Courage And Vulnerability: Lessons From The Black Experience

Sometimes painful things can teach us lessons that we didn’t think we needed to know.  -unknown

Say what? These days I have to ask myself, is the food clean? Or the water pure? One never knows in this world filled with genocidal maniacs who project their violence onto other ethnic groups. Do I trust the service from such systems? Service that is lacking or at best poor with little to no accountability when people like me encounter problems.

Does being Black mean having to accept poor quality? Or less service? Does being Black mean having no choice? Does it mean I must enrich and enable the same groups that sabotage my well-being? The same groups that support my oppression?

The Black Experience (BE) means, Yes, to all the above! It’s the reality of understanding our limited options — the irony of being forced to support a system that works against you. Through my hard-earned dollar and valuable time, I  engage with and financially support systems that subvert, oppress and despise people like me.

A large part of the ‘black experience’ is managing feelings of resentment that ultimately gain control of one’s perception.  It’s safer to expect demeaning attitudes than to be unprepared for the inhumanity or the cruelty of society. The mental toll of disappointment, humiliation, and shame mangled into resentment and fear of rejection set in motion a roller coaster ride of self-destructive behaviors down a rabbit hole.

I’m on a flight from San Francisco (SF) to Boston.

On such long trips, first class is terrific. Flying economy means experiencing discrimination on a personal level. It’s nuanced, subjective and certainly nothing I would have a conversation about, yet it’s bothersome.

Am I the only one to notice the racial slights as the flight attendant moves down the narrow aisle then reshuffles her order to ask for my selection last?  Will I get 1/2 cup instead of a full cup of ginger ale or will I be forgotten and have to ask again?

As petty as that may seem, it causes angst. I’ll fly first class when affordable to avoid this feeling. Call it wasteful, but I call it peace of mind. It transforms flying from a stressful racially discriminating experience to one where I’m served.

Have you noticed white men don’t experience this angst? And I don’t mean to pick on white men, but the glaring disparity in treatment makes it hard not to notice. To accommodate and not inconvenience these white passengers, who may need to use the bathroom, it’s not unusual for flight attendants to stop serving and back up the food carts to make way. It’s also not uncommon to hear these passengers request all the snack options or be given the entire can of soda or bottle of water while someone like me waits patiently for a plastic cup of ice with several drops of ginger ale.

Me: “Can I have the entire can too?

Sorry, we are running low on ginger ale, ” the flight attendant would respond while nonchalantly offering a can of ginger ale to the next passenger who happened to be white and seated next to me.

By now I know the drill on flights. If I need to pee when flight attendants serve drinks or snacks, I know I’ll be told in a not necessarily pleasant manner to wait. To avoid the embarrassment that for me borders on shame and stress, I hold my pee in discomfort, hoping not to twinkle slightly in my seat. In some ways, that solution solves another. I am less likely to desire a drink or care if my plastic cup of ginger ale is half-full.

Do you see how emotionally evolving becomes a struggle when your self-worth is in doubt?

When fear keeps you in a hole, your attitude no longer reflects you but rather your perception of how the world above sees you. You are no longer living Your life, but rather a life inflicted on you by fear. Live this life long enough, and you get lost! You lose everything about you! Without knowing it, you quickly forget what made you unique and then you forget what matters. Getting lost in fear impairs one’s judgment. I didn’t recognize its impact on my attitude, behavior or perception.

Knowing something or knowledge doesn’t mean application. I still can’t imagine entering any restaurant or posh hotel and ask to use the restroom without dining at the restaurant or being a guest at the hotel. You see it only took an experience of being shown the rear entrance out when I used the restroom of a well-known establishment in upstate New York while with “relatives.” Had my “relative” objected as I was rudely ushered to the back door instead of accepting a hand towel, I might not have felt so ashamed. With my head bowed and eyes glued to the floor, I quietly walked to the indicated exit. My “relative” did not acknowledge my presence as I walked past her to exit the establishment we visited that day as a family. Ironically, this happened while the facility took money from my children who bought souvenirs in their store.

That was a classic Black Experience.

I felt awful! And believe it or not, at the time, I didn’t know why. Why did I use the bathroom without asking?  I thought.  Never mind my “relative” did the same thing and was given a hand towel. I blamed myself then I became angry and eventually resentful. In adjusting my lifestyle to protect my mental health from future similar traumatic onslaughts, I learned to hold madly strong urges to urinate until I was home or found a clean public restroom. I avoided situations that could lead to outcomes of public shaming.

