When Performing Whiteness Still Can’t Keep You Safe

CW: detailed description of public harassment by a visibly mentally ill person, racism, ableism, sanism, police violence

Yesterday I woke up deep in a depressive episode. I skipped my second class for the week, a tutorial I still haven’t shown up to it. There was a hopelessness that I’m so familiar with. My body wasn’t in as much pain as earlier in the week, but my mind was exhausted. But as tired as I was, I still had to head to campus to interview a group on campus for a feature I’m writing. I had already rescheduled once and I didn’t want to do it again. So I did everything that I could to feel good about myself before I left. I dressed in my favourite jacket, I shaved my undercut, I smoked a lot of weed. I was starting to feel comfortable in my body by the time I got on the subway.

And then I got on the streetcar. When I get on, I saw a woman in a unicorn hat sitting in the priority seat by the door. She was mumbling to herself, so I understand that she was probably mentally ill and without access to medication. So I took the open seat across the aisle quietly and tried to keep my focus elsewhere. I was sure she’d dealt with stares all day and there was no reason to act as though her behaviour was anything more voluntary than a sneeze. But out of the corner of her eye, I could see that she was staring at me now. In the reflection of the window next to me, I could see that she had almost completely turned in her seat to stare. She was still mumbling so I started to pay more attention to what she was saying.

“…too long in our country. These people have been here too long in our country.”

She was staring at me, I was the darkest person in the area. A few people who were standing around us were all white or white-passing. People who were standing near us start to edge away, walk further along the streetcar to find some other place to sit. I stared down at my crutch, thinking to myself, Why do I have to put myself in pain to get away from this?

Then she started to say the ‘N’ word. She was still staring directly at me. I was just trying to keep my eyes ahead and dismiss it as mental illness. Reminding myself that coprolalia is a symptom of conditions like Tourette’s, making people say profanities and vulgarities they don’t mean. I kept telling myself, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. But still I willed the white man standing directly in front of me to turn, to move between us, to do something. But he didn’t.

Then she began to mumble again. The only words I can hear are, these people, our land, too long, separated by quieter whispers and swears.

And then this woman felt the need to make sure I knew she was talking about me. She reached her arm over, almost about to touch my leg. I turned my head abruptly, feeling nearly sick at being touched by someone who had spent an entire stop calling me the N word. Her hand stopped as I gave her the attention she wanted and started to point towards my window.

“Is that your lands?” she questions me.

I nearly bit my tongue to hold back myself asking this white-faced woman if this land was hers. I didn’t need to though.

“This is my land. I’m the queen.”

I looked away again. My heart was pounding in my chest, I was struggling not to panic. One more stop. Just one more stop.

She continued to mumble staring at me, but I stared straight ahead. My neck hurt, my jaw hurt from clenching.

And then she got up to walk further down the streetcar. My stop came, I got off, and I went to my interview. I was still shaking even as I sat in a tiny, tech-component filled office and interviewed a group of students.

All I could think about as I walked back to the same streetcar that it first happened was that I didn’t even look that Indian. A tactic I had built up when I was younger, when I was filled with self-hatred and internalized racism. I only spoke slang that was associated with white people, I rejected the accent that crept up from spending afternoons with my Guyanese grandmother. I stopped listening to hip-hop, soca, calypso, reggae. I dyed my hair unnatural colours that offended my relatives but thrilled my white friends. I listened to the whitest men in rock music. I refused to get my nose pierced because my mother said it would make me look too Indian.

And despite the fact that the hate has lessened over the years, and I’ve grown to love my mother’s accent and the smell of curry in an apartment hallway, the look I have was built on performing whiteness. An attempt to gain acceptance. An attempt to find safety in a world built for whiteness on the backs of my family’s history.

It made me think of every South Asian man who has tried to convince me that white people aren’t all that bad, every brown kid that looked down on their own culture while listening to Led Zeppelin and Metallica.

And it made me think about how I sat there, willing someone to intervene because I knew if I spoke back, it’d be my fault when it escalated. I could remember all the years where despite being inches under five feet tall, when people first saw me, they were scared of me. I was only ever told this by white women from my high school. Apparently if I don’t smile, I have a face that looks like it could kill you.

I also remember all the times that I have tried to stand up for myself against white women, against the people that defend them, I have had their mental health thrown in my face. They’re depressed, they’re anxious, there’s a reason they don’t have to try as hard. But my own depression, anxiety, my own oppression isn’t enough to let me treat people however I wanted.

I also thought about if that woman hadn’t been white. If she had been an Indigenous woman telling a white woman to get out of her country, or if it had been a Black man who had reached across an aisle to get the attention of someone he was berating. And the truth is, they may not have survived the encounter.

Would that white man have tried so hard to keep his back to the both of his, standing as close as he can to the door and away from us? Would the others have moved further down the line? Would someone say something? Would someone agitate them? Would the police have been called?

I think of the Pickering man with mental illness, Reyal Jardine-Douglas, who was shot by police after his family called them out of concern. They just wanted him to come home safe, and then he didn’t come home at all. I think about the unending pattern of mentally ill people of colour getting killed by police.

My face alone is reason enough to feel threatened. If I had spoken up and something would have happened, words like provoked, engaged, threatened, menacing, could be used against me. And if anyone looked at me, what would they have to say anything different.

This was the first time anyone had been so openly hateful towards me. While my skin is dark and some white folks seem a little confused at the concept of darker skin not meaning black, this was the first time I had the N word used against me. And I knew that at twenty-four, that’s a pretty good track record. And I knew that that wasn’t true for the Black people in my life. That wouldn’t have been the first time, or the last time, to have that word thrown against them. To have their own oppressed history thrown in their face to demean and dehumanize them. To have to sit there and let it happen in order to protect yourself from death or arrest.

Why should they have to put up with racism to avoid being called a bully to a mentally ill person? Why should they allow mental illness to be an excuse for the white people who attack them? Why should they allow mental illness to be an excuse to kill them?


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