Keep Calm, It's Just Melanin, Part 1 by Kyle Phoenix

                 I’ve written a lot about race.  Examining it and sexuality as two sides of an identity coin as I try to make sense of two categorizations that to the audience say everything about a person but to that person, the subject, reveal very little.  I live and work on the island of Manhattan, moving through millions of people every day who fall into such myriadical categories that I have a hard time sometimes discerning what language, much less dialect of that language is occurring next to me.  As I try to mature my work, through reading and research and talking to people, I find myself torn.  Torn between the concept of racial solidarity and human evolution.  I know that both exist but I suppose I want validation form the world, or definition from the world that one is a road trip to the other.

                While teaching I am often challenged by either the topic or sometimes even the students to define race or two give a back story to it.  If I’m teaching about the Cuban Revolution then I have to define some aspects of the culture, the relationship to Western powers, what it means to be Latino, where the concept of Latino came from.  If I teach about the Haitian Revolution then I have to answer the classifications and injustices that sparked off such a vicious and lengthy struggle for liberation from the French, English and Dutch empires.  I’m literally forced to explain what I can only personally perceive as insanity. 
                By insanity I mean the lining up of people, in America, and based upon 4 arbitrary characteristics (lips, hair, nose and amount of melanin) creating a whole social system with deep stratifications.  Daily I watch the world around me revolving, pushing against, struggling with, railing at these arbitrary assignments.  Whether it’s young people routinely, and loudly, calling each other nigga or Black and Latino people attributing racial bias to everything that occurs negatively from someone who we would consider White, I see the roiling manifestation of this insanity.  While we’re able to track overt racism and the impact it has on individuals in terms of violence or the prison system or employment ias, I often look at the softer, deeper impacts.  Simply the stress of constantly carrying race as a burden, as a targeting system, as a weapon---whatever classification, Asian, White, Black, etc. you might fall into.  I remember when I was a teenager and I was experimenting with writing, figuring out plots and characters to explore, stories to invent and situations to imagine when race became an obstacle for me.  I’d written a ten notebook opus, The Hemmingways, a twisted ode to shows like Dynasty and Knots Landing and soap operas like One Life To Live.  As an exercise I can say that good parts were in the doing, trying out language and how to describe everything from clothes to the look of a room.  How to build and hold tension.  All the aerobics a young writer needs to go through with.  Suddenly I was confronted within my handwritten script by some characters being White, some Black, some Latino, a couple Asian and what did that mean?  I’d found that characters could attack each other and suddenly racial epithets became available but by their use I had to deal with the fact that meant that my characters, in their bubble micro-verse, had carried in racism.  And if they’d carried in racializing others then what did that mean for their characters?  Suddenly I was further confronted with the fact that I hadn’t done a very thorough job of dealing with race and the situations I was proposing in my fictitious world.  Okay, I thought and continued plotting and designing lives and plots and soon I realized that every time I introduced a character, race was either assumed or had to be explicitly stated.  By that I mean suddenly my characters seemed all White unless I said they weren’t.  And if they weren’t White (or worse if they were) I suddenly had to deal with race.  I found that I couldn’t have a multi-ethnic cast of characters without dealing with race.

                The game over the years in my writing has become when designing a character to consider his or her race and then build a character appropriately.  But if I build them and they don’t fall into White then part of their inherent existence is dealing with race.  I then found that this translated off of the page as well, suddenly I too was conscious of dealing with race, experience race, considering race or purposefully not considering it, shutting off my racial barometer.  It’s possible but difficult.  In fact I wouldn’t call the shutting so much of off as a hypersensitivity to seeing people, seeing the potential for racial classification and trying to experience them beyond it.  For instance, young people, in their early twenties and below, especially women, I’ve noticed, are loud in public and on the train.  When I glance over I have to upbraid myself for racializing that general observation.  Often it’s Black or Latino people but sometimes it’s White ones too.  But I have to catch myself. I have to edit the idea that it’s just Blacks and Latinos.  That the Blacks and Latinos are loud because they’re Black and Latino.  I also notice that White people get negated, are treated like a necessary evil, pushed to the background of reality like white noise or static, unless I have a personal relationship with them.  Is that what they do to people who aren’t White, I wonder?

                I spend a lot of time forgiving people nowadays.  It has a lot to do with understanding that race is a social construct and to my thinking an unclassified mental illness/delusion.  The delusion swings both ways though.  Recently with an invitation form a friend, I started attending a book club.  A Black book club.  She’d mentioned reading some interesting fiction and I thought it was going to go there, that it was going to be more fun fiction rather than the intense non-fiction discourse it became.  It happened right around my own school break from being a student and teaching so I had some mental hard drive space to do some really critical thinking about a text.  What discovered was that we could all agree that we were looking at the world but often times there was a racial prism that we saw through and that prism deposited us in only two possible spaces---us vs. them.  The them were the enemy, the enemy was White people.  Don’t get me wrong there were places and spaces socially and historically where we were reading about overt racism and prejudice but when we rounded ourselves up to the 21st century, I found a distinct lack of cogent thought.  I found myself throwing out a challenge to the anger and frustration and mental desire to rearrange reality with White people, I challenged the group: What do we want?  What do we really want?  Do we want to create systems and structures or recompense that is the equivalent of prejudice against White people?  Is that the greatest, deepest lesson we’ve collectively learned from oppression?  To be prejudiced?  Did we want to change White people or did we want to become them?

