by Karléh Wilson
When Hurricane Katrina ravaged my town in Louisiana, I remember being hungry and sad and intensely self-aware. I remember going to the store and seeing empty shelves where food should have been. I remember going to a gas station at 9pm and standing in line as I waited to receive just one piece of chicken – which would be the first thing that I had eaten that day.
I remember not knowing whether my best friend was dead or alive for four days, and then being relieved when she and her dad walked into my driveway with just one loaf of bread to give us. I remember looking at that loaf of bread and knowing that it would have to feed my family of 5 for at least another few days.
Weeks later, I saw news coverage depicting Black people as criminals, “looting” stores for televisions and food. But I know I wasn’t the problem. The problem was the US population’s ravenous hunger for more images upon which to base their unfounded moral claims against Black people.
Over a decade later, here at Yale, I have to convince white adult men that I battle racism on this campus—these were administrators charged with my safety and success.
Some were humbly receptive to my pain and asked for ways that they could help to make this campus a safer, more inclusive environment. Others challenged my feelings and asked me to prove that racism was the cause of my pain.
When explaining the racism that I have endured on my track team to my head coach, he listened thoughtfully with reassuring nods and utterances of understanding. I described innumerable instances of being excluded by my teammates, and how they catalyzed specific acts of self-care that went misunderstood. My coach was still skeptical.
He asked me if I had ever wondered if perhaps, just maybe, the problem was me.
I said, yes of course! When a young and impressionable woman of color faces racism in covert forms, she looks inward. She starts to question her own values and wonder if maybe there is something inherently wrong with her. I am the problem in that my demand for dignity challenges an entire system’s understanding of humanity—one based on whiteness.
I did not want to explain the hours that I spent every day examining what was wrong with me, or what was different about me. Why didn’t I deserve friendship in its most basic form? Was I asking too much from my peers? Was there a general understanding of me as a person that everybody shared that I was not clued into? These are the personal, private doubts that haunt young women of color on this campus.
I gave my coach a fairytale-ending: I woke up one day and realized that there is nothing wrong with me. I expected my coach to be so happy for me. I thought that he understood that this breakthrough was a form of Black liberation—that he would be proud of me and say, “Wow, you are stronger than I thought.” Instead, he asked me if I was having a similar experience to a celebrity who can’t quite figure out if their friends are there just because they are famous or because they are actually a likable person.
I became upset. I realized that maybe I had said too much to this person, and began to regret being open and vulnerable with him. He eventually said that I seem to have acceptance issues. He encouraged me to seek emotional therapy to talk these issues out with a professional. I realized that my coach could not see me as I am because he was blinded by his implicit bias that I am just a person with a problem.
When it comes to racism, people of color are told that we are the ones with a problem. We’re an issue that politicians must deal with; we’re a controversy. “Racial issues” and “racial tensions” are viewed as moments we incite in reaction to something relatively small.
“But race is the child of racism, not the father,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates. Racism is the problem of white people. It is a reality they, not I, must work through and fix.
So yes, I have wondered constantly whether or not I am the problem. And that soul searching led me to realize that I am not to blame for the ignorance and lack of humility by people who are racist. The politician proposes policy changes and diversity initiatives, not knowing that what he first must do is change his mind.
People of color have a lot of problems to deal with—from misogyny to trauma to poor self-image. But racism is my former coach’s problem, it is CNN’s problem, it is Yale’s problem. It is not mine.