“A boy salutes as he has learned in the school, and cries umfundisi. He waits for no response, but turns away and gives the queer tremulous call, to no person at all, but to the air. He turns away and makes the first slow steps of a dance, for no person at all, but for himself” (Paton 257).
You used to be special, back when you were younger. You used to be important. Back then, the world was your world—you worked solely for yourself; you wanted for yourself. You existed for yourself. And then the white man, spitting words of disgust, cornered you. You leaned your elbows on the scratched-up desk in the science lab as he told you that your fine, black body hair, luminescent against your olive skin, made you look ugly. In English class, you stared at the light reflecting off of garish pink posters—Be Kind!— when he told you that you were less than. He told you that you were unnecessary, useless. Unwanted. He told you that this world wasn’t yours, that you didn’t belong.
Stop caring about yourself. Stop holding on to your existence; it doesn’t belong to you, anyway. Focus only on the actions that please others; work to please him. Walk in his shadow when he enters the room. Muzzle yourself. Bleach your skin. Remind yourself that you don’t matter. Pick away at your finely tuned identity. Let it erode; let it burst, burnt and hollow; let it lose all its depth, its clarity. Let you exist just to serve him.
You are nothing but a mat for him to walk over. You are nothing but a mat. You are nothing.
“A white man’s dog, that is what they called him and his kind. Well, that was the way his life had been lived, that was the way he would die” (Paton 303).
You remember the moment when you first felt uncomfortable in your skin, when you realized that you were unworthy, don’t you? You remember the discomfort you felt when someone made a racist comment: the glances in your direction, the Did she hear I don’t know I hope not. When he made fun of your “accent.” When he asked if you would be deported. When he.
You can’t help but worry the wounds, can’t help but run your hands over the faded memories. The barely audible sorry; the eyes that looked at the ceiling, the carpet, the wall, anywhere but your face. The mask you wore to hide your emotions. The stalwart gaze straight ahead. The rapid blinking of the eyes. The clench of the jaw. Your collapsed sternum, your paused breath, your caved-in thoughts.
Remember that it is a thousand times harder not to say anything, to sit there and take it, than it is to apologize. It is not easy to stay quiet; to go home and curl up on the couch under a green blanket; to watch TV, passively consuming Baljeet and Apu, enveloping yourself in harsh accents and discordant caricatures. It is not easy to stay silent when your mother says that boys will fall in love with you because you look “exotic,” because of your doe-like eyes and olive skin, a shade lighter than your sister’s. Remember that; take solace in that; let the thought of your strength ease your pain.
“Umfundisi, it was the white man who gave us so little land, it was the white man who took us away from the land to go to work. And we were ignorant also. It is all these things together that have made this valley desolate” (Paton 302).
It’s in the system, they say? No. Racism is the system. It’s entrenched in us, ingrained in babies at six months, still a central part of lives at sixty years. It’s what’s in the education, or, rather, what’s not in the education: it’s the omission of history, the erasure of the non-white perspective. You stared at the peach-pale canvases at the Seattle Art Museum, noted the lack of people of color in Renaissance artwork. You cried when you watched a Hollywood movie that featured a South Asian character. You saw Hidden Figures, raged against the addition of a white man in a movie about African American women, a white man that was never part of the story, because, as the movie’s director said, “there needs to be white people who do the right thing” (Thomas). Because we need to be obligated to our white saviors. Because they came to help us, they came to lift us from the darkness, they came to pray for our salvation in the blurry twilight. Because we need to be saved by the very people who destroyed us in the first place.
“They are silent in the room, but for all that a white man calls out in a loud voice for silence” (Paton 236).
