Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
My sophomore year in college, I found a surprisingly spacious studio for a reasonable price and made the move from my mama’s basement to a just-off-campus apartment. I had only been in it a week when I realized the house across from me was a frat house, a White one. I don’t recall the name of the fraternity, but I do remember the tipped over car on the lawn after one particularly loud, all-night kegger. I remember the crushed plastic cups always strewn across the steps, the sidewalk, and the street. I remember the bonfire, and by bonfire I mean pile of 24-pack beer boxes, wooden chairs, and clothes the frat boys sometimes lit up in a trash can to the left of their porch. Most of all, I recall a game they played, who knows the name, that involved filling balloons with a water and something-like-pasta sauce mixture then throwing them at each other while they dodged between people’s cars, mine included, on the crowded one-way street where we lived. Sure, people complained. Even I called the police once, which is notable because I had never called the police before, for anything. Nothing happened. Campus security, and even the real police would roll through, but the frat house behavior went unchecked. As irritating as this was, there mere existence isn’t what brought on my Jenifer Lewis face.
I discovered my Jenifer Lewis face when, at the start of the fall semester, campus security and Milwaukee County Police joined forces to shut down a back to school party just blocks from my apartment. The party, which I happily attended, was packed with Black bodies dancing and hugging and laughing in all the ways we needed to face another semester at a PWI; we raised our hands and voices to Nas’s “If I Ruled the World,” all the while knowing the White boys around the corner actually do. The party eventually spilled out from my friend’s small, first floor apartment and onto the front lawn. Some of us were taking a moment to catch our breath in the crisp, cool breeze rustling through the golden and fire red trees of autumn in Milwaukee. Some of us were just shooting the shit, talking about midterms or who was getting down with who once the last jam played. Were we loud? Probably. Were we standing around laughing, slapping fives, and dranking? Of course. Were we burning shit, turning over cars, throwing homemade pasta-sauce-grenades at each other and fucking up people’s cars? Absolutely not.
When the campus and city police showed up, flashing lights and shining ultra-bright beams across the lawn and into our faces, they ordered us, via bullhorn, to either go inside or go home. Shit was a scene from “Higher Learning.” When too few of us responded, the police whooped their siren and repeated their order: Go inside or go home. The campus security made their way out of their cars, holding flashlights and already calling for college IDs. The city police opened their doors in support of the move, ready to jump out and accost anyone who moved too slowly. The security checked for identification and made moves to shut down the party. I knew the look I had on my face, but more importantly, I knew the way I felt, that acrid and heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach, was telling me something I needed to remember. The world works one way for them and another way for us. And this is America.
This was never more clear than when I moved to Florida shortly after graduating from Marquette. I took an IT consulting position that relocated me to sunny St. Petersburg, Florida. I worked with a diverse set of people, both nationally and internationally, but the folks at the very top never looked like me. In fact, they looked like mostly sober, clean-shaven versions of the frat boys who lived across the street from me in the not-so-distant past. New to area, I hadn’t spent a lot of time in the south. All I knew were beaches and beach trolleys, sun hats and sunsets. I was quickly introduced to a lot of things—some good (Cuban bread, mango and avocado trees growing in back yards), others troubling (Confederate flags on pick-up trucks everywhere, all the time), and still another a great but confusing marvel of contemporary shopping that, at the time, I had no frame of reference for… my first Walmart.
I had stepped into the superstore on the Northside of St. Petersburg (a city historically segregated by north and south by Central Avenue, North for Whites and South for Black people. The lines are blurring now though. See also: Gentrification. See Also: Urban Colonialism) because it was open late, and them long days as a consultant many times stretched past normal store hours. The looks started the moment I stepped out of my car and followed me all the way in to the bright overhead lights. Still in my smart, I’m-coming-for-a-management-position-suit and pinstriped shirt, I walked up and down the aisles, marveling at how tires, socks, DVD players, rifles, bikes, and Juicy Juice could share the same space. And without a membership? Walmart was off the chain. More remarkable than the stock in the place was me taking stock of the place. Other than two others, who were both workers, I seemed to be the only person of color in the entire store. And these White people, trying to enjoy their late-night shopping experience, were mad at me. They were mad I was in their store, on their side of town, and they were mad that I had on a suit, mad that I apparently had a job. The hate palpable, their mouths tight frowns and their eyes slits of accusation. I called my sister while I stood in line the shit was so ridiculous. I remember saying, Jenifer Lewis face intact, voice not even a little hushed, “You should see how these White people staring at me in this Walmart though. Like they ain’t never seen no Black woman with a job before.”
