The truth is that I don’t remember when I first felt this unnaturally natural feeling, but I remember the police vehicle cutting in front of me as I headed home one late Saturday night after a party years ago. I remember the gun in my 25-year-old face in that leafy Toronto neighbourhood. And I remember the officer feeling for my wallet as I stood somewhere between pissing myself and wanting to disappear. It took him five minutes to tell me I fit the description of a robber in the area, and a little less time to apologize. But I’ve been reliving that day and questioning my safety around white people ever since.
I’ve tried pretending this event was just an unfortunate, one-time circumstance. But over the past few months, I’ve felt more angry, thinking of the friend who called me an N-word when I was 11 years old, and the excuse he gave the following day: “It’s what my dad calls you.” Or the woman from three years ago who tossed me her keys in front of an upscale restaurant thinking I was an attendant. I started to list off other white people in my life—including people I’ve had relationships with—and realized that I quietly distrusted them all.
Across from me in a reclined seat, my Black therapist nodded as it all came back to me in a 30-minute rant. She knew that even after several years, there was a reason why I still remembered the cop and all the other ugly moments that led me to the following conclusion:
“I don’t trust white people.”
I nod back to her, because we both know that this distrust was inherited and may never completely go away.
I have obvious reasons to be suspicious of white people. After my experience, I don’t trust white cops with guns. I don’t trust white people with MAGA hats. And I don’t trust white people who vote in closed-off booths, knowing that while many of them claim to not be racist, they have no problem voting for a racist leader.
Blame it on the track record of white managers devaluing Black people financially. Canada’s 2016 census showed that visible minorities still only earned 81.2 percent of what white people earned in 2015. Or the fact that a white person can still call the cops in suspicion of Black people who are simply going about their day, despite the threat that those calls could end in violence or death.
The Pan-Africanist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois coined a version of what I’m going through as “double consciousness”—the feeling that Black people experience when one half of themselves adjusts to the judgments of white society. “An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts,” he wrote. “Two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
It’s in the assumption I usually make when I imagine white people using my skin to assume the worst things about me. According to my therapist, my skepticism is actually a normal feeling, and one of the more common complaints she’s received from her Black clients.
When I reached out to Dr. Monnica T. Williams, the director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities, she confirmed just how ordinary my wariness is.
“I worked with a Black woman who was also an enforcement officer who began to dislike all white people,” she said over the phone. “It was due to the abuses she continually saw levied against those who looked like her.” Another client of hers became distrustful of the white people in her life until it became a bit too complicated. “Her husband was white so, as you can guess, that became a problem.”
I couldn’t find a definitive consensus of how much trauma is related to racism. According to the National Academy of Sciences, it is possible to inherit mental illnesses through generations. In a separate study in 2015, Rachel Yehuda and her colleagues from Mount Sinai Hospital discovered that Holocaust survivors and their children showed evidence of methylation, a gene linked with stress. It implied that survivors’ trauma could possibly be passed onto their offspring.
When I asked Yehuda if this could be applied to the Black descendants of those who’ve experienced racism and Jim Crow-era transgressions, her answer was blunt: “I don’t see why the findings wouldn’t apply to all descendants of trauma, including slavery.”
It would be irrational to expect a rabbit to act normal in a den of foxes. And as my therapist informed me, it’s natural for me to feel fear around white folks who share the privileges of those who’ve dehumanized Blackness.
It’s impossible for me to ignore racism. It isn’t just the obvious dudes in a white hood or in the White House. It's the more insidious sort of racism that hides behind the veneer of seemingly well-meaning white folks who will praise Black people for being articulate with the suggestion that eloquence is some far-reaching intellectual hurdle for us, or the everyday purse clutching, let-me-cross-the-street thinking that assumes our guilt. Being surrounded by that endless possibility in the many white spaces I navigate only adds to my paranoia.
While I wish I could believe my Black skin didn’t exclude me from being granted the benefit of what’s good and innocent, all the evidence points to the contrary. What’s different now is that I’ve started to come to terms with it.
Two months after my first therapy session, I’m still performing my version of healing by putting it out there without feeling guilty. I know that the actions of some can never be confused for the actions of an entire race, that I can’t hold all white people responsible for the sins of their ancestors.
But they’re often still complicit and complacent, or worse, ignorant. They can afford to ignore their own prejudice, and that’s a privilege that I’ll never be afforded as a Black man living in this country. It's hard to trust people who, when the subject of race comes up, can claim to be colourblind or "not political.” Still, it falls on me to give those who realize their privilege a chance to be trusted, even if history makes that incredibly hard to do.
My literary idol and master essayist James Baldwin wrote in his 1963 book The Fire Next Time that the Negro couldn’t risk assuming that white people value their own humanity over the significance of their own skin colour. “This leads, imperceptibly but inevitably, to the state of mind in which, having long ago learned to expect the worst, one finds it very easy to believe the worst.”
As I headed to a recent morning therapy session, my eyes caught a white officer’s attention as I walked up a lonely Toronto sidewalk. With a deep breath, eyes relaxed and my back straightened, I rehearsed what I would do—move slowly, feel for my ID in the right pocket, be respectful—as he headed in my direction. I ignored the impulse to stare at his sidearm with discomfort and opted for a smile and nod. He smiled and nodded in return before passing me to inspect a parking metre, and it felt liberating and freeing. But I noticed that I was winded.
I had been holding my breath the entire time.
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