To the man who ruined my birthday celebration,
I felt euphoric after leaving the tacky midtown bar with one of my new and close friends in tow. We were looking for a cab that would take us to a rooftop bar. The air was tinged with cigarette smoke and promise, and my feet didn’t hurt yet. It was about to be an amazing night.
Tell me about your work, you asked.
I took the time to explain my dissertation.
But when we started talking about race, the conversation shifted.
In 2 minutes, you attempted to dismantle the theories I developed over the course of 8 years about race and black popular culture–ideas rooted in an understanding of black history, critical race theory, and feminist theories. You repeatedly interrupted me, littering your sentences with unfounded ideas which demonstrated your inability to reason.
“I’m human. You’re human,” you pointed out. “This race stuff doesn’t really matter,” you said.
In my mind’s eye, I saw black mothers weeping over their dead sons. I saw disenfranchised voters. I saw the whole history of people who invented race to oppress people, then quite conveniently forgot how race is a social construction that is intimately tied to everyone’s daily experiences. I saw, quite clearly, how systematic racism is problematic and contributed to your flawed perspective. I saw you, using whatever racial and gendered privilege you had to attempt to silence me.
“Your people have bad representation,” you said. “Al Sharpton is a bad guy.”
If I am just human, and not a black woman, then how could you lump me and Al Sharpton in the same category?
You weren’t even drunk.
I was annoyed. The slight and pleasant buzz I had dissipated at your first illogical statement. I was annoyed because I didn’t try to tell you about how to do your job, but you thought you had a right to tell me about mine. I was annoyed because no one should have to do unpaid work on a Friday night during a birthday celebration. I was annoyed because the only black person you could think to compare me to is Al Sharpton. I was annoyed because you were using the colorblind discourse that plagued the 1990s.
If you don’t see race, you cannot see how people use it to justify treating people differently. If you don’t see race, you render me invisible. If you don’t see race, you say that the routine things I and others like me are subject to are random occurrences, when they are in fact, quite normal. If you don’t see race, you cannot call yourself my friend. You cannot partner with me in fighting the injustices that plague communities of color.
So I couldn’t accept your offer to buy me a drink. And no, you could not call me Rachel; that is a privilege reserved for family, friends, and colleagues.
I offered you a free education. To you, my name will always be Dr. Daniel.
You reminded me that I will always be an advocate for equality. You reminded me that not everyone is capable of reason. You reminded me that I am one of the 1% of people in the world privileged enough to have a PhD. You reminded me that I have a responsibility to share the education I’ve received with others. You reminded me that I should do all of that with dignity, patience and grace.
The night never really recovered, even though I met a very cute Serbian soccer player when we finally got to that rooftop bar. You ruined my birthday celebration. But you handed me the gift I didn’t know I needed: a reminder of my purpose and place in this world.
For that, I thank you.