On Being Black in America

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET
  • Carine Fabius Author, art dealer, museum curator and temporary body art pioneer

For a long time I have had the privilege of being black in America without serious repercussions. I've only been called nigger three times in my life. Once, when I was a kid, and jaywalked, inconveniencing some white guy. Some niggers never learn, he said. I knew it was a terrible insult, but it didn't destroy me, or anything. The second time was when a co-worker reported to me that one of the people in the office had referred to me as a nigger. When I confronted her, she apologized, sort of. She said she was pissed over how I'd screwed up on an assignment, and the conversation shifted to that incident instead of her use of the term. I knew her background. She is a white woman who grew up with plenty of black girls back in Philadelphia. I chose not to hate her for it. I don't consider her a friend by any means, but when we run into each other now and again, I'm happy to see her, and I wish her well, as I'm sure she does me. The third time was around five years ago. I was walking to a copy center in my neighborhood, when a drunk and homeless white man looked at me, and said out loud, Look at that; a nigger in a white neighborhood. That word has the impact of a tennis ball hurled at your chest full strength. Even though my memory generally sucks, I remember that incident. But, I also remember other unpleasant experiences--a near head-on collision with another car; being discarded like a rag by a guy I was in love with, etc.

The only time I was ever discriminated against was in 1994, on a business trip with my white husband in Atlanta, Georgia. During our time there, we were kicked out of our hotel for no apparent reason, and a car rental company refused to rent us a car. Both times, when we started to make a fuss, they reached for the phone to call the cops. In both instances, we chose to leave (and to never to go back to Atlanta). So, overall, I've had it pretty good in this country (I'm originally from Haiti). When something bad happens to me, I don't assume it's because of my race. Race does not play a huge factor in my life. I've always had friends of all stripes. I think of myself as a human being first, a woman, second; and black, third.

But, something changed recently, and it's been scratching at me. A half black man decided to run for president. When that happened, race became an on-the-table topic of conversation. When Jeremiah Wright's comments surfaced, the conversation took on a heightened pitch. When Obama made his famous "race" speech, the subject became the stuff of daily conversation. And then came Pennsylvania's primary results, where overwhelmingly, blacks voted one way, and whites another. Then came West Virginia, where, it was reported one guy told an Obama volunteer that ...they should hang that darkie. Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton brought up Bobby Kennedy's assassination as an example of how anything could happen before June! Call it wishful thinking blurted due to campaign fatigue; a Freudian slip; or, a fabulous example of what you'd have to call The Backfire Effect. (She's hoping the longer she stays in the race, the more likely it is he'll make some ghastly mistake.) Maybe all this talk about race and assassination is a good thing; but, right now, all I know is all this scratching's makin' me itch.