                On the intellectual surface the questions seem salient, even incisive but in the group they became incendiary.  Why?  Over the years of doing workshops and teaching classes and being in classes, I’ve learned that people exist on two wavelengths at the exact same time.  They believe things which they don’t believe.  Or their deeply held beliefs that they use to construct their identity, don’t make sense, aren’t fruitful nor empowering but are viciously defended.  The answers to shifting social power to how to dismantle oppressive structures disintegrated to “…let me tell you how wrong they (White people) are today…”. It became a sort of victims topping game where seething anger and frustration was levelled at anyone who wasn’t seething and frustrated.  I’d hoped to not be in such an arena where I had to defend radical and progressive thinking (that somehow in spite of a truly disturbed and entangled history, we must find a way to dismantle this social delusion for the betterment of all humans) that it wasn’t aligning to White people or just as bad, denying Black people.  But any questioning or non-militant stance or seeking to evolve is often seen by Black people as collaboration, as if there are only two modalities within race.  We’ve adopted the oppressors concept of anything that questions the system is inherently opposed to it and therefore villainous and anyone that doesn’t vehemently deride the  ”other” group is a collaborator with them and a “race traitor”.

                Ironically we’ve learned such tactics and perceptions from the very oppressors we label as oppressors.  We’ve found the enemy and he is us.
                I wish I could tell you that it got better within the book club, it didn’t.  In fact, I watched as others fell out of the group for extremist reasons.  They felt the rhetoric was too extreme or more interestingly some felt it wasn’t’ extreme enough.  But a consensus amongst the people who left was that we were going around in intellectual circles, we were textually revisiting a closed past, we weren’t learning new skills to deal with the oppressive system we found ourselves in at varying levels, we weren’t sharing personal strategies and networking.  We were commiserating and definitively placing blame.  I bring this inclusively full circle to sexuality because I’ve been in groups that did the same but that notably in Black mixed sexuality groups, non-heterosexuality bias/homophobia and misogyny/patriarchy eases it’s way in, nibbles at the edges, offers to become a rallying cry or a standard.

                White people don’t know completely what racism is because they project it but don’t always experience it.

                People who aren’t designated as White think they know accurately what racism and prejudice are and use the value of their being racialized as a measurement of their ability to identify the bias.  “White people label me Black therefore I know what prejudice is.”
                But do we?

                Case in point.  I sit typing in a classroom on the Columbia University campus on a snowy day.  I have a few haunts on campus, buildings where I know classes are over, closer to food spots, closer to the train, that I frequent for my long sessions of editing and typing.  The system here is that if a classroom is free a singular person or during finals sometimes small groups acquire classrooms but if you want it definitely exclusively to yourself, you have to reserve it.  Everyone is trumped by an incoming class.  On this snowy day after three hours of typing, sitting in a hard wooden chair and having pulled a muscle slipping and sliding in the snow, I laid out on the carpeted floor, just to pull my back muscles, to relax them in something other than this crunch I’m in in the seat.  I even found it was warm on the floor by the gentle heating system and I could read by the floro level windows or glance out and muse on passing students.
            Then two officers arrived.
Was I okay?
Was I a student?
Yes.  And an employee.
            The public safety officers left. 
            Now when I thought about it I wondered had someone spied me through the frosted glass door in this 16-person (pretty small) classroom by myself for the past few hours?  Had they see me lay down and stretch?  Were they concerned I was having a heart attack?  Or was I just a Black man not doing what Blakc men are supposed to do?  The public safety officers were both Black, male and female, and earlier a Latina maintenance worker stopped in, checking to see if she had to clean.  Suddenly I’ve become racially alert or self-conscious.  Have I don’t something wrong?  Did a passing White person think I was out of pocket in my actions?  What can I do or not do besides sit and type?  AM I under video surveillance in the classroom?
           Now here’s the rub.  I sure as hell know and notice that the White kids ain’t thinking this deeply about the whole situation.  In face when confronted with these racial-maybe situations I imagine myself “White” to check reality without my sense of Black identity and all the suspicion that goes with it.  (Harshly I want to get one of those shirts that’s says Keep Calm and add…It’s Just Melanin.  Or Keep Clam I won’t Be Raping You Today.  Or Keep Calm, I Won’t Be Asking for Money.)   Aside from my dark thought digression what I do see is that I regularly tour through about three different buildings, on various floors, midterms and finals increasing my visitations, to get blocks of time to work in relative quiet, in a safe, clean environment.  But race, the social delusion can make me crumple into either a frothing Black warrior wronged by the invisible White gaze siccing the Black proletariat workers on me, their brother!  Or Herbert Marcuse’s thoughts about the societal subject taking on the internalized paranoia of the “being watched by Big Brother” stance whenever challenged so as to self police.  Or suddenly uncomfortable in a room I’ve been coming to for years, when it’s free and have gotten an immense amount of work done.

                What if, as I think about, as has happened in the past, they were just doing a routine touring of the building, saw my stuff on the table---laptop, books, Pepsi, coat and wondered where I was?  What if they were checking on me to make sure I hadn’t had a heart attack or some sort of genius mental stroke out? 

                Has race gone so deeply into our collective psyche that one has to literally sit back and do a five-minute critical self-analysis to figure out reality?  And what becomes of those who can’t critically think this reflectively, this calmly, present back to public safety I’m fine, my back just hurts?

                I’m evolving.  I know race doesn’t exist.  I know it’s an illusion.  But in order to know that I literally have to wage psychic war, mainly on myself.


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