got pulled over because they wanted to search for drugs (happened to me three times, twice on the same trip). So yeah, I was aware of racism. I knew it was there but still I was unaware of all the ways it affected my day-to-day until Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Mike Brown in 2014.
What I saw from the trial of George Zimmerman leading all the way up to the Ferguson protests in the summer of 2014 changed my life. Those years cemented in me the idea of ‘Two Americas’. At the time I was living in Tyler, Texas and it was truly the first time in my life that my circle wasn’t dominated by minorities but by white people. Tyler, like many other cities in the United States has had its own history of racial terrorism. Their own Tyler History website details the lynching of six people of color in the Smith county area where the city is located. Regardless, I worked with these my Caucasian classmates on project, studied for exams together, and just enjoyed each other’s company, so yeah, things were pretty rosy up until that summer.
As the protests carried on in Ferguson, I watched people peacefully protest against police brutality, and saw the police respond by being brutally violent. And at the time, I remember having conversations with the people around me thinking that I was in a safe space. I remember my “friends” and the way they described Michael Brown making him out to sound like he was a terrifying monster that needed to be gunned down. I remember them making me light of the fears of oppression and police brutality that I had. That I imagined it. It was all in my head. We both saw the same thing on the news back then, but we were seeing something completely different. I had conversations like that all throughout my time at UT Tyler, in person and online, with each new publicized murder of a person of color. Initially, I was idealistic. I dreamed that with perseverance, I would be able to change their minds or influence beliefs, then they in turn could do the same to others and so on and so forth. In reality, what would happen was that they would get bored and literally ignore me when I broached the topic. I hated how every publicized racial injustice automatically received a spin and its importance was diminished each time. I saw it with Eric Garner. I saw it with Freddie Gray. I saw it with Sandra Bland. I saw it with Tamir Rice. I saw it with Philando Castile. Sean Bell. Stephon Clark. Alton Sterling. Walter Scott. Oscar Grant. I saw it with countless other names. I hated Tyler. It was filled with whataboutisms and the city didn’t have a shred of empathy. It was one of the saddest periods of my life. I felt so isolated and frustrated. I was tired and exhausted. I didn’t feel safe. I remember asking my friends then what they would say if I was ever killed wrongly by the police. I’m still waiting for an answer.
So the year is now 2020 and it’s been just over a week since the latest in a trio of the publicized murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breona Taylor and George Floyd. I don’t even have the energy to discuss Amy Cooper’s case. For most of the weekend, I was paralyzed by grief, fear and exhaustion. Grief because I felt for yet the loss of another life. Grief because another black person didn’t make it back home safely because they had a bad encounter with the police. Fear because of how comfortable that police officer was as he knelt on Floyd’s neck slowly sapping the life away from him. Fear because none of the other police officers would step in to stop the assault on Floyd because whatever happened, they knew that the system in place would allow them to get away with it. Exhaustion because we all knew how this was going to go, and the checkpoints that we would hit on the way there. Exhaustion from having to have the same conversations again. Exhaustion because I’m tired of the onus of fixing racial injustice being put on black people. And every single person of color I spoke to in the last 7 days has said something similar. We are angry but overwhelmingly tired. To paraphrase James Baldwin, to be woke in this country is to be mad all the time. But at some point that anger makes you weary when we see no changes occurring.
So once again, we’re seeing the scenes of protests against police brutality being responded to with violence from the police force. Thanks to Covid-19, there are no sports or entertainment to distract us from the very real problems that this country is facing. The protests are the only conversation going on, even managing to push Covid into the background for now, and it’s important to keep it going. And I’m starting to feel that glimmer of hope as I saw the diversity of the crowd on Friday as we protested peacefully in downtown Houston.The diversity of these protesters and the people speaking out against the police system is important. Because we as black people cannot solve this problem. It’s not ours to fix. White people need to be deliberate in their actions moving forward from this point. It’s not just checking in on your friends of color or sharing social media posts. Carry on this conversation and don’t let my hope die out again and maybe we will actually be able to get something done.
I wrote all this not necessarily knowing what I wanted to do with it. I just knew that I needed the outlet. A way to express what I feel as a black immigrant that’s lived in the United States for almost half my life. I hope that this stirs something up in whoever reads this because the fight is far from over. There’s much work to be done and many loads to lift and we need all hands on deck helping out in whatever ways you can. Donate your money or your time. Call your politicians. Impact your immediate surroundings. Keep pressing on despite your fatigue because I know how you feel too. Keep pressing on and keep that hope alive.