Relationships

How I Feel Right Now as a Black Woman

mural by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Last week was the longest week of my life…

As I sat on the couch paralyzed with anxiety, scrolling through photos of police officers with their guns pointed at children protesting with their parents, and pepper spraying non-violent protestors, a text came from my boyfriend’s mom: “Is Kim with you? Keep her safe.” Keep her safe. It struck me that I’d never viewed my Blackness as something worth keeping safe. It was always something people felt they had to work around, a discomfort, a challenge.

I grew up in a white suburb in Oklahoma, with a “very good school system” that somehow neglected to teach me about the Tulsa Race Massacre. It was the largest in our country’s history at that time, and had occurred not even 15 miles from where we sat, but it was only mentioned here and there. Black Oklahomans were told, “It’s our state’s shame. No one wants to address it,” and it sounded more and more like indifference the older I got.

I had mostly white friends growing up and I was always that person’s only Black friend, or one of two. There were a range of responses to this, but I found that a lot of them didn’t know what to do with me. When people aren’t used to you, or see your identity as an obstacle, things get reductive. I didn’t match the monolith they saw in the media, so they made up their minds of what I should be: “You’re like the whitest Black person I know!” “I always forget that you’re Black!” “You’re so cool, but if I ever tried to date a Black guy my parents would disown me!” In a friend group from just a few years ago, one person in particular couldn’t help but communicate with me through microaggressions shrouded in light-heartedness. “We need a category for Black people like you, Kim…it just doesn’t make sense that you like rock music and talk the way you do.” Sometimes I would even add to the punchline, to earn my presence with the group.

Last week as protests erupted across all 50 states, the immediate response to injustice astonished me. I couldn’t believe the swiftness with which white people not only acknowledged racism but repeated the words, “Black lives matter” — not just the message of “Equality for all” but an acknowledgment of systemic racism against Black people, and how it has damaged, degraded and killed us. A parade of well-meaning texts streamed through my phone: “What can I do?” “What should I read?” “What’s the best way to teach my children to be anti-racist?” Their reactions begged the question, “Why are you just now thinking about these things?”

I sat on the couch, caught between fits of anxiety and waves of fatigue. Leaving the apartment felt unsafe. Even our daily walks which I’d grown to cherish felt like too much of a risk. I thought of Ahmaud Arbery. My boyfriend Steve had already gone to a couple of protests and I wanted to join him, but my body’s instinct told me, “No. Stay here. Stay safe.” My resistance, it seemed, was to keep myself alive. Eat, wash my face, brush my teeth, drink water. I did what I felt I could from where I was. I posted on social media, shared my experiences, read as much of the news as I could stomach, then took a break. As I tried fruitlessly to lower my anxiety, Steve’s unrest bloomed as he sat on the couch next to me. I felt conflicted — I wanted to calm him, but needed to calm myself more. There was almost no getting around talking or thinking about it. It reminded me of right before quarantine when you couldn’t walk down the street without hearing someone talk about the “new Coronavirus.”

One night, I crumbled under the weight of feeling trapped — in my apartment, in my body. “This is too much,” I said sobbing into Steve’s shoulder. He didn’t sleep all night, while my exhausted body couldn’t help but fall into deep sleep until the next morning.

I’ve never witnessed this level of allyship and commitment to change before. Besides the hope I feel, I have reservations and questions. Why is it that Black people are now seen as people? Why is it so hard to believe us, even with visual proof? Even without it? Why were 11,000 people arrested last week, but not one of them any of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor? Why must Black people be extreme to be seen — murdered, a hashtag, a Tik Tok star, the first Black president? It seems like we are either unnoticed or we are larger than life — there is no designated space for being just human. We are people. We have stories and favorite memories and laughter and routines and plans for next weekend. Why is this up for debate?

When quarantine lifts, I will take the train to work, to a very rich, very white, “liberal” part of the city. Everyone who lives there probably voted for Obama — twice — and yet will still look at me like, “What are you doing here?” And just like every day before, I’ll fight for my sense of belonging, my humanity, my right to take up space. We’ve got some work to do.

P.S. Five Instagram accounts to follow and Allison Rhone’s beauty uniform.

(Photo and mural by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.)

  1. anne says...

    Thank you for sharing this <3 It makes me think of the "one black girl" in my High School [I'm from an Oklahoma-esque state] and all the little moments she must have endured. Very convicting – again, thank you.

  2. Kira says...

    Thank you for sharing!! I really enjoyed reading it, it has really opened my eyes as it really makes me think where before I just went on with my life without giving it much thought, thinking, well we aren’t racists in my home or upbringing, we read all the children’s books to my kids on slavery, treating others as equals, books on race etc but not going above and beyond as I should have. And I’m one of those that has those white people with ‘minority’ friends, going to see Oprah a few months ago with one of them. But now realizing how colorblind I really have been and how it should not be ‘now’ that we are doing anything about it, Why not before? :(

  3. d says...

    I am a white woman who found myself retelling the story in your first paragraph today to a friend. I came back to your essay after our call to share the whole thing with my friend. I wanted to say how this is lingering with me, your words, your experience. I’ve been thinking about it all week, the gift of your openness.

    I wish you well and hope that what we all build next is better.

  4. Charlie says...

    Kim, when I read this post, I feel so many things: ashamed and hopeful. First, I’m ashamed: when I hear you reflect on friends’ comments, I hear things I probably heard before and never contradicted. I wonder, “Did I say things like that in high school? Did my friends say those things?” The answer is probably yes.

