My brother married a white woman. My family is not sure how this came to pass, seeing as all his girlfriends to that point, as far as we knew, had been Black. As a teenager, he was adamant about going to a Black high school (Central Peel, nicknamed Central Africa). He listened to Big Daddy Kane, Nas and Biggie Smalls on his Walkman so our mother couldn’t hear the swearing. He played basketball behind a Catholic school. He watched Fresh Prince and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. He wore his clothes baggy. His jeans sagged down his skinny butt. He kept his sneakers spotless with a toothbrush. Got a fade every two weeks at the cool barbershop, not the one for old men. He was casual about school, dropped courses, failed math once, took only what was essential to get into university. When the time came to apply, our mother pressed him to apply to York University in Toronto, my brother laid down the ultimatum that he was going to a Black college in America or no college at all. All of which is to say that he was a textbook of Black suburban adolescence, with ratios of swagger and resistance. So the family was perplexed when he called us a couple of years into his career to say that he was getting married to a white woman from Alabama.
Time passed. My brother and his wife had a daughter. They bought a house. They sold it. They relocated from Alabama to North Carolina, just outside of Charlotte. They bought another house. They had a son. Now you’re caught up.
One morning, my brother was driving his daughter to school. As they neared the school, it was clear that she had something on her mind. She reported that the day before, a girl had called her a n. What did the word signal about her? Why would this girl call her that? What should she do? The moment in childhood when one realizes that one is Black is profoundly disorienting. Internally, my niece had been knocked off balance and wanted to know if the limp would be permanent.
You’re hanging out in a hallway with a group of girls during recess. A few of you don’t have a phone so you take turns passing around the phone of a rat-faced girl. No one really likes her but she’s grown-up in a way that you all envy. And she has a phone. At the moment, you have her phone, but she wants it back. You shoulder her so you can keep scrolling through video suggestions of dance routines. The other girls huddle around you and the rat-faced girl, growing desperate to be at the center, says, You’re such a n. Now, your main pursuit for the last few minutes has been finding the best dance video for all the girls to imitate but this new element makes everyone look up from the screen to the impending confrontation between you and this girl. The girl has somehow managed to dethrone you with that word. Her word, everyone seems to know, trumps rat face, which you’ve called her behind her back. You’re ten. What is happening? What does Ratface have over you suddenly? How can you rally the other girls again? Why wasn’t Becky a n when she pushed Ratface down? You search for the difference between you and everyone else. You know all about differences. You bully and are bullied based on the differences between boy and girl, fat and thin, sickly and strong. You know about Black and white. But what’s new is that it could get singled out with such powerful, historical irrefutability? This has something to do with your dreadlocked father who drops you off. You are also aware that the rest of your concerns haven’t been diminished by the appearance of this new one. The bell will go and after recess you will have to convert an endless number of fractions to decimals. The day was supposed to be forgettable. Should you tell someone? You return to the sensation of the phone still in your hand. The sound of children’s voices reach you. Uniformed bodies storm the hallway.
Disorientation refers to the effect of racial encounters on racialized people, the whiplash of race that occurs while minding one’s business. It reminds you of your race, usually at a moment when your internal experience is not framed in racial terms, and reorders the pattern of one’s interactions around race. It disrupts your reality. It is enacted on you – it interrupts. It stalls the forward momentum of your life. You can’t prepare for disorientation. Try walking around in an armoured suit.
A quick survey of my bookshelf reveals most Black autobiographical narratives to have a moment of disorientation. The Black epiphany, if you will, becomes linked to a moment of formative racialization.
In 1757, writer Olaudah Equiano beholds a slave ship and white people for the first time; he is so disoriented that he thinks he has entered a spiritual dimension: ‘I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me.’ His words for disorientation are astonishment and terror, feelings that later settle into horror and anguish. His disorientation at seeing Black people chained together on the ship, at seeing the system of whiteness at work, is so overpowering that he faints ‘motionless on the deck’.
As a little boy in nineteenth century New England, W.E.B. Du Bois is disoriented when a tall, white girl rejects his calling card: ‘Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.’ For Du Bois, that moment of disorientation is sudden, clarifying, a ‘revelation [that] first burst upon one, all in a day’.
James Baldwin realizes at the age of five or six that ‘the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you’. Describing that ‘great shock’ in a speech later in life, he argues that we enter the world with a sense of equality until a moment or period of disorientation intervenes.