And when you try to create change, when you try to educate, host diversity trainings at work, hold conversations with your peers, you’re met with hostility, aren’t you? You’re met with fear, a disconnect from reality, a tide of empty words: It’s all discrimination against the white man, anyway. There are no jobs for the white man, anyway. Anyway, I’m being held up as a scapegoat; I’m being treated unfairly. It stresses me out when you bring up my comments about race; do you want me to have a heart attack? My neighbors are Asian, so I can’t be racist. My friend is black, so I can’t be racist. My daughter is mixed race, so I can’t be racist. It’s not my fault: my great-great-great-great-grandfather created the system, not me. I can’t possibly be racist.
It’s all just white fragility, anyway.
“There are many sides to this difficult problem. And people persist in discussing soil-erosion, and tribal decay, and lack of schools, and crime, as though they were all part of the matter. If you think long enough about it, you will be brought to consider republics, and bilingualism, and immigration, and Palestine, and God knows what. So in a way it is best not to think about it at all” (Paton 224).
And therein lies the problem: everything is the problem. One that the white man can’t be bothered to solve. And so he forgets about our existence. He leaves us with a lack of representation; with colorism, the idea that lighter is better, the tingle of bleach on skin; with the echoes of dirt-stained taunts and slurs; with dust-covered hope, the belief that change will come.
He erases our identity. He takes away our perception of ourselves. There is no “I,” there is no “me.” There is only “you,” the “hey, you over there,” there is only “them versus us.” There is only the white man versus everyone else. We’re all waiting for him to change his mind, for him to figure out that we’re not the issue. He is.
“Then she sat down at his table, and put her head on it, and was silent, with patient suffering of black women, with the suffering of oxen, with the suffering of any that are mute” (Paton 40).
The white man gave you an obligation, didn’t he? To stand by when you see bigotry, to feign indifference when you hear biased comments, to walk away when you sense an argument brewing. When you see racism at a group interview, old white woman versus young black woman, sharp words against deferential murmurs, you don’t step in—you can’t step in—because then neither of you would get the position; both of the people of color would lose. Instead, you leave them be; you escape from the stuffy office building into the smooth, open air of the city. In the car, you explode, talking to your mother about the injustice you see, the discrimination. Spent, you fall silent, slumped against the smooth leather of the passenger seat.
You take the job. You remember that young black woman when you work in your cubicle; you look around, just in case you can spot her. You never do. Because we’re playing chess, remember? And the people in power have captured all the pieces and we’re one move away from checkmate and there’s nothing more we can do but count down the clock, stare down the hours, hope to God they get tired of watching us suffer.
“God have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. White man have mercy upon us” (Paton 89).
Yes, white man have mercy upon us. White man be merciful towards us. White man forgive us. Follow us into stores. Fight against us. White man, call the police when we sell bottled water. White man, pull us aside during airport security. White man, scream, “Go back to your own country!” Refuse us service, white man, refuse us jobs, refuse us hope, refuse us liberty. White man, shoot our fathers. White man, rape our mothers. White man, take away our children. Protect us from our enemies, white man, protect us from our enemies. Protect us from your words, from your hate and discrimination. Protect us from the people you have turned us into, protect us from the silent oxen, the ones who stand mute. White man, protect us from ourselves.
For without you we are nothing.
“Call and dance, Innocence, call and dance while you may. For this is a prelude, it is only a beginning. Strange things will be woven into it, by men you have never heard of, in places you have never seen. It is life you are going into, you are not afraid because you do not know. Call and dance, call and dance. Now, while you still may” (Paton 259).
This essay was first published by Scholastic as part of their Art & Writing Awards.
Paton, Alan. Cry, the Beloved Country. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Thomas, Dexter. “Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures was whitewashed—but it didn’t have to be.” Vice News, 25 Jan. 2017,www.vice.com/en_us/article/d3xmja/oscar-nominated-hidden-figures-was-whitewashed-but-it-didnt-have-to-be. Accessed 3 Dec. 2019.
Anya Shukla attends Lakeside School in Seattle, WA. Her writing often deals with issues of race and identity, & her work has been recognized by The New York Times & the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, among others. Outside of school, she co-founded and writes for The Colorization Collective, an organization that aims to support teen artists of color.
Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Nonfiction