Dear White People,
This letter is not about Trayvon Martin. It is not about George Zimmerman. It’s not even about you. I want you to understand a little something about people like me.
I have lived most of my life with an unspoken expectation that my life will be, more or less, fair. I know this is an unreasonable, maybe juvenile assumption. Life is fair for no one, and the people who have shaped and molded my life have all carried with them serious legacies of social marginalization. So despite my quixotic sense of justice, I am very well versed on things that are unjust. I no longer need a reference handy to enter into a conversation about the economic disparities leveled on women, blacks, and LGBT members. I know all about the disparate prison sentences doled out to people of color, the disproportionately awful consequences of the housing crisis for POC, the historical imbalance of health research for women and POC, and the alarming rate of depression and abuse experienced by gay and trans youth. I don’t study these topics because I have to. It’s not my job to know more about these things than most. It’s my life.
So theoretically, I understand that a fair outcome is even less likely for an amalgam of quota potential like myself. I am a left-handed, adopted, black, androgynous, gay woman; contrary to society’s romanticization of uber-minority status, I have yet to receive any free gift from America for it. I am often left feeling isolated and uncomfortable in the average space. On relatively rare occasions, I am openly ostracized by complete strangers for doing nothing more than existing.
Despite all of that, I have never considered my story to be a particularly exceptional one, nor have I perceived myself to be exceptionally marginalized in anything other than appearances. I am educated. I am middle class. My life looks little like the bleak prospects assigned by sociologists to persons like me. Having a tiny bit of money has convinced me for most of my life that the charts and statistics that apply to my demographic markers do not apply to me. And most days, I live comfortably with that guise, even if I know in the back of my mind that it is factually incorrect.
See, very few people actually want to feel oppressed, whether or not they truly are. Blaming others for an individual misfortune here or there may be commonplace, but perpetual victimhood is not something a society’s people can sustain throughout a lifetime. Emotionally healthy people need to see their life outcomes as something they can control. So, like the many white strangers who would attribute my every shortcoming to personal failure or random chance, I work hard to convince myself that the outliers of my life are disconnected from the two immutable aspects of my being—what I look like, and who I am.
My cognitive dissonance stays woke. In college, when an old white coworker labeled me a thief to my face, threw a pastry at the back of my head, and I was subsequently fired for it…well, that was just tough luck. When a police officer threatened to arrest me for calmly asking him a question about a ticket during a routine traffic stop…well, that was just one bad cop. When another police officer in the Village threw my drink into the street and ordered me to throw it away under threat of arrest…well, it was just an isolated event. When my current job attempted to make an example of me by disciplining me in a fashion coworkers said they had never seen in the 20 years they had worked there, it had nothing to do with me, just poor management skills. No big deal.
Of course, these conflicts are not catastrophic, on their own. They don’t measure up to being lynched, or hosed down during protests, or placed in concentration camps. They aren’t horrible miscarriages of justice that would necessitate presidential intervention. They are tiny microaggressions, the likes of which can be shrugged off by a moderately self-confident, class-privileged person in singularity; but they are psychologically exhausting when you dodge them every day.
Last year, I went home and cried after a straight, white friend spent the entire night being vocally outraged every time I was ignored by a bartender or stared at by a patron. I cried, not because I was hurt by the actions of those strangers, but because I never before realized how effectively I have guarded my psyche from Otherness. I cried because it took me 26 years to open my eyes to my own reality. I had blinded myself into delusions of basic equality that an average passerby could see through in one night out with me.
When another human being shoves your status as an underclass directly into your face, so that you can no longer deny it, it breaks you down. A man followed and called the police on a black boy because all that was required to “fit the description” of a criminal was being a black stranger. A jury acquitted that man because his story of an unarmed black boy attacking someone, while being on the phone and running away from that same person, seemed reasonable to a jury of his peers. A jury ruled that black Otherness is lawful.
The death of Trayvon Martin has broken me down. His killer’s acquittal has broken me down further. It hurts.
In the face of all the cashiers, salespeople and waitresses attempting to instruct black people on the law, the bloggers accusing us of playing the race card, and the fervent non-racists pegging a complete stranger as a “thug” based on nothing more than his killer’s accusations and a few text messages, my girlfriend had to remind me yesterday that privilege is invisible to those who have it. By extension, people who are prejudiced know no better than to be so. And you know what? Y’all can have that this week. I don’t have the energy. All I ask in return is the same understanding for my despair.
– AJ “Ajene” Farrar
AJ has been working as an air traffic controller since 2009, after attending Old Dominion University and George Mason University as a journalism major. She currently lives in upstate New York.