    I also feel ashamed on behalf of myself and all white people: why is it that we are JUST NOW waking up, when these stories have been shared for a long time? Why are we just now marching with you? Why are we just now learning and educating ourselves? Learning about double consciousness, the tulsa massacre, black wall street, reading the new jim crow, etc. These aren’t things we should just now be learning because it’s trending, and we certainly shouldn’t be dependent on Black folks to be educating us, yet again, through pain and suffering. It’s not your responsibility to fix the systems others built.

    I would encourage other white folks to be very cautious not to view this as an opportunity to be an ally, or show solidarity or show our badge of liberal, woke-ness, but instead as a moment to educate ourselves where we are ignorant, and take responsibility where we have – individually and collectively – been an active part of this intentional, repressive, violent system that has benefitted us all so deeply, and does so every day.

    All that said, I do have hope. This change is too slow – too slow. And I feel that not only societally, but personally. But it’s happening. This is the first time white folks have marched actively, side by side in such large numbers. Stats show major shifts in how police brutality is finally being legitimized in the public’s eye. We’re educating ourselves on new options to heal and support society – like “Defunding the Police” – which really means investing in social services the police are ill-equipped to handle, like mental health support, fair housing, counselors in schools, education, etc.

    I was listening to Spotify today and this song came on, and it felt so aware of this moment in history that it brought me to tears: “It’s been a long, a long time coming. But I know, a change’s gonna come. Oh yes it is.”

  5. Amber says...

    Thank you for sharing Kim. I was wondering as well why people Only Now seem to notice that systematic racism has always been an issue. But I am glad to have opportunity to read more and learn more from voices that have previously been stifled.

  6. Amanda says...

    Resonating.

    I lived in Oklahoma to complete training for medical residency and was often the token friend. I received many of the same comments growing up in Texas. I look racially ambiguous and was often finding myself privy to racist conversations that likely would not have occurred in my presence if others were more aware.

    I also was flooded with those very same well intentioned text messages.
    Even if just a tiny bit, feeling understood like this helps to buffer this experience. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Emma says...

    Thank you so much for sharing this Kim. I really appreciate your honesty and vulnerability in this post.

  8. Enomhen says...

    Yes. The one solace I have found in this time of extreme darkness is women like Kim sharing their stories — which we very rarely hear — and which I relate to so eerily. Thank you for taking on the burden. It should NOT be our burden. Thank you.

  9. Jerrie Barham says...

    Thank you, Kim. I only met you once at the book store in Tulsa. I am your mother’s friend. I have always admired her so much and now I see she raised a wonderful daughter that is so precious in being able to communicate in a way to penetrate our hearts.

  10. Karen Lamoreaux says...

    Kim, this is outstanding. Thank you for writing and sharing your feelings. I have prayed often for your safety knowing you were in NY. It is so hard to believe you are all grown up and such a wonderful writer. I still want to think of you as that cute little girl that lit up the room with your smile. Stay safe, stay strong and know that I love you and pray for you.

  11. Lee says...

    Thank you so much for this, Kim. Your words will stay with me for a long time.

  12. Lynne says...

    Yes and yes! I can relate and I felt all those things and more.

  13. NN says...

    Thank you. THANK YOU. <3

  14. Olivia says...

    Your writing is a gift. Thank you for sharing it. In this moment, I see you and I hear you, but I and other non-black people have not always before. That is my fault, not yours. Yet you have suffered, not me. I am so sorry.

  15. Stacy says...

    Thank you, Kim.

  16. Stacie Martin says...

    Thank you for sharing. I see you. <3

  17. Tiffany says...

    Thank you for this Jo, this is so eye-opening.

    • Stacy says...

      “Sharing” this? Isn’t Kim is CoJ a staff member?

  18. Jamie says...

    11,000 people arrested and not one of them any of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor. Yes, yes, yes. Thank you for this article, Kim.

  19. SG says...

    I’ve been thinking about why this essay moved me so much, and I think it’s because it’s written from such a reflective, introspective position. It’s not written as a public address. It’s vulnerable. You share your questions without needing to offer answers. You’re thinking it out, thinking aloud, as many more privileged voices regularly have the opportunity to do in public. You’re not ‘doing the work’ of educating readers. You shouldn’t have to; I would say now it’s for the white staff writers to ‘do the work’.

    What is it like? It will change every week in these months to come. I would love to keep hear you as the expert on your (exquisite) inner world.

  20. OM says...

    Thank you Kim.

  21. Anna says...

    Thank you for sharing. I was born and raised in Stillwater – as a person of native ancestry – and I feel the need to mention that I am a Cherokee citizen, with both Cherokee and Chickasaw roll numbers – because I look white and really, for all intents and purposes AM WHITE – the issues in Oklahoma have always perplexed me. My dad and grandparents always took me to stomp dances and Cherokee Days in Tahlequah, and to Ada and Tisomingo for Chickasaw celebrations. But really, my great-grandparents were the last in our family to be to be actively discriminated against. That being said, it was important to my family that we knew where we came from, despite our economic status and apparent whiteness. I love Oklahoma so much and love the state history of the diversity and haven it became – temporarily – for Black and Jewish peoples, even if my own family settled there because they were forced to. I went to school in NY and an alum and federal judge (Vicki Miles-LaGrange) came to speak to us – she had grown up in OKC and returned there after law school. Someone asked her why she ever returned. She said that she’d rather deal with an OK redneck any day compared to an East Coast liberal. I haven’t lived in OK since 1999, but it has stayed with me through adulthood. That feeling of “at least I know exactly where they stand”. I’m not sure this comment has much of a point other than to say I’m listening and that while I did not and can not share your experience, I hear you. Oklahoma is a weird place. Have you read anything by Angie Debo? would love to hear your thoughts.