In West Baltimore, in 1986, a kid pulls a gun on Ta-Nehisi Coates. He goes home and realizes that other kids, those on TV, those in the suburbs, do not fear for their bodies. ‘I felt, but did not yet understand, the relation between that other world and me.’ His epiphany is of ‘a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty’.
In third grade, around the end of the 1980s, Ibram X. Kendi comes to understand that injustice or unfairness is not, in fact, arbitrary. He notices his white teacher ignore the hand of a shy Black girl, who has worked up the courage to participate, only to call on a favoured white student. He recalls his fury and her sadness. ‘I needed some time to think,’ he tells us.
The present. A girl calls my niece a n. My niece had heard the word n before in the very car where she told my brother about the incident. My brother enjoys his music. The word is integral to rap. It’s used in many ways. His daughter had asked about it. Why they keep saying that? My brother, I imagine, unwilling to give up his music in the erosion of middle-age, taught her about context – who says n, and, somewhat confusingly, why she shouldn’t.
My brother and I knew the word n before it was ever used on us. In Trinidad, children make decisions by singing:
Eeenie, meenie, minie, mo.
Catch a n by the toe.
When he ready, let him go.
Eenie, meenie, minie, mo
In Canada, kids sang a sanitized version involving a tiger. My brother and I looked at each other, surprised by their naiveté.
In all of the above cases, differences are amplified. In all cases, the disorientation that accompanies racial experiences marks an emerging awareness of white dominance, and a place for the Black person in the hierarchy of whiteness. In all cases, this awareness comes suddenly when one is unprepared to think of oneself in racial terms. In all cases, disorientation is the reaction to a somewhat violent action. It’s the violence of being born. Racialized people are born again into a system we do not choose to inherit. But, inevitably, we must be born.
No doubt, children often have an understanding of difference and race before a direct encounter with it. These moments of disorientation are not simply the introduction of a concept. These experiences recruit people into participating in the ordering system of whiteness, with or without their consent. Whether these experiences are, in fact, the first or the fiftieth incident is not important. The important thing is how significant these childhood experiences can be for people in restructuring their understanding of the world.
I’m going to say it and only this once. Nigger.
I have no way of conducting this study, but I suspect that most Black people have been called n at some point in their lives.
Most recently, in Colorado, I was called a n by a homeless Indigenous man because I didn’t give him money. I remember the 7-Eleven clearly, the corner, the direction I was walking, like the scene of an accident.
Years before, I went to a conference in San Antonio. There must have been a biker convention in town at the same time because I saw many large white men wearing altogether too much black leather in the lobby. After checking in, I entered an elevator with two such men. The doors closed and they continued a story about something. I don’t remember what. I only remember that n was thrown around altogether too much by one man. The other man’s job was mostly to snicker. They were at the back. I was facing the door with my luggage, counting the floors. It couldn’t have been a long time. At my floor, the doors opened and I got out. They continued their ascent.
On that same trip to San Antonio, when I was walking from my hotel to the conference venue, a similar thing happened. Behind me were two men, again talking about some n that I hoped wasn’t me. However I adjusted my gait, they seemed neither to speed up and pass nor to drop back and fall out of earshot. I remember there was a chain fence on my left, like for construction, and traffic on my right, and of course the men behind me. The only way I could escape was by moving forward. I definitely couldn’t even look back to acknowledge them or to investigate. I think I turned a corner as soon as I could, taking myself off route. I remember the feeling – as if I was suddenly in a dream – of being pursued by two men and the word n, which was not intended for me any more than a stray bullet is intended for its victim.
Now, on the surface, it seems like nothing big happened in San Antonio. If I told this story to a white friend, they’d say, What a bunch of racist idiots, and that would be that. They weren’t speaking to you. But my Black friends can extract from these incidents degrees of violence, that the words were intended to be overheard by me, that I was no match for the two men if I dared protest, that the men in the elevator had seen me punch in my floor number and turn in the direction of my room. Black people know that in a strange town where you need to buy meals and move around alone, that you begin to question your right to take up space, that your vigilance increases, that you should probably call someone back home and tell them what happened, just in case. And they understand too that you have a conference paper to give the next day in a room where you’re likely to be the only Black person. Your obligations to the world don’t stop despite its hostility to you.
