It was my first year in middle school when I found it – the list of swears. It was scrawled into the side of the wall on the school bus. The end of the k in f*ck had trailed off— the marker writing had melted. As I studied each word, I realized I had learned all of them before – stolen each of them away from my parents or the older neighbors with such quietness that it was unknown to even myself. Then emerged a new awareness as I read the N-word at the very bottom. Slurs were a different breed of word. Reading one felt as if I were doing something wrong.
Being White, I know there is a lifestyle in being a person of color that I will never understand. I only seem to recognize things as they are pointed out to me, the way a child might see the world; I see flits of this lifestyle and of prejudice in movies and books, but to call myself fully aware would be an overstatement. It’s easy to digest in these forms because I am not a part of the conversation. It’s easy to close a book, turn off the television, and resolve that racism is, in fact, bad. It’s easy to read because it’s private – quiet.
I’m reminded of my mother and her secret cigarettes, shrouded in a comfortable smoke. Though I might condemn her, I’m not one to talk. I’ve learned to regard the subject of race and Black people with fear – whether it be of them or of what they represent – in a self-perpetuating cycle of shame due to fear and fear due to shame. I find myself in a state of unrest when talking to a Black person because I am afraid I will unleash a river of slurs and bigotry that has been rippling below, as if there is something churning in the dark that I have yet to confront. Put simply, if I were stripped of everything that I am – my aspirations, my anxieties, a full ego death – I am afraid I would turn out to be a cigarette-smoking, sailor-swearing, racist fanatic who has dinner with your grandfather and brandishes the Hard-R as easily as if it were a gun in my holster, as if that were what I was born to do. But this image goes to the extreme, because I know, even now, I am trying to absolve myself of guilt. To make myself smaller.
I know I benefit from White privilege. I know I have biases. I know I’m not innocent. I learned to swear in such a way that I didn’t realize I had learned to swear until it was pointed out to me – lit ablaze – so who’s to say I haven’t learned prejudice as well? Who’s to say I haven’t turned a blind eye out of laziness? When reading James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, I couldn’t help but see myself in the waitress at the diner – We don’t serve Negroes here. I watched her twiddle the notepad with this trembling, ugly fear, the same way I might flip through paragraphs of prejudice, fidgeting with that same awkwardness that makes me want to swear. F*ck. When Baldwin described – in intimate detail – his plan to strike her, to shatter her like the water mug, I realized I was cheering him on because I wanted her to hurt.
The red Expo marker of the k crept down the wall of the bus like I imagine the blood of the waitress, pooling neatly around her eyes and her cheeks. I scrubbed it away with an innate persistence and the tools that were available to me: my fingers and sweat. I remember feeling pride, as if order had been restored – as if it were a pivotal moment of survival. As if I had stood up against the extremists of the world with a loudness that they could not ignore. As if all of that shame and fear and bigotry had been contained to a mere smudge