Borderline Nightmares

I had a dream. I had a dream so vivid and shocking it tore me from sleep and threw me so hard into reality I found myself breathless in my own bed. I had a dream so offensive I’m still not convinced I want to share it publicly.

But it bothered me. It bothered me deeply, and I need to share it with someone.

In my dream I was at some kind of conference. I’ve been to enough conferences I might need more than two hands to count them all, so at least thus far, the dream isn’t that unexpected. The conference goers are all diverse, and for bits of the dream, I think I remember spending more time walking to and from this conference than actually attending it: I’m on some kind of campus, I think, but it’s strange because I recall walking through a city and past fast food restaurants as much as I recall walking through open area, feeling lost in the wilderness.

But I digress. That’s not my point.

The conference comes to a close with some final remarks by a speaker I’m too far removed from to hear clearly (or it’s just a dream and that part wasn’t entirely imagined), and like at most events of this sort, the people present begin to act like molecules in motion, bouncing from one person to another in small quips of interactions and occasionally, when all factors present are perfectly aligned, clustering off into larger structures with added form and function.

As it happened, I ended up in one such cluster not far removed from the reception desk, joined by a woman and a few other men. We–by whom I mean the woman and I–were being asked to do a quick performance, and for the moment we were all dressed in antiquated, possibly Victorian clothing: This, no doubt, was a direct result of the late-night trashy movie I watched on Amazon Prime when I couldn’t sleep last night.

No matter, she sang a bit, and in response to some nuclear reaction I hadn’t paid attention to, this cluster cracked apart, some off to one side, and myself and an African American man to the other. Now this is where the story starts to degrade–not in content necessarily, but in quality. The film is stuck, that black tape of my youth bent and twisted out of its case (a metaphor I assume will soon be all too archaic to understand), and the haze of wakefulness corrodes my memory even as I move my fingers in attempt to type it.

At some point I had been reading a book published in the late eighties. I doubt it was a real book, and for some reason I doubt I could’ve imagined anything anachronistically factual inside it, but it was a book about the experiences of black people in the United States–which was also the topic of our continued conversation.

Mostly it was what might be expected, with words I’ve come to associate with any form of inequality: privilege, microaggressions, discrimination, but especially his own experience living as a minority. In my dream all his words were rich and I felt honored he should trust me so much to share such personal stories with me–but now that I’m awake, I can’t recall a single word he said. It’s as if my mind couldn’t capture the exact words he would say because it’s not in my database, but it knew the sensations and feelings that would be generated by such an encounter and so tricked me into thinking he was saying anything by feeding me the feelings I figured I’d feel.

I’m no psychologist, mind you. This is just speculation.

Regardless, I’m procrastinating, stretching out the moments until the revelation that left me so shaken, so stirred from sleep, that I can’t keep from telling it to someone.

Now there was another man in my dream, also African American, who I think was working at the conference; he was standing nearby. In earlier conversation he had mentioned having a son about my age, and I couldn’t say why, but his son was coming by. So while my friend and I are having our conversation, a slender guy about as pale as I am comes up to the reception desk, leans on it so he’s facing us, and asks for this other man. They exchange a few words I don’t remember, and he says something that I think was a comment about wanting to be able to choose or change our race–I couldn’t say precisely because the harder I try to remember, the more the dream slips away.

So I start to say something, and all I remember is the tail-end of my words: “He seems to pass easily enough for white.”

“But see what you did right there?” my friend says and I turn to look at him. “You just assumed it’s better to be white.”

The words weren’t reproachful, and biting mostly because I couldn’t believe I had actually said something so vile, and all I could do as the dream split apart and I found myself suspended in that slip of space between dreaming and wakefulness was just cry–literally cry–that I could have been so heartlessly demeaning of a friend.

I must have relived the same moment in my head three or four times–or more than that, I don’t know–but as it is with any night-time apparition, the more I put it under the review, the less is actually there to observe. But that feeling of shock at my words’ implication, that feeling of shame at having said it, at having even suggested it–even unconsciously–it all just puddles at the pit of my stomach and makes me feel awful.

Not that long ago I was talking with a friend about growing up in the south, in particular his coming from a very rural community. I know him through the local LGBT community, and he told me he still sometimes gets grossed out by gay people or thinks bad things about us–because that’s what he grew up hearing, and even though he’s a part of this community, there’s still that blind hatred, even fear somewhere inside him–remnants of the culture he was raised in.

I’ve only told a few people I still struggle sometimes to accept people across racial lines. When I was younger, though not necessarily anymore, parts of my extended family were incredibly racist–and even though I can’t point to things that were said or even things they did, just belonging to that climate influenced the way I thought growing up. I’ve now had my own experiences, my own chances to learn about people, and I don’t willingly hold onto any of that–but sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever to be able to fully expel even these unconscious ideas.

Not even that long ago another friend and I were getting our pictures taken for a school publication, and as a matter of convenience, we met the photographer in the African American Cultural Center. She said she’d be back near the library, and I thought to myself, there’s a library here? There is–I had never even heard about it before, but there’s an entire library right there, and even I–a lover of books–didn’t know about it.

