I recognize that, even as a black, first generation American woman, I have privileges. I was born in the United States to English speaking parents, speak English as my first language with an indeterminate transatlantic accent, am cisgender, have been well educated, grew up in the suburbs mostly in a single family home, am straight, living in a smaller body in a society that is fatphobic, am not living with any known disability and believe that I have solid mental health. These are just a few amongst a slew of other privileges that I won’t itemize and that perhaps I am not fully aware of myself. I recognize that these advantages named and unnamed result in inequitable opportunities and outcomes often to my benefit and that I myself am not fully aware of the good or danger that they might bring me and others in the world.
My family is fortunate generally. My siblings and I have all had the opportunity to attend college and three of us hold advanced degrees. My mother, who has her doctorate, owns a successful small business, which has afforded us things like private school education, travel, exposure, and a summer house on the Cape near enough to the beach to be fun without costing a fortune in flood insurance.
That house has been a refuge for our family. We gather there without fail for the big American summer holidays, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day, and sometimes at Thanksgiving. My mother and stepfather go down nearly every weekend year round. We host our friends there. I held my son’s first birthday party in the backyard. It is a cherished space for all of us.
Our children understand the importance of this ritual, of us driving a mere two hours away to be together under one roof to laugh, swim and sunbathe, eat, argue, annoy each other, and to love one another relentlessly. We look forward to it with great seriousness, and take Memorial Day in particular as sacred.
The house and the memories it holds solidify our bonds and affirm our family having achieved some small portion of the American Dream — the pursuit of which brought my parents to the United States in the 1980s from the tiny, but culturally significant island of Jamaica.
The Cape is the vacation capital of our state, and gateway to the more affluent islands, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, where our favorite first family vacations each August. The house is a symbol of all of the opportunities my family has found in this country and of the hard work and dedication that were expended to meet them. It is also a promise of the bright prospects that the future might hold for us all here as new Americans. And yet, as much as I would like to shed the burden of knowing it, living in this country, even in the spaces I hold sacred, every so often, I am forced to remember that none of my privilege can protect me from racism or sexism.
One of my sisters, my sister-in-law, and I went out dancing while we were down on the Cape for a summer weekend in 2017. They are beautiful girls, brown skinned, like me, with crowns of curly deep black natural hair that they wear like halos. My sister-in-law who is afro-Puerto Rican, could be mistaken for one of my sisters, and often is. We are always delighted to be together, especially on the Cape.
Sometimes it feels like we are having a collective awakening. As we subconsciously curate them, our instagram timelines are flooded now also with women who look like us. Diverse women who look and feel like us are gaining increasing representation in media generally and there are smart black girls running for public office and tweeting in our voices and making movies and telling our stories in ways that feel authentic and real to us. We have the international treasures that are Michelle Obama, Meghan Markel, Tracee Ellis Ross, Stacey Abrams, Serena Williams, Issa Rae, Lupita Nyong’o, Ava DuVernay, Ayanna Pressley, and Danai Gurira and so many other superb black women known and unknown all living and breathing and being celebrated at the same time. We challenge or block out the noise that challenges their rights to be anything other than the beautiful human beings and powerhouses they are.
It feels so wonderful and magical to be a black woman during this time, even as we are simultaneously faced with the struggles of the world. We know that we cannot escape the increasing spotlight on and reality of police brutality, the humanitarian crisis at the border, and the terrifying shift in political power, the impact of which in 2017 we were just beginning to fully comprehend, that threatens our humanity and personhood and that of other marginalized people nearly constantly. We don’t have that type of privilege.
Still, around this time, I begin to relish two ideas. The first is that I do still want to have daughters in spite of it all, and the second is that like my ancestors before me, having daughters will be a form of personal resistance to the tyranny of the increasingly divisive national narrative.
Our brown-skin is often a stark contrast to the tan beach, the blue and white nautical décor, and the people on the Cape who are mostly white too, except for occasional fellow black vacationers and the Jamaicans migrants who come to the Cape and the islands on H2B work visas during the summer to fill jobs in the service industry.
My mother, whose Jamaican accent is still thick, rich and warm as roasted breadfruit after all these years in this country, might be mistaken for a migrant worker, but my siblings and I could not be. Like most first generation immigrants, we dress, talk, and move in American ways that are dead giveaways to any person born and raised in our ancestral home that we are different.