The looks continued, regardless of how I was dressed, and we know what those looks are like when we enter spaces where we aren’t really welcome: which as a Black person can be anywhere from a local bar to shopping mall, Wall Street to Silicon Valley. White folk are not only confused by the presence of Black people sharing space with them, but seem offended by it at times, angered by it even. Their faces, Strom Thurmond and Ann Coulter faces, frowning and pinched, tells me what I already knew, what we already know: a lot of White people hate seeing anybody but them doing anything pleasurable, earning any type of success, moving through the world like we free. They faces stay on some “Who let you do that? Who let you have that? Who let you in here?”
So, I’m a college professor now and shit remains the same. When I first started teaching, I got challenged by students fairly regularly, and most often by White students, White women in particular—that 54% that were pro-cheeto and anti-pantsuit didn’t really surprise me—who wanted to question my credentials and ability, who wanted to know how old I was and where I grew up. Basically, they wanted to know who “let” me teach a college class. You know what face I had on when they called themselves questioning me. Anyway, about four years ago, I worked on the grade grievance committee and the overwhelming majority of cases we reviewed as a committee were White students who, even as their mediocre work was passed around the table, stood firm in their insistence that their failing grade was undeserved, unearned. To file a grievance, the student had to prove that his or her grade was given capriciously. The burden of proof lies on the student; more often than not the student had no evidence—only anger and bitterness, as detailed in their rambling, poorly written grievance statements. These students, multiple absences, missing assignments, and low exam scores be damned, did not understand how they could have failed. The answer was clear as day to me and the other professors, students, and administrators on the committee: the student performed poorly but felt entitled to grades he or she didn’t earn. They wanted the passing grade because, and this is actually from one of the cases, “I just feel like I should have passed.”
This one student, in my mind he is wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat but this was like four years ago so that wasn’t really a thing then, came wearing a camo button-up shirt with cut-off sleeves, jeans, and flip-flops, took one look at the committee (a diverse mix of individuals—various cultural backgrounds and more women than men), and rolled his eyes so hard I thought he’d pass out. He sat down hard, leaned back and manspreaded himself in his chair. He pushed his cap—it was for some bait company or fishing cove or something really—back on his forehead and crossed his arms. A colleague of mine read his grievance aloud, something about his professor hating him because he was outspoken in class, refusing to take his make-up work, and grading too hard on material that “wasn’t even talked about really.” Riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors, it was clear that this mediocre student “worked” to quite possibly the best of his aggressively mediocre ability, but felt that he deserved something he didn’t really earn. He sat there, waiting to be awarded something because he wanted it, no other reason, but that he wanted it. His professor didn’t attend, but she sent a packet of the work the student had turned in (including notes about online assignments that had been plagiarized) as well as copies of the attendance. When pressed about his wack ass work and poor attendance, his answer sent chills through my spine: “Look,” he said, leaning on the table then shrugging, “I took this class twice already. I have to pass it this time so I can apply for the Police Academy.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I know what my face said.
The student reminded me of those frat boys who lived across the street. His attitude made me think about how mad a lot of White folk are about the progress and success of the very people they’ve fought so hard to oppress, and it renewed in me the understanding that White supremacy is built upon a plagiarism of “we built it” and a hijacking of creativity, that it operates on the assumption that White is better, smarter, and deserves success even in its proud and aggressive mediocrity. And this, is America.
My Jenifer Lewis face has been a go-to over the years, and 2016, particularly the election, has placed in me a particular challenge. I don’t want to minimize the damage the incoming administration has the potential to cause—as a Black lesbian woman, I’m hella worried. Hell, as a human, I’m hella worried—nukes and climate-change-deniers will destroy every inch of this place including your passport. Yet, being who I am, and knowing what I know about White supremacy and the realities of racism, I cannot afford to enter 2017 in fear. None of us can. We have to keep doing what we’ve been doing since the beginning of time: We must continue to figure out their systems—some of us working within them to interrupt that shit, others of us creating new systems, new approaches, new realities—and, we must continue to find our own way to success and pleasure. We got to hold on to what we know about America, what we know about ourselves, and Jenifer Lewis face anything and anyone who mistakenly thinks they about to stop our shine.