James Baldwin writes about an experience in a Swiss village, where children shout Neger! Neger! as he walks down the street. Again, disorientation for him registers as shock: ‘It must be admitted that in the beginning I was far too shocked to have any real reaction.’ In the wake, he tries to be pleasant, posits excuses for the children, blames their ignorance, their curiosity, bleaches their motives. His benevolence to these children does not stop despite the pain they cause him.
I’ll put my own story next to my niece’s. I had buried this memory. In grade six, I unwillingly went with my brother to play basketball at a school gym one evening. It was a package deal with our parents: he could go if he took me along. My brother quickly found his friends and played half-court. I got a ball and was shooting alone, bored. I’m really no good at basketball. My errant ball interrupted a couple of kids who were playing one-on-one, and one of those kids called me a n. There. I was in middle school at the time. I don’t remember much else, except feeling like a loser who had a cool older brother and no friends of his own.
While my instincts tell me that most Black people have these kinds of verbally violent experiences, I want to know how many white people have used the word. And how? Did they call someone a n while in a city, out of earshot from their home? In the car while driving? At home, after a long day?
I’m extrapolating backward from the girl who called my niece a n to the household where she learned the word. I doubt she came from a family of KKK Grand Wizards. Maybe the word was thrown around in reference to a client or a colleague while venting the soap opera of the day at dinner. Maybe it was said about a friend’s Black boyfriend. The kid picked it up when her parents didn’t think she was listening. She also picked up how to leverage the word for one’s power and another person’s humiliation.
Of course, disorientation isn’t limited to the word n, neither is it restricted to childhood. For Black people, disorientation persists beyond an initial epiphany. Baldwin notes its progress over time: ‘The disaffection, the demoralization, and the gap between one person and another only on the basis of the color of their skin, begins there [in childhood] and accelerates – accelerates throughout a whole lifetime – to the present when you realize you’re thirty and are having a terrible time managing to trust your countrymen.’ Every racial encounter, while proceeding along the course of one’s day, is a psychic ambush, the evidence of which, until recently, is collected as accumulated experience rather than an archive of recordings for authentication by evidence seekers.
To re-establish equilibrium after the disorienting effects of racism, Black people develop a variety of strategies, some admittedly defensive. I’ve found myself evaluating racist incidents on a kind of scale, so I can decide which ones to drop, which to pursue. I sometimes sort anti-Black racism into major aggressions (violence, murder, vandalism), moderate aggressions (driving, suspicious looks, a slur), and microaggressions (jokes, mispronunciations). A moderate event can escalate into a major event; a major event may return years later as a microaggression. I don’t make these categories prescriptively at all, like zones on a fixed trauma scale. I’m just confessing how I’ve needed to get through some days.
Or I parse incidents somewhat grammatically. Sometimes I am the direct objects of an aggression (Colorado) and sometimes I am the indirect object (San Antonio). And sometimes the distance is more distant, such as when I hear reports of racism from others. If in the process of applying for a mortgage, a bank asks my friend to supply elaborate records of his finances, ‘to make sure the money’s clean’, I might classify that as a moderate aggression of which I am the indirect object since it did not happen to me (though, truthfully, something similar did). Then I can consider what kind of action is appropriate. Should one stomach it? Determine whether this is the policy for everyone? Find another lender?
Christina Sharpe writes about anti-Black racism as the weather or climate of our interactions. Whether we are in the rain or watching it through a window, we are always affected by racial weather. Learning about the death of a Black man to whom one bears no familial or personal relation can sink weeks of one’s life into grief. I was on Zoom panel around the time of one such murder. It was my birthday. The panel went fine. Actually, if I’m honest, it was painful. After the event, I immediately took off my sweaty shirt and lay on the couch. My partner took a photo of me, from the other side of the birthday flowers, slipping into a grave. Regardless of the magnitude of the event or its intended target or the metaphors we use to contain it, we can’t stop such an incident from having a highly disruptive effect on our emotions.
I can no more stop the disorienting effects of such events than I can opt out of weather or grammar. It’s not that I find race in everything but that race finds me.
Racial information comes my way every day. If I go a day without seeing a Black person, I question the city, my circle, my engagement with the world. I eat a piece of chocolate and remember a YouTube video where a Chinese woman asks a Black man, When you eat chocolate, how do you know where to stop? I see a white man with a sharp fade – when did that become stylish for them? If someone (white) on the next tennis court only addresses my partner but not me for the hour, I get thrown a little. I’m cleaning my condo for a viewing and wonder if the potential buyers will question the number of books by Black people on my shelves. Will they find one of my curled hairs on the tile and choose not to buy my condo?
