Black people are not exhausted by the skin we’re in.
What’s exhausting is living in a country where that skin is perceived as a threat whether we’re walking, shopping, jogging, sleeping, or playing video games at home, driving, looking for help, listening to music, or any other mundane activity that should not result in a lethal outcome.
I’m exhausted by white people who say “I’m not racist” or “I don’t see race,” then walk away convinced that they’ve done the hard work of dismantling white supremacy which benefits them whether or not they recognize it. I’m exhausted when state legislatures pass laws to intimidate protesters or codify voter suppression to deprive Black people of their constitutional rights.
Exhaustion is the dread that tightens in your chest even though Derek Chauvin was convicted for murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis last May. You know that verdict won’t deter the next cop, the next neighborhood vigilante, the next person who calls police because they saw a Black person’s existence as a danger to be eliminated.
Being Black isn’t exhausting. Racism is exhausting.
It’s also perilous for Black people’s mental health. During a recent “60 Minutes” report about racism’s impact on health, David Williams, a Harvard School of Public Health professor and chair of its social and behavioral sciences department, cited a 2018 study that found “every police shooting of an unarmed African American led to worse mental health for the entire Black population in the state in which it occurred for the next three months.”
That’s because Black people understand that they or someone close to them could become the next Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor. Since the Chauvin trial began on March 29, police have killed an average of three people a day nationwide. And like Adam Toledo in Chicago and Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minn., about 10 miles from the Chauvin trial, more than half of them have been people of color. Minutes before the Chauvin verdict Tuesday, a Columbus, Ohio, officer killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl.
When I leave the house, I have a pre-flight checklist. I make sure my phone is fully charged so that if I need help, like Renisha McBride did in 2013 after a car accident, I won’t have to risk the violence of strangers. When Massachusetts last year offered a grace period for driver license renewals due to pandemic restrictions, I printed out all pertinent information and carried it with me just in case I was pulled over during a traffic stop. I had four months to get my license renewed; even with my clump of papers, fear made me cave within two weeks.
Yes, such machinations are annoying and time-consuming. Yes, I resent that I feel my safety (as best that I can protect it) depends on it. Yet none of it, and so many more slights, indignities, and outright terrors, has ever made being Black feel exhausting to me.
I will not perpetuate a narrative that seeks to define Blackness as inherently broken or burdensome. That same lie highlighted race, not systemic inequities, as the reason behind racially disproportionate COVID-19 deaths. Now, it falsely blames Black people for promulgating vaccine hesitancy while ignoring the documented lack of vaccine access in communities of color.
For centuries, white supremacy has reframed murder as a birthright and human bondage, in its many, ever-shifting forms, as destiny. Branding Blackness as exhausting is an accountability shell game that absolves a nation violently resistant to compassion, opportunity, and justice for all.
I will not comply.
To be Black is to carry resilience passed through generations, to make a way out of no way. In her 1973 novel “Sula,” Toni Morrison writes, “The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair.”
For 400 years, we have not succumbed to despair. Black people have faced every hurdle, every obstacle, and America keeps concocting new ways to get in our way. But we march as we mourn. We organize as we agonize. We fight for a democracy never meant for us. We look back to our ancestors to carry us forward. We sift miracles from ashes.
When white people lament to me how hard it must be to be Black, how tiring it must be, I politely but firmly correct them. Racism is exhausting. White silence is exhausting. And that will only change when they step up, as Black people have done inexhaustibly, and make this nation take its knee off of our necks so we can all finally breathe.