This was the thing I didn’t want to look at. The healing I didn’t want to do. Probably the most necessary, which is why I resisted it so much.
I’m Black. I’ve lived in a chaotic inner world all of my life, fearing my Blackness. I was conditioned to do so by the world.
It would get in the way of what I wanted. Make me feel inadequate—sometimes I really believed I wasn’t good enough to sit at that table, be friends with those people, get that promotion. Blaring thoughts with sharp, pointy ends. And other times, it was dim, like the ignorable but petulant drip of water dropping onto your head from a leaky roof. I’d believe I deserved to be there, but the drip would lightly tap my head. Tap, tap, tap. Black was a liability.
What was deeper and more insidious was not just my feeling of inadequacy, it was my falsely inflated sense of being better than many people who look like me. See, self-worth issues don’t just show up as the little girl hiding in the corner of the classroom with her sullen eyes piercing the linoleum. It can be as subtle as averting your eyes to make others feel invisible so you can feel visible or as loud as making yourself so big there’s not space for anyone else.
My worth issues came from a complex, confused, and beautiful history. I was constantly in a place of being told I wasn’t Black enough because of the music I listened to, the way I spoke, the boys I liked, and the way I dressed. I was bullied in middle school, which is one of the most overlooked—but in my life, overpowering—experiences of a young person’s existence. We’re just young enough to be malleable and dentable when hurt and just old enough to inflict pain that gets carried for decades.
Middle School for me in Oakland was a hodgepodge of people. Race, socioeconomic, and many other social identities were thrown together. The most memorable bully was a young Black girl who clearly had a different and more stereotypical experience of being Black (whatever that all means). She talked the “right” way, did her hair the “right” way, listened to the “right” music.
There was nothing off-limits when it came to bullying me. And others would chime in too. It’s a pain I’ve stored for years.
And then there were the swaths of white people I was surrounded by. Constantly trying to fit in. My god, constantly. Particularly with white women. And man, was that a hustle. I was a tall, athletically built brown-skinned girl with a curvy figure, big feet, and an earth-shaking laugh. I did not play the role of the helpless, delicate, in-need-of-saving human that many white women historically have been conditioned to adopt (and manipulate) in our society. If that demeaning expectation is painful for them (which it is), it’s venomous for me. You guessed it, I was never skinny enough to share clothes, didn’t have the right hair to borrow styles, couldn’t talk dating because I was never expected to get attention from the same boys (or men as I got older)… the list goes on.
It was venomous and heart-wrenching but safer. I didn’t have the experience of covert bullying here. It was present, but it was softer. I was sort of invisible. Like the petulant dripping of water on the top of your head, from a leaky roof. Here, at least I could be fully seen for much of what made me who I was at a young age: music preferences, boys I pined after, style.
And I was fortunate to have parents who created a strong environment for my achievement and space for my talents. I played cello, acted and sang in The Music Man and Oliver and The Christmas Revels, went to art camp, was part of a prestigious Black youth organization, traveled, read. As I got older, I realized my socioeconomic class, titles, education, the way I talked, the spaces I felt comfortable entering, etc. could be my shield. I made up somewhere in my mind that I had to choose. And it was easier to distance myself from the Black experience than to distance from the white one—the one of success and promise, where I was already thriving.
So, I did what any animal trying to survive would do. I protected myself. I layered my achievements over my pain. Brené Brown calls it “armoring up.” A perceived safety. Why would I choose anything else?
As I said, my history is complex.
Unfortunately, there are a few issues with armor. Pretending I was separate, better, never actually made me feel more worthy at any level. I was still stuck in the lie, even with my armor. Because although I could believe I was better than some Black people, I still felt like I was less than other Black people and certainly less than many white people. I wasn’t healed, I was hurting. I never did anything malicious; this was a quiet internal struggle. But I know my energy was blocked, and I bet people could feel it. Despite every achievement, I had little self-worth. It’s what happens when we negotiate with external circumstances so that they can determine our internal experience.
There are many strategies of water torture—they’re all still torture.
I kept buzzing along. Because “safe” was better than “exposed.” I distanced myself from so many who looked like me, deeming them unsafe if I really let them in. It didn’t feel safe to be myself in even the small ways. Like, “yeah, I listen to ‘90s pop-rock on my runs every day” or “no, I actually don’t know how to code-switch, this is really just the way I talk…always.” And I’d avoid conversations about some of the realities of being Black with those who weren’t. That would have been exposure too. That was not safe. And I wanted life to keep working. I didn’t want to dive so deep I couldn’t get out.
Then George Floyd was murdered. You can’t unsee that. And then we heard about Breonna Taylor, and then Ahmaud Arbery. How could I ignore or glaze over the impact of race then? How could I not speak my pain, my fear, my truth? Shit.
The pain cut deeper than I wanted it to. So, I wrote. I wrote about my pain and I shared about how choosing love was our only path forward. In fact, Arianna Huffington found it and posted it. Soon, I’d be eating my words.
After I wrote and shared, I walked outside of my apartment in Manhattan with my dog. As I walked down the street where I’d lived for two years, a white neighbor passed by. I live in an area where there are very few people of any color other than white. He looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re with a client!” It didn’t even translate at first. I could not compute. And then it clicked. This man whom I’d seen for two years on an ongoing basis thought I was a dog walker. This ENTIRE time.
