Comfortably Numb

The following YouTube clip is from the movie Kindergarten Cop, where Arnold

Schwarzenegger plays a detective who goes undercover as a school teacher. The little boy’s statement is of course wildly inappropriate. Yet the teacher is foist into having to draft an adroit response that avoids embarrassing the tot, while seamlessly maintaining control of the class. Black people recognize that look on Schwarzenegger’s face. The one where you’re pretending to be completely unfazed by an inappropriate comment, but your brain is actually running several doomsday scenarios at the speed of a supercomputer trying to figure out how to best keep the peace.

When I look for examples to share of how racism has been evidenced in my life, I don’t have a bevy of flagrant stories to titillate people with. Mine are more about how I’ve had to learn to effectively manage day-to-day in order to let white people know they needn’t feel uncomfortable or threatened  by me. It’s as mindless a navigation for me as driving a manual transmission (which I also do with great ease), so I haven’t really spent time cataloguing these instances.

A white girlfriend of mine explained the other day that “white people are absolutely ill-equipped to being uncomfortable. Everything about our upbringing is centered around making sure we are not making other people uncomfortable. Other people making us uncomfortable is considered incredibly rude and inconsiderate. Comfort is placed at such a high priority that anything else literally feels like an attack.”

I worked off and on as a live-in nanny for some years. I once lived with  a white, Harvard educated doctor. I was teaching her kids a new card game and I was way ahead. This prompted her oldest son to say “this must be some kind of affirmative action game and that explains why you’re winning.” I knew without having to look that the doctor, just a few feet behind me, was probably mortified. My reflex concern was how embarrassing this must be for her. I let it go without so much as a raised eyebrow. This leader of the pig-head tribe from Lord Of The Flies just made a race joke at my expense and the onus was on me not to discomfit the room.

And I knew that. That’s daily life in black America.

Without realizing it, that’s something I figured out on my own very early on. All successful black people have to. The 1994 book The Rage Of A Privileged Class: Why Are Middle Class Blacks Angry?, is all stories of high achieving black professionals whose satisfaction with their prosperity is tempered with frustration from the extra labor of not making white people too uncomfortable in order to get, and stay, where they are.

In the documentary film The Blackness Project, Buffalo, N.Y. mayor Byron Brown tells the story of being at an event on the campaign trail attended by all whites. A man said to His Honor “I’ve never voted for a nigger before, but I’m voting for you.” You can imagine the tension in the room as everyone awaited Brown’s reply. Like Arnold in our movie clip, Brown was probably running all the scenarios knowing that his response could end up front page news the next morning and cost him the vote of all the other white people in the city who could call a man a nigger and still claim with a straight face they haven’t an ounce of racism in them. Instead of correcting that man-when there was no question from any angle you look at it he was out of line-Brown knew that he had to find a way to not embarrass the man, not demean himself as a black man, and shield the rest of the room from experiencing any further discomfort. As if  driving a 5-speed manual, Brown gracefully downshifted into neutral and said “well thank you, sir, for your vote.” That’s every day being black and getting what we need in a white world.

All  black people must confront the quandary of white people’s discomfort as a factor in their  lives. Some, like me, do our homework and become PhD level aficionados. Champion “code switchers.” Others choose to hang mainly with other black people during their lunch hour at work or at school. They’re not out-and-out rejecting the company of whites. They’re just declaring for themselves a period of time in their day where they do not have to expend the energy to manage white people’s discomfort in order to have a relaxing moment.

Some of you are reading this and thinking “what does she mean ‘manage white people’s discomfort’?” You know when you’re in the kitchen baking a cake and your kids come in because they want to “help”? You want to encourage that spirit of participation so you say yes. During the whole time you have to watch every move they make so you can’t actually get anything done yourself, be sure they don’t cut themselves, explain things to them three times over, settle an argument over whose turn it is to run the mixer, say “good job!” with enthusiasm while actually re-doing each task yourself, and send all your phone calls to voicemail to return later when you’d otherwise have been relaxing with a light glass of riesling. In the end you’re twice as worn out, you have twice the clean up in the kitchen, and you know that you could have baked three cakes in half the time if you’d done it yourself. But the little darlings wanted to help so…..

That’s what having conversations about race is like when white people insist that blacks must make their comfort a necessary part of the proceedings. Making white people less uncomfortable around us takes up a heady chunk of our time and energy already in our daily lives like you’ll never be able to understand. Look, race is an uncomfortable topic. A black person willing to talk with you about it has already completely forfeited their own comfort all together. White people, we need you to be more willing to put aside your investment in your individual identities as “good people” to shoulder a greater portion of that discomfort with us if we’re ever going to get beyond just talking. In conversations with white people about race, even our progressive friends, a good ⅔ of our energy is dispensed towards just making sure you’re not too uncomfortable. Making sure that you understand that no one’s talking about you personally, or listening to you disqualify yourself from all other white people [“I marched in the 60’s”, “my black co-worker confirmed this”….]. That means that in a ninety minute conversation, only thirty minutes of it was spent saying anything that would truly move things forward. The other sixty minutes is spent setting you up so you don’t feel too personally attacked. It is exhausting.

At one of my nanny gigs, I turned that discomfort on its ear and decided to have a little devilish fun with it. The white family was hosting Thanksgiving dinner. I was so fully at ease in my non-threatening black role that the uncle started running his mouth. You know which uncle, the one from a few generations ago who lacks an updated racial conversation filter. He talked on and on about this or that “colored boy” who worked for his family when he was growing up and….well, you get the picture. Feigning politeness, I affixed  my most penetrating gaze on him, nodded, and listened intently, which encouraged him to keep talking. In reality, I was enjoying watching everyone else look like they wanted to crawl under a rock and die. I figured since none of them had the wherewithal to put this man in check (a courtesy I deserved since I too was an invited guest at this table), I’d just let them stew for a change in the discomfort of his uncouthness. Now that’s some PhD level maneuvering right there.

“Growth and comfort do not coexist.”   Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM

Published by Nanette D. Massey

Trying to help my white allies figure this whole "race" thing out.

One thought on “Comfortably Numb

  1. I like the quote by Ginni Rometty — we do need to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable so that we may grow, individually as well as a society.

    Liked by 1 person

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