Grieving While Black

Often when people imagine what it means for Black lives to matter, they focus on the explicit death of Black people, like those caused by police violence. But Black people don’t just face death at the barrel of a policeman’s gun. Life is taken from us on a daily basis, through housing discrimination; through the inability to get or maintain a job that allows us to pay rent, have health insurance, and buy food; and through under-compensation.

After spending years working in environments that were toxic, at best, I found a company where I felt I could thrive. I’d joined this company in the middle of a pandemic that was wreaking disproportionate havoc on Black communities, right before the eruption of worldwide protests defending Black lives.

This company wasn’t actively hiring when I applied for the role, but I applied anyway, despite the fact that many businesses were laying people off. I got the job. I knew that I’d be good at this role, and it felt nice to experience mutual recognition between myself and a company.

Despite my aptitude, hard work, and conviction, I found myself struggling significantly. After five weeks, I began reassessing what was wrong.

Hostility Causes Grief

I was in a customer-facing role in a business-to-business (B2B) company, and I was constantly encountering aggression, dismissal, and disrespect the moment I introduced myself over the phone as “Breeshia.” After a few attempts to stumble over my name, decision makers would typically decide that the conversation was not worth having and would rudely end it.

Being Black in America means that I’m always questioning whether or not a situation would have happened differently if I were white. Grieving while Black isn’t so much in whether or not the answer is unequivocally yes, but in the fact that so many life experiences cause me to consider this question—in the extra mental energy this consideration saps throughout the day.

In any case, I imagine that I was particularly sensitive to instances of outright aggression toward me, which was heightened when I spoke my name. Tonal shifts after my introduction. Demands that I never call again. Accusatory questions. I was witnessing the violence and dismissal of Black women’s lives daily (e.g., Breonna Taylor, Iyanna Dior, J. Cole’s foolish song), and then I was calling white people and hoping not to be dismissed.

One Strategy Attempted

To be sure, some of this type of behavior simply comes with my role. But the degree to which my endeavors were marked by failure seemed to differ from some of my colleagues, and it was threatening to deteriorate my life outside of work.

As thoughtful as my company was, I knew that businesses are driven by metrics and that they couldn’t carry me as dead weight forever. If society would not accept Breeshia in a professional role, then my job, and thus my ability to survive, was under threat. Other people’s failure to recognize and respond to me as a human being with something to offer meant that their vision of me had the capacity to influence my personal life by ensuring that I struggled to afford rent, to afford marriage, to plan and provide for a family.

Pretending to Pass

So I flattened myself into who white business owners needed me to be. I became “Bree,” and I removed pictures of Breeshia with her locs and Black features from my profiles. Sometimes I gave my voice a lilt, adjusted my vowels, made myself as telephonically white-passing as I could. Other times I would close my eyes and conjure the image of a Black person that would feel more familiar.

“Bree lives in a high rise,” I whispered to myself. “Bree brunches with her white girlfriends. She played lacrosse in college.”

I could be Black, maybe, but there was a certain type of Black that they needed to imagine me to be.

Constantly Proving Myself

Bree could just as easily be their daughter’s best friend or the daughter of a good Black friend. But Breeshia could never be any of those things. It didn’t matter how well-spoken, well-educated, thoughtful, or resourceful I was. It didn’t matter that I could articulate their problems and bring them solutions. Breeshia was not fit to be given an opportunity. To prove herself. To exist. And therefore, implicitly, to make a living in order to survive.

Within two days, Bree had accomplished what Breeshia couldn’t do in five weeks: she booked multiple sizable accounts. Bree went weeks without experiencing the slightest bit of aggression, even from people who had previously been hostile. Those same people became open to continued conversation and began connecting her to their business partners and colleagues. Bree was entrusted with the cellphone numbers of CEOs without suspicion or hesitation.

All of this was happening as companies responded to the social pressure to declare their stance on Black lives. Every day, my inbox was flooded with emails from one CEO or another declaring their solidarity with the Black community. And every day my stomach turned as I read their empty statements, knowing that these very people were priding themselves on their comfort doing business with Bree.

Hypocrisy Hurts

I have frequently experienced violence as a result of my gender and my skin color.  A white woman refuses to put money directly in my hand when I make a purchase. A Black man feels entitled to sexually harass me because I’m the only Black woman in a sea of white.

I love my full name—Breeshia Latte’ Wade, and I feel proud of who I am. My colleagues and friends call me Breeshia. Unfortunately, I am not the only Black person who has had to contort myself in order to survive.

What white supremacy cannot accomplish physically through death and assault, it seeks to accomplish spiritually. Systemic racism was meant to destroy Black people’s relationship to ourselves, to each other, and—most important for its own survival—to white people. The very fabric of our country was premised upon Black people’s expendability: we were brought here to die.

White Supremacy Pervades

I know this in the moments of both greatest joy and greatest pain in my own relationship. There are moments in which my wife and I look into each other’s eyes from both inches and miles apart, separated by a short and endless gulf that neither of us can do anything about, that white supremacy did to us, and these moments feel insurmountable.

We were never meant to be what we are to each other. Everything in our society was built to guarantee it. I’ve lost count of the moments I’ve feared that my wife’s courage would not suffice. We both know that in this system, no action will ever be enough. But we keep showing up anyway, knowing that success is fleeting, at best, and failure always lingers on the horizon.

Excerpted from Grieving While Black: An Antiracist Take on Oppression and Sorrow, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2021. Reprinted by permission of publisher. Purchase on Amazon.

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Breeshia Wade

Breeshia Wade holds a BA in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity from Stanford University and an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago. She completed Upaya Zen Center’s two-year Buddhist chaplaincy program. Wade served as a hospice and palliative care end-of-life caregiver in Los Angeles County. Over the past five years, she has supported people through grief and transitions as a birth doula and a lay-ordained Buddhist chaplain working in jails, on the mother and baby units of hospitals, and in people’s homes. Wade uses her practice as an end-of-life caregiver to encourage those who are not facing illness, death, or dying to be open to what grief can teach them about relationship, life, failure, sex, and desire. She wishes to expand the world’s conception of grief beyond concrete loss and to call attention to the numerous ways our experiences of grief impact the way we (mis)understand power, craft self-image, and approach boundaries, conflict, and accountability. Breeshia is the author of "Grieving While Black: An Antiracist Take on Oppression and Sorrow."

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