Noel Ransome, Vice, October 15, 2019
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.
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.
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.