“We’re scaring the white people!” The table bursts out laughing. My friends hold their sides while jokingly shushing each other. We are probably sitting in d-hall, or Coop, or some other public space with a table that allows semi-privacy.
It’s a joke that I first heard in the movie, Our Family Wedding. One of the side characters is yelling/singing at his friends as he leaves the restaurant. He’s being ridiculous but funny. His friend, still sitting at the table, laughs at his shenanigans but manages to pop out jokingly, “Stop, you’re scaring the white people.” The joke gets me every time: the landing perfectly capped by the camera panning to the white people in the background, whose faces are filled with confusion-bordering-on-fear. If you still don’t get it, let me explain.
“Why are you so angry?”
The question itself boils my blood.
Anyone who knows me knows I am very passionate. It is who I am. This passion though isn’t specific to me. I don’t want to speak for all black people, but black culture is filled with animated and active forms of expression. Not all black people always subscribe to it, but it is a part of the culture I love. Yet, I a need to have to reign it in on this campus. Why? Because whenever I forget, whenever I gesture a little too wildly, or use forms of expression my peers are not used to, I’m always asked the same thing.
“Ramonah, why are you so angry?”
“I’m not angry,” I always reply.
After the hundredth time of having conversations go this way, confusion at their question no longer tinges my voice. At this point, it’s more a sense of dread and a slow acceptance. Without fail, my answer is met with a rebuttal.
“Well, you look angry.”
By the time it’s followed up by,
“Hey so-and-so, doesn’t she look angry?”, I’m furious.
But since I must prove my earlier statement, I swallow my anger at their inability to understand my basic emotional state and/or their inability to trust my reports on that state. Then I walk away.
The interaction above frustrates me to no end. It frustrates me more though knowing that the reason it exists is someone’s inability to see anything but stillness in me as anger.
Society teaches us to be aware and understanding of our neighbor’s behavior. This leaves blacks having to become observant of white habits, we subconsciously and consciously note them. I understand that not all people are the same and admit these are generalities, but they exist for a reason.
White is the norm. It’s the piece of paper we hold up to judge all else in society. To add on to that, it seems to me we attend a school where many have never been confronted with something that had to be tested against that white litmus. When someone has never interacted with people of color who are their equals, it clearly shows. While I have been forced to take the time to learn and understand white habits, many never take the time to understand mine. Black subtle signs are not deemed worthy enough to learn. I come from a culture where stepping into your space is not automatically aggressive. You will know when it is. Yet it seems that anything besides a perfectly neutral tone is deemed angry, thus leading black humor to be seen as dangerous in white minds.
Hence, the humor in the statement, “You’re scaring the white people.” Let’s be honest: if you saw a white man yelling/singing across a restaurant, you would not be scared. You would be annoyed, at most angry, but never confused to the point of fear. The signs of aggression on white bodies are easily recognized by all. Black passion, black emotion, black joy are foreign substances, especially on this campus.
If I am telling you I am not angry, then I promise I am not. You telling me I am insinuates that you feel you know my emotions better than I do. Let me be passionate. Know the difference between passion and anger. Take the time to learn the difference between how others express passion and anger. Let black people be passionate. Let them gesticulate and raise their voices. Because when the white guys in your classes do it, you do not say a word. You recognize their passion for what it is and when you do not you believe their own assessment of their emotions. Give me that privilege because in the end the only person you are truly depriving is yourself. When you continue to shame my expression, it will just be shared with others. While my purpose and the purpose of my brethren is not just for your service, It will help expand some other mind. It will further some other cause, it will entertain, and grow and inspire someone else. To put it plainly, you are not getting all of me when you sit across the table and ask me why I am angry. In fact, if we have reached that point in the conversation you have started to get the best of me and then shut it down.
It is rare to see all of a black girl’s passion spilling out into public and unabashedly taking up space on this campus. To see it bumping against another’s and then helping it grow, eyes ablaze, thighs being slapped, unheard of noises suddenly being made to further some point, and everyone just getting it. If I can take the time to understand your nature, try and understand mine.
The passionate me comes out in small gatherings now, like when my friends and I sit at a table and for some reason the rest of the world floats away on a specific night. It is a wonder to see. We’re a little loud, and we argue and laugh, we disagree, pull facts and tell stories all in the same passionate tone. One day I would like to look around and know the joke will not land due to the complete understanding and at most slight annoyance of my fellow white diners.
“Girl stop making me laugh so much. You know it’s scaring the white people.”