Must. Choose. Love.
But also, okay idiot, so if I were a dog walker, I’d be pretty poorly equipped to sustain a business with only one client.
The logic of it made no sense, although I used to wonder if I’d like being a walker better than some of the miserable jobs I’d had.
But this is not about dog-walking. It’s about the assumption. His version of reality couldn’t even stretch to believe that a young Black woman walking around the Upper West Side could be anyone other than a white person’s (or their dog’s) caretaker. How many times has someone who was not white been assumed to be serving or helping where they lived? As it clicked, he must have noticed my expression drop from a friendly smile to shocked and pissed.
These senseless and disgusting murders twisted me up, but they weren’t what moved me most. It was the truth that I am wildly unimmune. That my false protection was total crap. And that I played a role in the anti-blackness that poisons our culture.
The continuum of white supremacy to anti-blackness doesn’t just hurt people who look like me, it hurts everyone who exists along it. All of us. I see it in the stories from my Asian colleagues, in their struggles to be enough. To be closer to whiteness on the continuum. One colleague called it “near white privilege.” A north star none of us will ever reach—not even many white people—but one that strings us all along, close enough to keep our gaze and to stomp over whoever is on our path.
The truth was that every time I judged someone else and lifted myself up with that judgment, I hurt myself. And so do you. One of my spiritual teachers says holding judgment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. We can’t cast and hold judgment without it impacting us. In fact, we judge in the places where we are most susceptible to shame. No one is immune to this.
There’s the saying, “hurt people, hurt people.” They do. We all have. We’ve all been banged up and bruised on this path called life. And when this happens and we don’t investigate, explore, make space and heal, we go out and bang up someone else. It’s a never-ending cycle. It shows up glaringly with race and sexual orientation in the U.S. But it flows with red-hot energy through every area of life where we can be judged, where our hearts can be hurt.
I was reading an article about the man who recently killed eight people in Atlanta, six of whom were Asian. In it, they quoted him as having said, “I was just fed up.” Fed up with what? He wasn’t fed up with the innocent people he killed. He was fed up with himself. He hated himself. I have been saddened to see Black people participating in these crimes, but not surprised, with all the pain inflicted in our community. Can you honestly say you believe each of those people who hurts others loves themselves or has a sense of deep self-worth? Of course not.
And then I looked back at past mass shootings from 1982 to the present. The majority (55% according to Statista) of those shooters have been white. The people who have been deemed the most important and most privileged in our country and our world. So, how’s this whole racial/social/educational hierarchy working for us? It’s not. We’re all hurting.
On my journey (which will continue forever) to healing and cultivating more inner peace, I added to the saying: “Hurt people hurt people. And healed people heal people.” You can’t give what you don’t have. But what you do have gushes out of you unconditionally, for better or worse. As I heal, I am markedly better for those around me.
If I love myself, how could I not love everyone else? How could I not see that even through their imperfections, others are just the same as I am? They are fumbling forward in the world, looking for something stable to stand on. And some close their eyes and think they’ve got their footing, but it’s on a house of cards. We call them criminals, bullies, racists, monsters… but they are really the most heartbroken parts of us. My bully was a heartbroken little girl.
The only difference between me and someone who is inflicting pain on themselves or others is self-love, self-worth, self-acceptance.
It doesn’t mean that I never have a judging thought or feel frustration, fear, anger. It doesn’t mean I don’t find myself separating myself from others. What it does mean is that I’m quick to catch it, to go within, to investigate and ask, “What’s going on here for me?” I know it’s never about them, and so I am much less likely to inflict pain. And if I do, I do the “pause, rewind, and clean-up.” We underestimate the power of going back to say, “That’s not how I want to show up. Here’s how I do want to show up. I’m sorry.”
To me, this is at the core of our collective hurt. We live in a world of fear. We live in a world of scarcity. Where there’s only so much of anything to go around. Only so much love, success, work, happiness, power, etc. to go around.
We live in what author Lynne Twist calls a “you or me world,” not a “you and me world”.
In a fear-based world where either you thrive or I do, how could we not decide some humans are better than others? How could we not stand on the broken backs of others to lift ourselves up? How could that mindset not bang us and bruise us until there’s no space or feeling left on our bodies and we must inflict pain on another? We are products of a collectively created environment. We walk the cheap and easy paths to false happiness, sometimes never realizing they’re all dead ends.
In the last two years, I’ve had to hold up a mirror. I had to look at the bruises. I had to cry my eyes out for the pain that was inflicted on me and the pain I then inflicted on others. The places where I’d quietly paid pain forward. It was deep, it was hard, it was scary. But that’s what growth is.
In the last two years, I’ve also cultivated the deepest sense of self-worth I have ever known. Worth the forward fumble? Undoubtedly.
Every fiber of my being tells me that if we can start discovering the truth of who we are, the love that we have, and then hold the (made-up) “realities” at arm’s length, far enough away to recognize the lie, we can transform ourselves. Every challenge our world has begins with us. Looking honestly at the reflection of ourselves in the mirror. Investigating each bump and bruise with enough attention and love to know what happened, acknowledge it, honor it, treat it, and heal it.
There is no other path forward.