When I was a junior or senior in college, the theater department announced the next production to be “A Chorus Line”. My mother had been lying to me about my singing voice for so long that I believed I could win the starring role. So I auditioned for the main character, a sweet woman with a good work ethic. Instead I was cast as another major character – Sheila, the bitch.
My mother was right: I can indeed sing. But it’s not soft and elegant like Norah Jones, or high and flighty like Jackie Evancho. It’s deep and it sounds grounded, like it’s coming from the earth instead of the heavens. I didn’t want to be Sheila the bitch, but no one can deny it was a very natural fit.
I am Sheila in my relationship, the one who begins the fight and doubles down on my position. Brandon is the naïve, hardworking girl from a small town with a sweet disposition. He is much more prone to say a sentence or two, shrug his shoulders and drop it, whereas I rumble in the jungle. I fight and he flees. Both tactics have their own advantages and our unique personalities have complimented each other well up until now.
By the end of November, I’m willing to be the bitch for everyone. “Hey, over here! Look, I’m a bitch!” I would tell them. I’m willing to stand up on a soap box and scream out into the streets that I regret my decision to address a friend about comments I felt were inherently racist and troublesome if it means Brandon and I can be normal again. Because I miss my husband. I miss him so much. I miss his stomach and his laugh and his need of me.
Even though I feel spurred on in my spirit to continue speaking my truth, I give in and decide that the cost is too high. When I first spoke up about the comments that troubled me, I knew that it might mean losing this person as a friend – but I decided that at the end of the day a person who gets angry with you for correcting them on racism probably doesn’t have your best interest in mind anyway. I’m happy to have a conversation about the complexities of race and opportunity in this country, but if we have to go all the way back to square one and begin with “Do You Understand That Some of the Things Donald Trump Says Are Racist?” there is no hope for a real relationship. The gap is just too large.
So I send one more digital apology and I sincerely offer to meet in the park so we can walk and talk about what has taken place, rather than be forced into the awkwardness of a sit-down conversation. I do this because the friend always feels good at the park and this time, I want to put her on higher ground where she feels strong. I want her to be heard and perhaps the best way for that to happen is to help her find a voice.
Oh, how foolish of me. I could not have expected to be hurt more than I already was. The response was mostly focused on this person’s pain, their own reasons for thinking as they do – but at the very end do you know what it said?
It said (paraphrasing here): I am too scared to meet you alone in a park, or alone at all.
And I lost it. Not my temper, but my willingness to engage any longer. All of the apologizing and the tears and the fury at my husband’s unwillingness to protect me and for what?
Following that email, I dropped Sheila from my life. I am not the sum total of my anger, frustration or pain. I am a real person, experiencing real fear and uncertainty in my relationships and trying to make sense of that. I am caring and loving, but I am unwilling to be a part of anything tearing at my dignity.
For more than a year, we belonged to the same tribe. But today, no more. You cannot set us on the bookshelf, play with us when it’s convenient and then claim “fear for my safety” when it’s time to do the hard work and discuss real issues. We are not dolls.
I booked a therapy appointment not long afterwards, expecting my therapist to chastise me for giving up. I expected that my therapist would side with everyone but me, but she heard me – heard the genuine anguish that had been building up for weeks – and she said:
“Jasmine, you have experienced a micro-aggression. Micro-aggressions are the tiny, seemingly harmless words and phrases that people use to disguise their prejudices. They are not ok.”
So where does that leave me?
Am I supposed to go around defending myself, telling everyone “I experienced micro-aggressions!”? Do I run to our Pastor and have him pray the micro-aggressions away? Do I buy a tea that calms the nerves traumatized by micro-aggressions?
Brandon isn’t home when I get there. I can’t stand being alone in my own house on a day like today, being walled in like this, so I make plans to meet other like-minded folks at a bar. I call an Uber and I cry while on my way to meet them, right there in the back of that Toyota. I feel so awake and sober and numb in this really fresh, really cold air, driving down a busy city street.
The images outside of the window are blurred as we go flying by, making me a little dizzy when I think about the number of people who honestly believe this nation-wide division boils down to “politics”. Oh my friends and my former friends, it is so much more than that.
Suddenly, my driver slams on the brakes and I am in a reality more like slow motion on film. Like in the movies, I am both experiencing the sensation of moving and watching it happen simultaneously. I can see my hair floating in front of my face, can hear myself yelling out. My hands reach forward so I can brace myself. My instinct is to shield my face so I don’t see the horror of what is about to happen.
But somehow the driver avoids a tragedy. Everything is ok, we narrowly avoided an accident. From the empty front passenger seat he removes his arm. He was instinctively, unknowingly protecting his ghost passenger from danger, the way all parents do. We have a small laugh because we’re so relieved.
And it occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, part of growing older and learning what you’re made of is to go from being the child in need of protection to being the strong arm shielding someone weaker. Perhaps I am now old enough to watch over Black America to make sure she doesn’t crack her head wide open on the windshield.
Ok, I can do that.