My generation occupies this half space. We are not white like a lot of the people who summer or live full time on the part of the Cape we visit, and not as Jamaican as the migrant workers whose presence has influenced local groceries to stock some of the familiar food from “back home,” that we love. Even so, once in a while a white person, vacationer or local, will ask one of us if we are here on a work visa.
When we go out on the Cape, people notice us. When we visit local music venues and bars, we dance freely having left our work waiting at work, and our children asleep at the house with their grandparents. We wear bright colorful prints, we request Beyoncé and Lizzo, we run into friends and acquaintances from home or past summers, we shake our voluminous hair, we take a million pictures, and we smile our earnest smiles and flood your instagram timelines. We feel entitled to all of it — to the air that we breathe, the space that we occupy, and the positive attention we garner. We are always so gratified and grateful to be alive and to have such sweet freedom born of the social and financial labor of our ancestors.
We never know for sure what catches the eyes of other people first, even though we suspect it is our brownness. We’ve grown used to this curious attention. We are friendly and love to laugh and talk with new people. Strangers, men and women, in passing say, “I love your hair!” or “what a great outfit!” We thank them graciously, and keep dancing, sometimes we open the circle to let someone in if they have good energy to dance and be joyful with us.
On the night in question, a group of guys who were renting a house nearby to where we were, approached us at a bar and started chatting with us in the way men do when they are interested in women. They came in a pack, all six of them in varying stages of drunkenness, forming a rapt semicircle around us. To echo the infamous last words of countless women who have later been made uncomfortable by ill-intentioned men, “they seemed nice enough.”
The three of us gregariously entertained them on the patio with our backs to the outside wall of the bar. They rapid fired harmless, but flirtatious questions at us. They handed us their phones and asked us to pick our favorite pictures from their instagram feeds. They asked to follow us on Snapchat, although we declined.
We found it odd when, as a complete non sequitur and apropos of nothing, one of them blurted out, “I own a boat.” We knew that he wanted to impress us, and so we giggled politely even though generally this sort of arrogant demonstrative financial announcement annoys us. I responded, “so does she,” raising my glass to point my drink at my sister in law, who also owns a boat to the apparent disappointment of the man who had said it. Perhaps we should have left then, but we stayed, expressing our knowing disapproval subtly to each other out of the sides of our eyes.
Playing along, we asked one of the men to describe himself. He replied confidently, “I’m white and successful. I own my own home,” as if any of this should have impressed us too. In this moment, the sound around us, the busy murmur of the bar, felt to me like it slowed and then stopped as if the room were suddenly and inexplicably submerged in a pool of water, the way it does when race enters a situation in a negative way. He was white, that much was fact, but that he strung it together in the short assured sentences along with the other things he thought might make him attractive to us troubled us.
We did that nonverbal look or nudge women who know each other well will do when we want to remove ourselves from the company of men. We made our excuses and readied ourselves to depart, but unfortunately the men, who we were growing increasingly suspicious of, wouldn’t ease up or open the circle. Our smiles faded. As women so often do, we had been trying to politely deescalate the situation by walking away in case one or all of them turned violent or more aggressive. We edged our way out of the rapidly drying bubble they had formed around us.
As they finally begrudgingly parted to let us pass, the one to whom I had been speaking most, the youngest, proceeded to tell us that he wants to replicate his “Aryan genes” and that he only dates blondes with blue eyes to “promote the Aryan race,” among other deplorable things. It was my sister in law who first found voice enough to challenge them. She turned around and said, “well, that was racist,” as we finally made our exit, safe phsyically, but scarred nonetheless. There are no police you can call when someone intends to insult you this way. If you are non-violent, you learn to engage up to the point you are no longer comfortable doing so and then to walk away.
We ignored their calls after us as we wound our way through the crowd back into the bar from the patio to collect my brother and then out the front door. I don’t know what else they said to us then. As I wonder why the night played out the way it did, my favorite quote from Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, rings in my ear: “I’m amazed by what women will do because they are afraid of being rude.” This includes enduring the company of insufferable men beyond the point of mutual enjoyment.
We knew exactly what this man’s intentions were. He futilely hoped to usurp our rejection brought upon by their own hostility by declaring, even after all of their enthralled swarming, that we were somehow undesirable for not being white. Perhaps if we had responded to his remarks in a way that indicated that he had hit a mark, that we were somehow hurt, he would have felt satisfied to feel the perverse balance of power that exists in favor of white men shift back in his favor. But instead, we didn’t flinch. We didn’t apologize. We held our heads high. We turned on our heels and we left, discussing the entire pathetic display on the car ride home.