Weather blows in from social media. A brown Muslim brother posts about anti-Black racism in caps. Google tries to be helpful by sending me news notifications. Interracial dating ads pop up in the margin. I’m getting rained on.
Do white people experience racial disorientation? Someone sent me a blog post by a white woman who got pulled over five times in one year while driving with her poodle. The first time, the officer unbuckled the holster of his gun as he approached her car. He shone his flashlight at her, at the dog, inspected her license, and notified her that he pulled her over because she was going three miles below the speed limit and was impeding traffic. No ticket. Four times, she was accused of the same violation: impeding traffic. No ticket. Because this kept happening, she got her speedometer checked. It was in working order. The fifth time, she was driving home from her sister’s house and a cop trailed her for a mile before pulling her over, although she was careful to obey the speed limit. Two officers approached. The one on the passenger side reached for his gun. They did the usual, took her license, shone their flashlights around, then told her she was going below the speed limit. The white woman did not get a ticket in any of these cases. Then, while having lunch with her father, a former neighbour interrupted the meal to tell her, ‘There’s a Black man stealing your van right now.’ And the pieces clicked. Her poodle. Silhouette. Afro. All the cops thought she had been driving with a Black man.
Since her poodle died, she has not been pulled over once.
Each time it happened, she was disoriented. She described the disorientation as ‘frustrating’. She couldn’t make sense of what was happening. Disorientation is emotional: ‘As a white woman, getting stopped by the police is scary.’ Disorientation is physical: ‘It makes my heart race and my stomach hurt. I’m sure a Black person’s fear and rage is a hundred times greater.’ Disorientation is mental: ‘There is the thought, “What if it’s not the real cops?”’
When I last checked, the post had 440 comments, with a smattering of white defensiveness. ‘This story sounds completely made up.’ Another poster: ‘If African American people do not want to be profiled, then clean up your image.’ Another: ‘this one person’s lived experience is not statistically relevant. Anecdotal evidence may or may not be an outlier’.
So, do white people get racially disoriented? It’s not usually a case of mistaken identity. It’s a case of racializing them. Calling them white. When they perceive their world slipping or their characters being maligned at a time when they don’t expect it, they become disoriented. You’ve heard of the diversity-workshop exercise of separating a room by eye colour, then treating the people with blue eyes harshly, relocating them to a corner, ignoring them. This exercise successfully makes a point about the arbitrariness of race and discrimination because of the disorientation it produces in people who are used not to being disadvantaged arbitrarily, people who are not accustomed to being unlucky.
Charlotte, North Carolina, where the situation with my niece went down, is the same place where in 1957 Dorothy Counts was one of the first Black students to enter a newly integrated school. Dorothy Counts was called n to her face by fellow teenagers, not as a way of testing the word’s power, but with a full awareness of its meaning. One day after the harassment of entering the school, she got sick. Understandably. Look at the famous photos of her and remember how much your teenaged self suffered over every social slight. I’m sure the white people in the background, taunting her, went on to become assistant managers, directors of communication, vice principals, etc., much like Nazi supporters after the war went on to have mundane middle-class lives.
Our present moment – of pandemic, of racial-justice protests – is a collective disorientation that challenges our prior assumptions about normalcy, safety and the status-quo. White people are finally disoriented by the ubiquity of evidence and cases of violence against Black people. These cases proliferate. But they’re also disoriented by how rapidly things seem to be changing. A white person had a job, said something racist, and, poof, the job was gone. That kind of disorientation is the crumbling of dominance, a kind of earthquake that leads to vertigo and collapse.
As I understand the story, my niece dealt with the issue herself. She told the girl, Don’t ever talk to me like that. But no one was punished. I don’t think the girl apologized. No solution would undo the disorientation. One girl tested a word on another. My niece tested a response. Together, at ten, they entered American politics.
 Injustice or unfairness is not, in fact, arbitrary. The concept of fairness assumes a system that is predictable and transparent. The issue is that we’ve been linking punishment to why rather than who. If instead of asking why Ted is being punished, one notes who is being punished, one will discover that who gets punished is extremely predictable even though the why might be arbitrary. Racial discrimination is both predictable (Black folks will be treated worse) and unpredictable (but not all the time, not explicitly, because we’re not supposed to be treated unfairly).
Image © Jan Zimmerli