Often I became annoyed, angry or sometimes fatigued when anticipating a fearful or stressful situation.  The thoughts of discriminatory rejection were fearful.  However, avoidance by building a wall of shame only led me to suffocate inside that wall of shame.

I learned the fear of rejection often brought on and fostered by chronic discrimination gained its power and destruction through the isolating effect of shame.  Shame can have the effect of perceptually disconnecting one from humanity.   Our Black Experience is complex. A core part of the experience involves managing feelings of disconnection with society at large. Black people often feel alone in a world full of people especially when experiencing discrimination.  Some of us have built walls from shame to protect us. Though we share discriminatory experiences, behind each individually erected wall of shame, we are alone with our feelings of resentment. We needn’t be alone or ashamed in feeling humiliation or rejection.

I learned there was no reason to feel ashamed of being myself. There was no reason to feel shame for being different.  There was no shame in failing.  I began to understand the black experiences I feared had less to do with race.   More importantly, the antidote was all along within me.  It was the courage to assert my self-worth as a Black woman in a society that made me vulnerable — understanding that was transformational in shattering the walls of shame and overcoming my fear of rejection.  It empowered me to regain and respect the power of me. The Black Experience no longer became a shackle but rather an anchor and a guide to what matters in my life. I stopped using avoidance to manage potentially discriminatory rejections or other stressful Black Experiences.

On that flight from SF to Boston, I asked for two drinks instead of one. On receiving the second drink, I noted the cup was half-full, and so were many others.  With a big smile, I quietly reveled in my courage to be vulnerable and ask for what I want and the gratitude of getting it. 


Author: Angela Grant

Angela Grant is a medical doctor. For 22 years, she practiced emergency medicine and internal medicine. She studied for one year at Harvard T. H Chan School Of Public Health. She writes about culture, race, and health.

12 thoughts on “Courage And Vulnerability: Lessons From The Black Experience

  1. Black people have been through hell, yet we are the strongest out of everyone. They are all hateful toward us because are the Original people. That’s why we have to stick together and get back to our Divine Selves.

  2. Now THAT’s a story which reminded me of the fierce woman I once met on LinkedIn in groups like BOC, and not the shadow of her later on when she was thriving on and in need of lame mainstream comments from her so called friends sucking up to her in their usually melodramatic and ultra-mundane ways while pretending to be rare activists who saw the light.

    I salute you for this one, though. One of your best, if not THE best ❣️ 💖

    Re: “You are no longer living Your life, but rather a life inflicted on you by fear. Live this life long enough, and you get lost! You lose everything about you! Without knowing it, you quickly forget what made you unique and then you forget what matters.” Have you watched season 1 of “Underground”? Yes? Then you know why I asked you. No? Do it, and you’ll find out.

    Re: “More importantly, the antidote was all along within me.” Remember what I called “Primal Knowledge/Wisdom”, and my take on the pathological side of culture?

    1. Thank you, Roald! Coming from you, I am honored you saw the value in this post. Underground is a great series, and I understand. Remind me of your take on “Primal Knowledge/Wisdom” and the pathological side of culture.

      BTW, I’m still a shadow of that person, and in other ways, I’m better.

        1. “The only thing left is to get your primal knowledge/wisdom back, to open the vault, to tap into it again when needed, just for fun, or maybe even make it the center of your life. ” It’s hard to go without armor. Vulnerability is about getting your primal knowledge/wisdom back.

          1. Ah there’s that vulnerability thingy again, embedded Ah, there’s that vulnerability thingy again, embedded in people’s life by creepy gurus, self proclaimed inspirational philosophers, and other lame wise crackers suffering from TBS (toilet bowl syndrome).

            I look at it differently, though. Here’s a quote from another article of mine about 3 kinds of therapy.

            In particular, this one is for the restless ones, the thrill seekers, and the daredevils, who know there’s more to life than all they already have accomplished, possess, and feel great about, something worth taking mega risks for, to leave and burn their ships for, to throw away their old shoes and rather go barefoot than to keep strutting around in them. It’s for people who want to claim back what was gradually taken from them since birth: Their primal knowledge and wisdom. It’s for people who don’t give a rat’s ass if they’re accepted by others or not. It’s for people who are fed up with adapting and adjusting to the written and unwritten laws of society for being successful, happy, or considered healthy. It’s dangerous to go here, though. Things can easily get out of hand. And they do too! It’s not safe at all. Far from it. Not for the client and not for me. Nobody knows what will happen. But that’s exactly what we want, to play with fire, to risk everything to finally taste what it really means to be alive. To find what was missing. To take back what was stolen from us. To own what is ours, and never let it slip away again.<<<<

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