We knew, as many women, especially women of color, reading this will know, that this was his version of the toxic let down insult that some men hurl at women who have rejected them. It may or may not have also reflected a deeper involvement or alignment with the neo-nazi or white supremacist movements that have been gaining traction in this country. Maybe that was what had drawn them to us in the first place. We didn’t care to find out and can make no excuses for the deplorable behavior.
For women, the turn on a dime from pursuit to insult is all too familiar. It is beyond simply bothersome; it is a standard tool in the arsenal of the patriarchy. The social expectation is that women will feel small when a man insults them in this way, but, not us. We had been raised too proud and self confidant by my little immigrant mother to take any comment a man of no inherent relation to us might make to heart. He had thrown a proverbial punch that we would never give him the privilege of acknowledging might have landed even if it stung, even if it had burned in our bellies.
His remarks and those like them are the perfect union of male supremacy, that often times rears its head as men attempting to insult a woman for not liking or choosing them, and white supremacy, the assertion that white genes and features are the paramount and most desirable of all. They intersected as they have countless times throughout the hundreds of years in which humans have distinguished themselves based on race, all because we had the gall to not be interested in continuing to speak to them.
When racists and sexists expose themselves, it gives me a free pass to expeditiously extricate them from my life and field of vision, and to challenge them forcefully when I feel it is safe to do so. It is gratifying in an aberrant and regrettable way, when a gnawing suspicion I have had about a person is proven true. I recognize that this ability to speak my mind and/or to exit scene when these revelations are made is a fairly modern privilege that can’t always be exercised.
Rejecting male advances has cost the lives of women regularly, and lately it seems especially black trans women. The “isms” that motivate this abhorrent behavior have resulted, historically and presently, in sexual and physical violence and the murder and mutilation of black and brown bodies across continents and centuries.
The race of the person launching the insult doesn’t matter as much as the race of the woman they intend to insult. White men aren’t the only ones who attempt to use our identities against us. Unfortunately, white women and men of color know how to and do pick at this sensitive spot too and occasionally, women of color, who have not escaped the hegemony and have internalized these messages, will use it as a weapon against one another. When it happens, regardless of the actor, it does not just uphold the patriarchy, as it does when such offense is enacted against white women, but also fortifies white supremacy.
We left because, while they did not hurt our feelings and could never reach their mark and degrade us as we are too assured of our worth for that, they had made us feel threatened enough to leave. We no longer felt safe. These exchanges happen over and over again, even in places that felt safe before. The Cape is our second or third home, depending on how you look at it, and I was saddened that we had been made to feel this way in what feels like our backyard. It’s not that I didn’t expect to have these insidious kinds of interactions there, it’s that I hoped that we wouldn’t ever and that we might always feel as at home there as we always have.
I love every inch of my brown body, every DNA shaped coil of hair, and every other feature that confirms my membership in the African diaspora. Still, when confronted with this type of assault, memories flood back to me that I would rather not contemplate extensively, a black man calling my mother a, “a black b*tch,” at the top of his voice and black women on reality television launching racially and sexually tinged missives against one another, undoubtedly encouraged by television producers. Old wounds that I believe to be scarred over and that I have spent a lifetime healing momentarily pang. Even as I am forced to remember, these things no longer touch my ego. I remember always that there is deeper part of me, beyond my ego, that “water cannot wet,” and that racism and sexism cannot reach.
No matter how these memories surge, I give no one, especially not someone whose validation I was never seeking, who attempts to use my race or gender against me the privilege of knowing how these comments might affect me in the moment. It would be too difficult to explain that what does hurt me is not what is said, but that we live in a world where my very identity, that would in a better world be innocuous, can be used as a tool against me to make other people feel empowered.
It saddens me that some men continue to feel freedom to exercise an ugly right that men, and white men in particular, seem to have in our world. If I’m not interested in a man or if I displease him in any way, he has the unjust right to insult me and to say sexist or racist things without consequence.
In my mind, this unwarranted and problematic privilege is the cornerstone of rape culture. It is one of the great burdens of black women’s lives, and women’s lives generally, that we must challenge it constantly, even in our own thoughts, deeds, and words. We may have a thousand privileges, access to the most beautiful beaches, the nicest clothes, and the best educations, but we don’t have the kind of privilege that allows us to ignore these things completely.
May we all be as brave as my sister in law and call it out when we see it and when it is safe to do so.