A few days ago, I went for a long walk in a nearby park. It’s a seemingly innocuous activity — trying to lose yourself in the wonder of nature — but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. From what I could see, I was the only Black person (hell, the only person of color) in the park, a fact I probably wouldn’t have been aware of if it weren’t for the piercing nature of strangers’ stares. Whether intentional or not, they were letting me know that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was an aberration, a glitch in the supposed racial homogeneity of outdoor recreation. With each passing stare, the muscles in my neck and back tightened until what was supposed to be a calming activity transformed into a source of stress. I was annoyed and scared, for good reason. Hate crimes have increased exponentially since election night. Flamboyant bigotry is all the rage (literally), all ostensibly in celebration of the values our president-elect represents. Who’s to say that those hostile stares wouldn’t have turned into something more physical? But, for me, there was something else at play. I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember and, ever since I moved to this country, I’ve had a difficult time dealing with my anxiety when confronted with the realities of white supremacy in America. Thanks to an interracial love that blossomed in an early-aughts internet-matchmaking chat room, my mom decided she and I would move from Kingston, Jamaica to northern rural Wisconsin when I was 10 years old. About a year before we emigrated, my anxiety was already invading my being until it felt like I was a helpless passenger within my own perception of the world around me. To assuage my concerns, many of the adults in my life told me that anxiety was based on fear and that fear wasn't real, even using the common self-help acronym for fear: False Evidence Appearing Real. I would repeat this to myself over and over again until I could identify where I ended and the anxiety began. I was starting to feel like I had control over my mind…until my mom and I moved to a small town where we were the only people of color. In fact, the last black family that lived in the area years before we arrived owned a convenience store 10 minutes away. Rumor has it that their store burned down “mysteriously.” F.E.A.R. didn’t work in this new environment. It wasn’t all in my head. People were staring at me. People were whispering things — mostly the N-word — behind my back. People were out to get me, like the boy from my white boyfriend’s school who drove 30 minutes to the nearest Taco Bell, bought their "Black Taco" Halloween special, drove 30 minutes back to school, and put said taco in my boyfriend’s locker with a note that said, “Eat this, bitch.” Normally, when I’ve told this story in the past, I’ve downplayed its sinistry with a joke — something to the effect of “Now that’s creative racism!” (I’m hilarious, I know). But I’m not doing that anymore, not in Trump’s America.
There's something to be said for how taxing it is on the mind and body to have 'otherness' relentlessly heaved upon you.
For eight years, the white people in my small Wisconsin town gave me daily reminders that, to them, I was the Other. Being ill at ease was the norm throughout my formative years. There's something to be said for how taxing it is on the mind and body to have “otherness” relentlessly heaved upon you. And, in the absence of safe spaces and the restorative spirit of community, it can siphon you of your soul until you don’t even recognize who you are anymore. Researcher and psychologist Monnica T. Williams, PhD, links the psychological toll of racism to PTSD, delving into its omnipresence in a 2015 Psychology Today blog post where she writes, “It’s important to understand that race-based stress and trauma extends beyond the direct behaviors of prejudiced individuals. We are surrounded by constant reminders that race-related danger can occur at any time, anywhere, to anyone.” It’s that uneasiness I felt in the park when confronted with the fact that many people who look like me have been killed while doing just about anything, anywhere. And for those of us who have general anxiety on top of encountering racial hostility, we’re experiencing a unique sandwich of apprehensiveness. Anxiety, squared, if you will. Because of rising exhibitions of racial hate, some Muslim women are afraid of wearing the hijab in public, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many people of color have been staying in more or staying in completely. And it’s not like white supremacy just started showing its true colors when Trump became president-elect, but there’s definitely a heightened danger now. Senior Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj said it best: “It used to be when I walked on a plane, I could feel the stares and suspicion, and it sucked. But at least I knew the president of the United States had my back… But now, that asshole in seat 21B, calling the flight attendant, trying to get me thrown off the plane, now that guy is the president.” During my walk I put in my earphones, increasing the volume of my music until Thelonious Monk’s rapturous playing brought me to a place where I could tune out those strangers’ stares. I only took the earphones out when I reached the point in the park where I was alone, with only the fall leaves and the low gurgles of a nearby river to keep me company. For a moment, my shoulders relaxed, and I simply existed without the burden of anticipating racial hostility. I smiled for the first time since entering the park. Then, seeing the time, I turned around to walk in the direction I came from, earphones in my ears, music at a high volume, back to reality.