Written by Leesh.
Art by Alex Mckelley.
As my white peers’ social media feeds “return to normal” filled with couples kissing and brunch pictures, I am reminded that my existence is often presented as a learning tool for others, to be put away when boredom or fatigue arrives. This is true in classrooms, boardrooms, and funeral homes.
We are asked to perform, make the violence on our bodies a spectacle, in an attempt to grasp at others’ humanity.
Black individuals are required to bare our soul, reopen and expose our wounds, in order to evoke empathy from others. We are asked to perform, make the violence on our bodies a spectacle, in an attempt to grasp at others’ humanity. Black women especially are asked this — white people asking us to heighten their humanity, Black men asking us to lay bare for the collective good. We are forced to intellectualize our trauma and are scolded if we don’t smile and keep a low voice while we do so. My Blackness becomes only as valuable as it is usable to others. When I am no longer quiet, nice, or convenient enough, I am tossed aside and forgotten.
After each new devastating loss is documented and disseminated on social media, I work my way, again, nonlinearly, through five stages — denial, defeat, anger, acceptance, celebration. I feel alone and helpless – unable to imagine a day when we don’t have to see senseless lynchings force-fed to us or otherwise overlooked. Luckily, I am also reminded that we are strong and sacred; that my people have left a legacy of not only suffering but of triumph. I remind myself to steep in the richness of the art, soul, and love found in Black communities. My people were once enslaved, but they were also people who fought for their freedom, musicians that changed the field, and scholars and activists that revolutionized communities and nations. Regrettably, I’ve been taught that the value in learning this is not for myself, to feel comfortable in my own skin and grounded in our truths, but to help assure others that hey, we’re humans too.
I was regularly expected to speak for all Black people, all Black women, all people of color, all “other” people.
In college, I had a friend that embodied the demand on Black and brown people to explain ourselves and communities. Early on, she expressed a desire to “tackle white supremacy”. In reality, it felt like she had enrolled me as her personal tutor, her consciousness-raiser, her keeper. I was regularly expected to speak for all Black people, all Black women, all people of color, all “other” people. Black women are often looked to as moral compasses and saviors. And a lot of the time we show up and do this work, because there is the fear that if we don’t, who will? And so when I was called to task, I answered.
She just became an expert in her performance of an ally.
When she wanted to switch sides of the sidewalk when Black men were around, I explained. When she told me I was a natural at rugby because of my “athletic genes,” I explained. When she touched my hair without asking, I explained. When she didn’t understand why the police made me nervous, I explained. I explained, and explained and explained. I maintain that the words that barely slide down, the ones that cut like glass, leave grains between our teeth and make raw our throats, are the words that need to be swallowed. And so I continued to hoarsely speak, even when it didn’t seem to be heard. But she never seemed to learn anything besides certain words to avoid, or what coils she couldn’t undo. She just became an expert in her performance of an ally. Yet, she still thought that racism in America was an issue on both sides, and that if Black people could just be more patient, more kind, more giving, we’d be closer to the post-racial nation we were promised with Obama, or that sharing a violent video that we did not ask for was true allyship.
But when the taste leaves people’s lips, the inequality is forgotten and the rising empathy dissipates.
One day that friend came to me to say that she read an article about “the kind of discrimination that Black people experience”. “AND,” she said, “Black women are oppressed by Black men TOO.” She wanted to know if this, in my experience, was true. When I told her “yes, but,” she quickly responded, “I can’t believe Black people have been fighting against racism for so long and they still have so much to fix in their own communities”. She still wasn’t understanding. Additionally, when I told her what I had personally experienced, she wasn’t satisfied. It wasn’t until she read a “scholarly” article that she believed what was happening. Similarly, it is not until an undeniable video surfaces that some people begin to believe that we are being killed. Not until our problems leak into the mainstream, poisoning cups outside of our own, is it deemed toxic and undrinkable. But when the taste leaves people’s lips, the inequality is forgotten and the rising empathy dissipates.
I want our lives to matter, not just our passing.
A few weeks ago, every other white person’s story I saw mentioned the passing of a young Black man. Today I saw just two of those posts. Increasingly, the posts that “seek justice” are memes or tag lines, such as the various phrases followed by “arrest the cops who murdered Breonna Taylor.” These posts disparage the lives they say they fight for and are a product of the performance of empathy and allyship that has become normal, rather than deep, intentional unlearning and growth. We must understand that empathy that is conditional on outrageous brutality will not further liberation. Engagement that only goes as far as a witty rebuttal will not aid in the construction of a just future.
In the age of social media, the realities and limits of social activism are constantly transforming, and while the need to continue to speak up about the injustices we see and endure remains constant, the perpetuation of performative allyship is a futile and detrimental approach. I do not want my death to go viral. I seek Black outpourings of silliness, joy and community. I want to build coalitions over strength, not just suffering. I want our lives to matter, not just our passing.
About the Author
Leesh is a Black and Queer NYC based writer and researcher covering culture, politics, identity and wellness. Leesh published weekly essays on their newsletter, Silver Linings, (https://leesh.substack.com/). If you have the means and would like to support them, you can slide into their Venmo: @yeeshleesh or CashApp: $YeeshLeesh.