Palpatable Blackness

I am an “easy-to-digest” Black man.

Like bran flakes, I’m less often spit out by white people. I talk “white,” being the son of a white mother who grew up in an overwhelmingly white suburb of Denver. I’ve even had at least two white people tell me straight to my face, I’m “one of the good ones.”

This has brought me rage as much as guilt, guilt that I don’t regularly face as harsh realities under white supremacy as darker-skinned Black folks who talk “Black,” fit the more feared racial stereotypes, who uncomfortable white people find less easy to digest, and are most likely to be spit out and discard.

I moved to Portland six years ago while homeless, with plans to live with the friend who bought me a ticket here, plans that fell through. The first day I arrived, a mentally unstable woman in the streets called me a nigger, an almost comedic greeting arriving to a state with a history of explicit exclusion of Black people. I remained homeless for another 11 months as I worked to improve my mental and physical health and navigate the various resources available here to the houseless and low-income folks.

I learned during that time that while Black folks here represent a minority of the population in the city, they represent a proportionally larger share of the houseless population. While I did face a few other instances of explicit or subtle outright racism, I have no doubt now that my “palatable” presentation as “one of the good ones,” as well as having attended upper middle class public schools and having graduated from college, afforded me an easier time rising out of homelessness than a darker-skinned Black person who grew up low income, and with less advantageous education and community resources, may have.

The flip side of being “palpatable,” especially to older white folks, means I’m more worthy of ridicule or passive aggressive rejection by younger white people uncomfortable with any Black person who violates the stereotypes they grew up with about Black men being cool, nonchalant, “ghetto” or talking a certain way, who fit their Yo MTV Raps image of what a Black person is supposed to be.

On both sides of that coin I represent an uncomfortable reality within them, that either they’re only kind or tolerant of Black people who have moreso “assimilated,” or that their idea of what it means to be Black is so narrow they expect a constant minstrel show to play out around them. Either perception, to an individual with any inkling of empathy or compassion, would bring on a certain degree of shame, guilt, regret or at least friction within.

But of course white privilege means those feelings can be ignored and cornered off, either a palpatable Black like me brought into the circle of “the good blacks,” or fenced out of the small bullpen of the cultural stereotype they aspire to be, without the pain or stress that comes with having brown skin (or as Paul Mooney said on the Chappelle Show, “everybody wants to be a nigga, but nobody wants to be a nigga.”)

For the sake of my general mental health, I try to forgive and regard these individuals as small-minded and willfully ignorant, and not worth regularly stealing my time, energy or peace. But it is a persistent reality that seems to continue unchanged, and especially unchallenged by most white allies I have met because it’s so subtle, or would require more mental effort on their behalf than in which they want to invest, despite the Black Lives Matter sign in their yard.

This is why to some degree I respect the white woman who called me a nigger that early Portland morning, as I walked into the unknown, because there was no obfuscation about how she felt of my existence as a Black man. She saw my Blackness, and rejected it, no matter how I talked or presented. In a twisted way, such explicit racism makes me feel seen in ways other whites — especially those who “don’t see color” — view me. Further, we live in a culture where, had that woman not been on the lowest rung of the social ladder as a homeless person likely high on substances, would be immediately called out or “cancelled” on social media.

I don’t write this to seek pity, I do not feel I am a victim. But as a survivor of the constriction and searing heat of white supremacy, I can’t deny my rage, nor my grief, that I represent the limits of compassion of many white folks, who often eventually do spit me out once I challenge their racism or remark on larger systemic oppression that violates their small-minded political views.

This goes too for the white person who views me as a violation of the cool Black man expected to put on a perpetual minstrel show, that they couldn’t possibly be racist, or have Black friends, or dated a Black person, are poor, grew up around a lot of Black people, or attended a Black Lives Matter rally once. They can’t face that no matter how free of racism, or how much they’ve co-opted Black culture, they will never know what it is like to be Black, will always be white, and will always feel jealous of their stereotyped caricature of which I am a walking violation.

Both deny my full existence, and indeed the great global diversity of Blackness and the Black Diaspora, and they’re free to do so because of the silence of white allies, the persistent commodification of a narrow definition of “Blackness,” and societal privilege that allows them to look down upon all Black persons as separate, as a unit for sale (like their slave-owning ancestors), a meal to be enjoyed with just the right flavors, or spit out like an undercooked Panera meal.

In general I try to approach it all with humor. But that is also my privilege as a lighter-skinned, easier-to-digest Black man. I don’t carry the guilt of that like I used to, and with few exceptions, most Black people I have known and met have always reinforced and reminded me of my inherent Blackness, no matter how “white” I may present or see myself. I still have a lot of decolonization to do myself, ways I become aware of my own internalized white supremacy, sometimes fear reactions of other Black people, the stains of living and socializing so much with white people.

And that work, and speaking out against the deep oppression darker-skinned and more economically oppressed Black folks face, makes me less palpatable.

But I would rather be choked by the hand of uncomfortable whites than remain silent in the complacency and privilege I demand our society spit out.


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