Raina Leon

Associate Professor of Education at Saint Mary's College of California

Don’t Let Them Steal Your Joy

Full vitae racism

Image by Chrisena Allen, Creative Commons

I had just returned to my car after observing a colleague teach a seminar. It had been a rich and nuanced discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” One of the students had asked about the timeliness of justice: Is waiting for justice problematic? I even sent a tweet as I walked: "Just finished observing … so captivated I forgot to drink my tea. #ILoveMyJob."

I was in the driver’s seat when I realized that I hadn't pulled out the books I needed that evening. I went back to the trunk, repacked the bags that I had carried, and moved to get back into my car. That's when I heard it. One word. The most toxic word. I have been called it before but not for many years. Nigger.

As I write this account in draft, I am dictating. Siri doesn't even want to write the word. She writes “Nager” or “nugget.” It doesn't seem to exist in her memory banks.

The word was said behind me, by one voice among many bodies. They got in a car and drove off. I wasn't focused on them, those young men I passed on the way to my car. I’d had no interaction with them.

Though the epithet came from behind me, it was clearly directed at me. I was the only black person there — a lone woman in an isolated parking lot. I don’t recall hearing them say any other word. I do know they were campus athletes wearing team attire.

Once back in my car, I sat there, shocked. Should I report this? I glanced over at a gray construction trailer. Maybe there was a witness? But that trailer would be filled with men, some of whom might espouse the same kind of hate. And I was 5-foot-2, and alone. I reconsidered: Should I go to campus public safety? Maybe I could find out which team they were on, and which coach?

In the quickly passing moments, I decided on filing an incident report, knowing that nothing would happen. I didn’t have a face or a name; I didn’t even know which team these students were from. I knew the location and the time. I remember looking at a clock. It was 4:57 p.m. when this occurred and around 5:03 p.m. by the time I left.

So much had happened in the shortness of time. I had moved quickly from the joy of a substantive intellectual experience to ... this. It wasn't that joy itself was flitting away in a jaunty skip; rather, the toxicity that had spewed from one man's mouth had somehow transformed into a power capable of robbing me of joy.

As I drove away, I called my mother, a retired full professor. “I need you to talk me through this,” I said, and told her what happened. The tears started then. She told me to stop the car. Instead, I stopped crying and kept driving.

I could control my emotions. I told my mother about my plan to submit a bias-incident report. With more talking, its audience grew: I would CC the provost, the president, the chief diversity officer.

Yet I knew nothing would come of it — meaning that, in that moment, I knew that young man would most likely carry on without confrontation, and eventually turn his hate speech on someone else. I knew, too, that — while I would receive compassionate messages and support — much of the response would be bluster and inaction. Eventually, all of the energy marshalled to my cause would diffuse. It would be as if I had never said anything, as if it had never happened.

My mother said, “don't let them steal your joy,” and I repeated it several times. We were writing our own poem.

But as an Afro-Latina, I don’t have the luxury of taking refuge in joy.

Today I was called a nigger at a college devoted to social justice. And I realized: It will always be today.

There is an immediacy in being called that word — the shaking, the fear, the anger, the self-preservation, and what all of that says about this country and its education systems. I had been having a really good day; to have it so suddenly violated only reminded me that I had let slip my daily hyperawareness.

Of course I have been jolted back to that reality before, and not just by a word but by mere observation. Did you ever notice how, on a train, a black person usually sits alone? The train may be crowded but notice the black person and you will see these cushions of space. That is America. I expected to see the same phenomenon when I was on a train in Paris a few years ago. I watched as a man of African descent got on the train and sat down next to a lone white woman on the fold-down seats, the ones people take when there is no where else left to sit. I expected her to get up or look at him with a scowl or just look straight ahead (and thus, communicate that he wasn’t here at all in her eyes). Instead, they shared a smile and rode together, in sporadic conversation. If that happens in America, it isn’t often.

Later that night, my mind raced: I had just won another service award. Did it even matter when, to someone on my campus, I will always be a nigger? (Now Siri doesn't even stop when I type the word. I have taught my machine this evil utterance.)

The tears led to a congested nose and trouble breathing; I barely stopped myself from going into a panic attack. I was reading Nobody: Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond by Marc Lamont Hill. I had just reached the part of the book about Eric Garner (who died in a chokehold by a New York police officer in 2014), and I was thinking, "I can't breathe, I can't breathe."

It's all linked.

It's part of my Lenten practice to read and write every day. The day after, I wrote:

I dreamed that it was not boys in the bodies of men (or men in the bodies of boys, why should I excuse them through age or maturity?) that called me a nigger (really one, though the others said nothing). That it was a caricature of Hitler, a hate machine with a lacquered skin and a tiny mustache. It had been installed behind me in that parking lot. I somehow hadn't noticed. It was a machine, not a man who called me a nigger, and, in the dream, I wanted to believe this so badly that I questioned myself. Couldn't it have been the machine and not the man?

James Baldwin — in the 1963 film Take this Hammer, and most recently excerpted in the 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro — said: “What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you.”

What does the use of this slur reveal about the man who wielded it against me? What is it about the machine that is revealed in the ticker tape it uncoils?

My experience is academia is no different from that of my mother, who — until she retired in January — served nearly 20 years as a faculty member in social work. She earned tenure on two different campuses and was promoted to full professor at her last institution. She has a group of friends — black women academics — who report fainting in the sun, shaking for no reason, having difficulty with motion. One lost the ability to walk and had to go to physical therapy for months to regain just some mobility. The doctors don't know the cause, but the women do: Racism is toxic.

That is why I am telling this story about that day, which is ever today. But as I share it, I also remind myself what else belongs in that moment: I remember the laughter in the classroom earlier that day, one of those moments when teaching and learning can feel like magic. I hold on to that.

Don't let them steal your joy. And I won't let them steal mine. #ilovemyjob #stilldo

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