Nomi On… Racism, Black Lives Matter, and Performative Activism

by Nomi Leasure

Dear Nomi,

I’ve been following your writing for a while and even attended Temple the same time as you. I hope you are well during these challenging times, especially as a woman of color. 

I’m writing to you because I was hoping the next piece you write can give me some guidance, because I’m angry and simply don’t know how to feel. I’m literally turning to all my resources to help me through this pain. When George Floyd was murdered, I was numb to it. It’s a coping strategy I made for myself to deal with the endless racism that occurs because people have always acted like they didn’t care when I expressed my pain about it, especially when it happened personally to me. Plus, it keeps occurring so I got to a point where I silenced myself and asked, “Why bother?” 

It wasn’t until #blackouttuesday and I read an article about Lea Michele that I became infuriated. There are people on social media posting about #BLM and offering to give advice on how to treat people of color, but have been guilty of intentionally/non-intentionally being racist. I know people can learn and grow, but it feels inauthentic. It makes me MAD and I’m usually the kind of person who lets things go. I hope you can write something that will find me peace and guidance. Your words have helped me in the past.

Best,

Diary of a Mad Black Woman

Dear Justifiably Mad Black Woman, 

Whiteness in America is like an ocean; a sucking, draining, riptide that weaves together ankles and crushes you in a confusion of violent swell, mocking futile attempts to catch a single, salty breath. The effort it takes to wrestle against the waves and keep your head above water drains every limb. Slowly pulled under. 

Then ocean calms, looks serene, but you are gone; nothing but foam and bubbles and an unbroken horizon. Whiteness in America exhausts you and then presents your paralysis as a submission; it feeds on your fight to survive, on your hope that help will come. Whiteness in America consumes the black body. It fatigues the black mind. 

As explained by Cord Jefferson: Imagine that every time a child is run over by a drunk driver you are asked to articulate why this is wrong. Imagine being asked to explain to the media and the public and your co-workers why this should not happen, why the driver should go to jail, why the child has a right to live. Imagine being expected to explain the essence of this very clear tragedy again and again and again and again. As Black people, we suffer the violence of our existence, and then face a world that demands we explain why we should expect to have any humanity in the first place. 

But we find the words, and they are simple and direct: I Am A Man; Black Lives Matter; Stop Killing Us. 

This is no natural existence. Not when your people have within the inheritance of their DNA the sweat and swing of days labor under the sun, building a nation of riches that masters the world; not when your people have within the inheritance of their DNA the first strum and whistle that birthed hundreds of years of song, and dance, and magic, and music; not when your people have inherited within their DNA the colorful chemical strands that have painted visions of new and brighter futures, worlds we sketch in our minds and then breathe into being.  

To feel anger in the face of injustice is to know your heart is beating with the might of God. To feel despair in the path of brutality is to know your soul cries with the voices of a thousand ancestors. To feel restless in the presence of tyranny is to know your spirit is on a course to direct a new vision of the future. 

Your feelings are your guidebook–they are letting you know that something is wrong, that you are witness to it, and that you must take action. Do not hide from these feelings. Lay them bare and let them unearth the parts of your life that no longer suit you. 

It sounds like there are people in your life who are invalidating your experience and manipulating you into suppressing your pain. Whatever their reasons for doing so, these are not people who should be taking up space in your life. We can choose the people we surround ourselves with, and the people we surround ourselves with have grave and great significance in the lives we lead. Community is where we find strength. The only people who should be in your life are the ones who love you unconditionally, and who grant you space to express the full range of who you are and how you feel. 

You have nothing to prove to these people in your life who do not understand or value your experience. They have a lot of work to do and a long road ahead; they must take up the mantle of racial education and self-expansion, and you must not tighten your heart and shrink your pain so that it may fit within their realm of reason. Your pain is big and your heart is stronger for the weight of it. 