We arrived first, so we began perusing the shelves quietly, commenting about titles that sounded interesting or funny, smiling over their larger-than-expected representation of the intersectionality between race and the queer community. I told him I want to learn more, understand more, but there’s so much there, I don’t know where to start–as if that’s a reasonable excuse, the same one I offer when I explain why I don’t watch Star Trek or Doctor Who–there’s so much, I don’t know where to start.

I’m almost at 1300 words, but I feel like I could keep on writing indefinitely. This seems to be the start of a brilliant conversation on what it means to be an ally and how one takes the journey to becoming one–but that seems like a different discussion. It seems to be a good chance to talk about marginalization and how different minorities can support each other by tackling the same systems of oppression–but that, too, feels like a different discussion. Or I could leave it as it is: a snapshot of thought, fragments of a dream and a scattering of supporting material, the revelation that even as I aim to be inclusive and welcoming to everybody, I still have space to grow.

Originally written 12/23/13

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4 thoughts on “Borderline Nightmares

  1. Excellent piece, so much to comment on but I’ll try to keep it to “comment size.”

    I totally understand what you mean about Dr. Who and Star Trek–I think about trying to watch them, I’m a super fan of so many things but I don’t even know where to start with those. They just go over my head and I’d rather not have to force myself to enjoy something to beyond me.

    But to the… race issue. I know this is a discussion, and that there are so many… parts to it. But I want to tell you about a similar situation, that also applies to passing “easily enough for white.” I’m mixed black and white, and my mother was also mixed… But passed for white. All the kids at school asked me who that white lady was that dropped me off. When she was young, she had red hair, fair skin, freckles and green eyes. But she was still half black.

    When she married my father in… 68?… Although she was technically black, she had to go to Ohio to get married, as mixed marriage wasn’t yet allowed in Michigan. My father was very deep black. She was proud to be mixed, was from Detroit, brought me up on Sam Cooke and Motown, and spent her life helping minorities with their taxes, medical expenses, etc. Her stack of degrees and certifications when she died was impressive.

    But she didn’t die in Detroit, she died in the Upper Peninsula. I was the only visibly not-white person for a hundred miles. Nearly everyone up there is Finnish American or some sort of Polish. All very white, and Mama fit in. Because I’m light skinned, but still on the yellow side, most people thought I was some sort of Hispanic. I did have an old white lady stage whisper to one of her daughters “is she a negro? I can’t tell.”

    When Mama died, I knew that I needed the death certificate to say Black-White. She’d probably have jumped out of the urn swinging if I had done anything else. But despite what I told the funeral guy, no matter how many times I said “her dad was black, her mom was Polish” he ignored me. Black + White = White – White. He said “she might be mixed, but, well, she’s white.” I turned into a crazy person, but he ended with “well, I already did the paperwork. She looks white.”

    She was so proud to be black, to be a part of that community. And for her to die in such a white-washed place that couldn’t understand the concept of a mixed person… I apologize. I don’t mean to hijack your post. It just came to me.

    • Hi Brenda, thank you so much for reading and taking the time to share such a meaningful comment. I’m honestly at a loss for what words to say–I feel so much right now, it’s challenging to make sense of it.

      I guess the best place to start is to simply say thank you–thank you for sharing such a personal part of your life with me, and with everyone who stops by to read this; it truly means so much to me to hear your experience and share even the slightest glimpse into your life. Thank you.

      I had to read your comment more than once, it was so powerful, and deeply moving, and it pained me when I heard the funeral man’s reaction. I can’t imagine how distraught I would have felt in the same situation–or even a similar one. I imagine it’d be as painful as someone telling me they wouldn’t put my mother’s name on her grave–her identity, who she was, everything she meant to me, shoved aside because of someone else’s ignorance. I can feel the tears welling up as I imagine this and it sickens me how people can be so blind.

      Another thing I thought about while reading your comment was how it feels when people tell me they assumed I’m straight, or generally when they’re surprised to learn I’m gay or Jewish: I’ve come to be amused by it, but sometimes it can feel like a slap in the face–like they’re saying, “Wait, you can’t be that way–because you’re not what I think that should be.” It’s invalidating, and very painful as well. I guess I force myself to forgive them since being gay and Jewish aren’t things that float on your skin, but race is–quite literally. To stand in front of someone, showing such a personal part of ourselves, only to be invalidated like that–to be told we “pass” for something we’re not… I feel like I’m starting to get a real sense of the pain such comments can cause, and I don’t think I’d have been able to make that connection without your words. Thank you.

      You write beautifully, and your words carry so much meaning. Please feel free to hijack any of my posts–or anybody’s, anywhere. Thank you again.

      • Hi Darren – Thank you so much for reading it, I’d feared it would come off as a little off… like you wouldn’t know what I was trying to describe. You’ve summed it up perfectly with that word–invalidated. Somewhat like a stop-loss where you know you should be moving forward, should be understood and accepted, but are surrounded by ignorance. It is, was hurtful.

        I won’t get carried away again! I look forward to reading more of your posts and following your story :).

      • Please feel free to get carried away as much as you’d like! For as much as I love being able to share my thoughts and experiences here, it means so much more when I can witness others being able to do the same. I want to start conversations and get to know people. That can’t happen if–for any reason–people don’t feel welcome and encouraged to talk. (:

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