A few months ago, while sitting on the floor in some obscure section of a local chain bookstore I frequently patronize, a friend and I — both African-American women — were approached by a white woman I can only assume was the manager. My friend was leaning against the shelf, reading a book she pulled. I had spread out the seven books I intended to purchase so I could get an Instagram story video. Four of those books were written by friends of mine and it was their release day. I wanted to celebrate them while still inside the store.
My celebration was cut short.
“Hi,” the woman said as she stood over us, literally looking down her nose. “You can’t sit back here. There are tables available on the other side of the store, and if those are full, there are benches.”
Looking back to that incident, I think about all the ways I could have responded. I could have flat out asked her what her problem was. I could have angrily asked her if she needed something. I could have traipsed on over to where my book (the book I’d written about this very type of microaggressive behavior) was prominently displayed on a table at the center of the store — a “New York Times Bestseller” sticker plastered across the top — grabbed the entire stack, smiled in her face and asked if I could sign them.
But no. It was fine, I guess. I smiled, apologized and told her we’d move.
And that would have been that had she not hovered over us until we’d gotten up and then followed us around the store until we checked out.
It’s a short journey from being seen as an inconvenient presence in a public place to being gunned down in the street by a cop who sees you as a “demon” instead of as a human being.
As I write this, I know there will be people who immediately say, “But that doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with race.” To them I say only this: Must be nice to stay asleep.
There’s this James Baldwin quote that I love: “To be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” And it’s so true: To be “woke,” to be even slightly aware of the way systemic racism and marginalization function in 21st-century America, is to be angry. Rage is what I felt when my friend and I were profiled and followed around the store like we were just itching to steal something (an experience black women and girls know all too well). Rage is what I felt at a different bookstore when I was asked to show ID to sign my own books, even though my picture was printed in the back. If I, a well-dressed and “articulate” New York Times best-selling author, am being treated like I’m not good enough to sit in a bookstore let alone to write a novel, the brown and black kids I write for are having these dehumanizing experiences too. In fact, for many of our young people of color, it’s much worse.
Rage is what I felt almost six years ago when I first heard about the death of a kid listening to loud music in a convenience store parking lot, and then rage again when a mistrial was initially declared on the murder count in the case. I felt rage when I heard a guy allegedly selling loose cigarettes had been choked to death by police — despite informing them that he couldn’t breathe. Rage when I heard a kid with a toy gun had been shot in a park. Rage when a woman wound up dead in a jail cell after a traffic stop. And of course there’s rage over the lack of indictments — let alone convictions — in most of the cases where a black American has lost his or her life at the hands of person supposedly paid to keep everyone safe.
But those are the obvious things. As we approach the four-year anniversary of Mike Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri, a murder — and subsequent failure to indict the murderer — that brought national attention to the type of rage James Baldwin was talking about as black folks took to the streets in televised protest, I can’t help but think about other moments that don’t result in nationwide protest but still stir this same rage. Things that make me wish I maybe weren’t so “woke”… that I could just go back to sleep.
Like the fact that a kid who murdered nine black people in cold blood during a church Bible study — after they invited him in, no less — was taken to Burger King and deemed “not problematic” after his arrest (he’d been on the run for 16 hours and was hungry apparently). Or that a private school’s first black valedictorian was mysteriously barred from giving a commencement speech. There’s the fact that a black graduate student had the cops called on her for falling asleep in a Yale dorm common room. That white news anchors expressed outrage over a black boy who worked his tail off and got into 20 colleges.
A white college student had the audacity to brag about criminally harassing her black roommate. A 10-year-old black boy wet his pants after being handcuffed for no reason in Chicago. A woman who was CEO of a cannabis company in the Bay Area called the cops on a little black girl selling bottles of water “without a permit”.
I could go on.
Put that rage to good use. Stand up, speak out, take to the streets. Things can change when we get angry enough.
To be black and #woke is to be aware that it’s a short journey from being seen as an inconvenient presence in a bookstore or a public park to being gunned down in the street by a cop who sees you as a “demon” instead of as a human being. It is to be constantly bombarded with evidence that you live in a country where, on sight alone, it’s assumed that you’re less civilized. Less capable. More dangerous. Less valuable.
A country where your life doesn’t matter.
And it’s infuriating.
So what do we do?
What does anyone who is truly woke — because even if you’re not “a negro” as Baldwin put it, if you’re conscious of the myriad forms of injustice faced daily by marginalized people in this country, you should feel the rage too — do with the fury said wokeness engenders?
For me the answer is to love a little harder. Be a little kinder. Live a little more mindfully. Be a little more intentional. Think a little more critically. Work a little more passionately. Walk with a little more empathy.
And stir up a little fuss. Put that rage to good use. Stand up, speak out, take to the streets. Things can change when we get angry enough. The prosecutor who failed to indict Mike Brown’s killer has just been replaced by a black man who promises criminal justice reform, largely thanks to the emotional response from the people of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. Point out the problems and keep them front and center where everyone can see them. Write books that address them.
Because while I don’t have the power to instantly move centuries-old mountains of injustice, I can speak out about the trauma — and rage — of being profiled in hopes that drawing attention to it will make people uncomfortable enough to check themselves, so maybe by the time that little kid hits adolescence, there’s less of a chance he’ll have similar experiences.
Sometimes — most of the time really — that’s enough to make being woke worthwhile.
It’s also enough to make me a little less angry.
Nic Stone is the New York Times best-selling author of Dear Martin and Odd One Out (out Oct. 9, 2018). Follow her on Twitter at @getnicced.