You must find an outlet for your experience and voice. Our emotional worlds, especially the pain and confusion that accompanies being black in America, are too complicated and overwhelming for us to manage simply within our own minds. You mentioned that you are seeking out all of your support resources, and that is important. But listening to others is only half of the equation. What will allow this pain to pass through you, so that you may experience it and then channel it, will be to find some physical articulation of your soul. Maybe it’s writing, or singing, or dancing, or marching–but your emotional world is demanding a physical expression of itself. It is pounding against your insides. Let it out. 

Mark this time in your life with words. Carve your voice into this moment with pen and ink so that as we heal yours will be among the scars scratched into the fleshy layers of history reminding us that it took pain to bring about this prosperity. 

Sanctify this point in your life by imbuing it with meaning. Place yourself within the eternal context of this universe, feel that where you take your breath is but a flash in the pan, that you are here but briefly, that your life is a borrowed entity from the eternal, meant to witness the extraordinariness of a paradoxical existence; one that is aware of its own finality, its own self-awareness, its own capacity for love and peace, but then also pain and destruction. 

Choose to answer to your higher self. Let your anger turn to tears and let your tears cleanse this sickness we are infected with. Share your tears to others. 

I cry as I write this because I am desperate to believe we are better than this. We have to be. After everything history has taught us, we must learn eventually. We have to. I have to believe we are bigger than our worst instincts, that we have the ability to choose our higher selves and must eventually all be set on that course. I have to believe that it gets better. I have to know that my brothers and sisters will be safe. I refuse to believe that anyone can watch the life being snuffed out from a fellow human being and feel nothing. I know their hearts break, I know they do. And that they are just too afraid to also feel the pain we all have been feeling; too afraid to let in the horrors; trying too hard to keep reality at bay because they know the despair that awaits them once they acknowledge what they have long felt in their hearts is true! 

It will be necessary that you find a balance between transforming your emotions through some sort of outlet and allowing yourself the necessary comforts to regain and maintain your strength and sanity. To feel numb, as you mentioned, is a coping mechanism; an involuntary result of repetitive instances of violence, inaction, and then denial by the system that there is even anything wrong. We do not choose to fatigue our emotions, but out of preservation they do so without our consent. As we all have a role to play in this movement, know that you are able to contribute best when you have taken care of yourself. A centered mind and a well nourished and rested body are essential not only for everyday life, but for preparing oneself to be a constant contributor to this moment in time. 

Do not feel guilty for taking time to unplug. There are resources, like Rachel Cargle’s The Loveland Foundation that specialize in providing supportive resources for black women. Allow yourself moments of distraction and reminders of all that is joyful and beautiful in this single life we get to lead.

To your second point at the anger you feel towards people who are postering in their support of #BlackLivesMatter–yes, there will be people who are slow to join the movement, who do not hold in their hearts full and deliberate support, who are more concerned with image than with action. This is fundamentally wrong, and a frustration. 

Performative allyship has always been a thing, and no doubt will increase as Black Lives Matter cements this current protest movement into persistent messaging and action. While these people may frustrate us, and deserve to be called to account for their past regressions, ultimately we are not able to control anyone other than ourselves. 

There will be people who will seek to manipulate the current situation to their advantage, or to ride on the coattails of the work, pain, and oppression of others. But if at the end of the day we are creating an environment where more people are tuning in, are being exposed to points of view they may otherwise not be, or are feeling societal pressure to be on the right side of history we must allow this to be a small gain. 

I fear that we expect people to be perfect and infallible in their morals. There will be people who come to this movement with dirt under their fingernails, who perhaps do not have the cleanest track record. It will be hard to let them in, to move over so that they may march with us, but I feel that we must allow them to march with us. More bodies on the right side of history means more bodies on the right side of history. Period. 

This is our painful journey through love, to love. We are alive in this world to bear witness to its existence. We are here to slowly roll forward our evolution, to learn what it means to be a human drawing breath. There is no going back from this point. Know that you are exactly where you are meant to be. You are here, your heart is beating, you are mad, but you are so alive. 

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