Why I Smiled When Someone Called Me a "Bitch"
Art by Kirsten Hemrich
A (brief) introduction to the daily microaggressions faced by black people on campus
Earlier this semester, I was walking home from a dining hall. The light of the sun was still dancing on the sidewalk, in a tango with the darkness of emerging shadows. The bodies of students were distorted into inhuman shapes. I was with my roommate. Topic up for debate: racism and its subtle presence in our educational environment. This is a consistent theme in our interactions, but is that really a surprise? Two black women walking on the grounds of an institution built and maintained by the exploitation and contraction of black bodies.
You, a presumably intellectual reader attending our nationally recognized university, may be saying that racism isn’t campus-specific, that every location in America warrants a discussion on race. To that, I would agree. Every campus, city, and state is grounded in a historical narrative of white supremacy which directly causes the suppression of black autonomy and livelihood. UVA exemplifies and perpetuates our country’s illusion of racial tranquility (tranquil, ha!). As a black woman, I feel uneasy in every space of America. African Americans have no choice but to be aware of this reality constantly, everywhere.
The reason this university is exceptional is due to fact that these “Grounds” wear their historical racism as a badge of honor, with Thomas Jefferson as their mascot. And what of the “respected” Confederate memorials adjacent to a “graveyard” for a handful of black workers and enslaved people (or were they “slaves”?) on campus? (This “yard of graves” is really just a vacant plot of land with unmarked bodies lying underneath it. I regard it as I do the Atlantic ocean. Whenever I swim in it, a deep sense of malaise arises, as I think of the black bodies buried underneath it. The ocean is truly the largest unmarked gravesite of black bodies in the world.) All of us--not just some of us--at UVA must speak up about the swallowed history of the manipulation of people of color. White Americans have deflected the historical narrative of black pain due to their own discomfort, and this must end (Sorry white people! I know our society rests on your constant equanimity, but oh well). But I digress.
I regard it as I do the Atlantic ocean...the largest unmarked gravesite of black bodies in the world.
I was walking home in the sun. Within my field of perception, I saw two white, female bodies standing in the middle of the walkway. One of the girls was on her phone, while the other was standing to the left, staring off in the distance. I walked past the girl on her phone, and accidently bumped into her bag. In the next moment, I thought to turn and apologize, but I stopped. I heard a fragment of a sound escape her mouth: “*itch!” I thought about this expression, and realized that by no means was she in visible discomfort, as one would be if they were “itchy.” No, she said “bitch.” At this, a smile crept onto my face as I observed her distorted figure standing still, facing me, on the sidewalk. Her silhouette, a mass of darkness, contrasted the embrace of sunlight, to which I became consciously attuned. I smiled because this comment was an acknowledgement of my existence.
You see, this campus holds a light to tradition. A deeply seasoned culture exists at this university, one built on the emphasis of communal diction. One element of this culture, which I learned during my first week here, is that implicit racism prevails at this PWI (predominantly white university). Unbeknownst to those girls who stood sternly erected in the middle of the walkway, or to any other white person who casually walks by me en route to their classes, their resistance to move over and share these common spaces illustrates a systematic superiority complex ingrained into their very being, illustrated by their persistent belief in white privilege. There is an underlying rejection of my existence in the simple act of bumping my shoulder on the way to class. If you are white, and expect a person of color to move over for you, you are embodying the essence of white supremacy.
This is an institution that, yes, was built by slaves, and this was the “Grounds” for a white supremacy riot roughly a YEAR ago, to which the University’s response was less than satisfactory. I would think that attention to establishing safe spaces for people of color would be a priority, but this is not the case. Simply telling incoming students that “this is the most diverse class!” is not a cushion for casual microaggression. That laughable claim does nothing for me beyond inciting white peers to assume the only reason I am in this space is to achieve a quota. The myth of affirmative action, the practice of trying to “diversify” an educational setting but really just encouraging the constant awareness of race or cultural lines, thrives on this narrative.
While the overall student body engages in the unifying customs of the University (calling campus “Grounds,” oh how fun!), students of color must experience their own shared routines, which include dealing with the passive-aggressive white students who believe our academic stamina is inferior to theirs. This reinforces the erasure of the societal displacement of people of color, specifically African Americans. People of color have a disproportionate lack of access to resources, as they have been placed in communities with concentrated poverty and immobility. Those who do not live in these areas, the (usually) white students who execute microaggressions, accumulate advantages in different sectors of their lives. This is white privilege, which so many white students and white Americans seem to be blissfully ignorant of.
Would you rather be seen with a slight amount of disgust or not seen at all?
To all the white people I pass: access your privilege. Consider for a moment, instead of avoiding eye contact with every black person you pass, or simply ignoring their existence, that you look at them. Acknowledge our presence. Too often in America’s history, white people have simply ignored or forgotten the trials they have inflicted on people of color. This cultural “amnesia” has maintained a stasis in the state of relations between people of color and whites. Race relations in America have become an ouroboros through which we are continually revisiting past aggressions. The lack of recognition and justice offered to the brutalized and demonized black community produces generational racism.
The year 2011 marks the first time minority births outnumbered white births. Allow that to sink in. If you rely on demographics for safety and to assert your majority, realize that we are, in theory, closer to equals than not. A tutorial of communal etiquette such as HOW TO WALK PAST A PERSON OF COLOR 101 is in order. When you see a POC walking down the same sidewalk, move over slightly to the right. The other walker should do the same. This allows you both to address each other’s presence and fosters comfortable interactions among students. This is what contributes to the foundation of a community.
I know, I know, here I am, the sensitive black girl who’s the byproduct of Black Twitter culture and the #staywoke generation. I am, proudly so. Is it too much to ask that I be seen?
Is it too much that a generation of black Americans must reaffirm the fact that our lives actually do matter? The fact that I became excited to hear someone call me a “bitch” is a sign that black people must constantly reinforce their presence and visibility in a space. If I had not known better, I would have told my family about this incident over the phone, and expressed with grievance that if I had gone to a school in a bigger city or in New York, these events would not occur. My family would not have consoled me; instead my mother would have told me the obvious: these incidents can happen anywhere, as systematic disregard for black bodies has ensured that white people will overwhelmingly either address you with negativity or not at all. Would you rather be seen with a slight amount of disgust or not seen at all? I privately answered this question with a smirk as I walked home with my roommate on that sunny afternoon.
By Myka Gales-Greene
My name is Myka Greene and I am an aspiring filmmaker and writer from Richmond, VA. My work provides a narrative to marginalized voices, including but not limited to: women, people of color, people suffering from mental illness, and people in the LGBTQ+ community (basically anyone other than cisgender white men). I hope that the spaces and voices I create emphasize the crux of art - the assertion that no one is alone and that the human experience is shared.