Lena Blackmon, Stanford University
Throwback: It’s summer. I’m 11. It’s late during a sleepover and I’m talking about how my first year of middle school was hard because I felt isolated and neglected—like I blended into the walls—and Sally* asks if it’s because the walls of my school have been painted black. Why would the walls be painted—oh. And because I’m 11 and I’m stuck at someone else’s house, I try to continue my story, but Sally keeps interrupting me with musings on black walls, black chairs, and Black people as an excuse to strip me of my story.
I consider it one of many introductions to Black hypervigilance, how racism is this game of Whack-A-Mole that I felt like I lost because I trusted. Frustrated, I thought that if I had only expected this from Sally, I wouldn’t have wasted so much emotional energy trying to get over it.
But, I don’t think my experience is unique— I think hypervigilance pads the relationships we engage in as Black people living in predominantly non-Black spaces. Perpetually, the personal seems political.
Black hypervigilance allows us to face someone who says something anti-Black racist and say “Of course,” not because it’s true, but because racism is ubiquitous. Of course you would say that, you’re just complicit in a machine of racism.
And at first glance, hypervigilance seems like a shield against the pain of racism. But in actuality, it’s more of a response to racial gaslighting. To gaslight is to manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity; therefore, the prevalence of Black hypervigilance shows how racism gaslights Black people in America by proliferating a pain that is both pandemic and invisible.
For example, I felt overwhelming betrayal when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered by police. It wasn’t something I could say, “Of course” to. Police brutality is historic, and racism can be subtle and stark, but hypervigilance has never readied me for another Black person to be murdered by police. The pain of an entire community is overwhelming.
There’s a specific kind of betrayal I felt seeing people I’ve invited into my life and newsfeed share viral videos of Black people actually dying. Suddenly, people I thought I liked were reminding me that Black pain is a commodity in American culture. In this, hypervigilance becomes a tool to resist showing or experiencing a pain that commodifies me. It makes me glean for hints that someone has never considered my full humanity. It makes it harder to trust.
Yet a pain so viral was also invisible. After mentioning #BlackLivesMatter to a confused suitemate, I recited a seemingly never ending list of names from Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin to this girl who prided herself on her compassion. To respond, she paused, then asked me what the names had to do with police brutality in the first place. Although we lived together, I felt like she didn’t even see me. And to avoid this wound reopening, I decided that she and I wouldn’t talk about race anymore. After explaining my decision, my counselor remarked, “It must do something to Black people, the way we tuck away parts of ourselves like that.”
And I think it does. It robs us of vulnerability in relationships; it sours treasures of childhood as innocent as a summer sleepover. Most of all, this system of hypervigilance and pain and racism pushes us forward, a motion we associate with progress, so not to stew in something deeply painful. As a result, it feels a bit strange to write about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile when the headlines have passed, or to acknowledge the racial gaslighting that happens in the summer, now that summer is ending. But so long as racism is an integral part of this machine we will never actually move forward.
So I’d like to pause, because breaking from this machine of pain allows us to examine our hurt and our biases, to share stories and understand. It seems like the first steps to healing. And I hope that in pausing a machine of pain, we can truly engage with the more vulnerable and purer parts of existence.