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What I Could Have Said (And Been Completely Justified.)

After experiencing a microaggression at a local arts event, Tameka Cage Conley reflects on the burden of racism and silence.

I was at the after party of an annual arts meeting. There were ham and turkey sandwiches, sushi, fried chicken nuggets, and two kinds of gigantic meatballs, olives, hummus, tapenade, salsa, and blue corn chips. At least fifty plastic flutes sparkled with champagne to celebrate the host organization’s anniversary. There was a 12-foot long table with more cake than I have ever seen in one place. There was wine and beer. It was all love, the perfect way to end a long meeting for which I was hungry most of the time.

A solid group of friends were there, and it was a mini reunion of sorts, a celebration of being youngish artists in a town that has carved a space for folks to be artists. One friend, a visual artist who is nursing, asked for a bottle of water. As the mother of a toddler, I recalled those months when, while nursing, I wanted a drink of water more than anything. I walked through the crowd to the bar. A lovely friend was ahead of me and asked for water. The bartender, a young white woman, gave it to her, and my friend walked away. I was next. I asked for water. The bartender said sharply, “Didn’t I just give you one?”

My body froze. I heard her, but I needed a moment to process what she’d said. After a beat that seemed longer, I replied, “No. That wasn’t me.” I felt revenge in the back of my throat, but I held it back. She gave me the water.

When I returned to the table, I told a friend who is African American what had happened. He understood: the woman might as well have called me nigger. It was a microaggression that I felt first in my skull, then my spirit, and then all the air inside my body. Not only had this young, white bartender collapsed my friend and I into the same Black woman, but also, she’d decided I deserved less service, less respect. I held my tongue. I swallowed the words I could have spoken, words I had the right to speak.

But what if I hadn’t? What if I had met her disrespect, not just with my tone but also with language as direct as her dismissal of my request for a bottle of water? I might have said any of the following:

Do you think all Black people look alike?

The woman you just served is the color of chestnut. I am the color of dark chocolate. We. Do. Not. Look. Anything. Alike.

If you have a problem serving me, why do you have a problem?

Everything here is free. I could have ten waters if I wanted.

Matter fact, give me ten waters.

I hate what you just did to me and how you made me feel.

You did not invent water.

You are here to serve.

I asked nicely. You did not respond nicely. You responded with hostility.

Well, it’s clear you’re not comfortable serving Black people. Why do you think that is?

What in the hell is wrong with you? I mean, seriously, what actually is the matter with you?

I want you to feel how I feel right now.

I am so sick of every person like you, I don’t know what to do.

Just give me the damn water and go somewhere and sit down.


Racism is a deep wound. As I pursue healing I'll be less concerned with being a polite “respectable” Black woman
When I say I am disgusted with Black people being perceived as angry, hostile, defensive, criminal, violent, unhappy, difficult, or testy, what I am actually saying is that for every moment we have held our tongues, bit down on our bottom lip, sat down on our justifiably hurt feelings when faced with racist microaggressions, we have had every right to be any of these things. And more. Part of the problem occurs when racist white people decide their actions are not racist and can easily be dismissed as a mistake, mishap, or confusion. To them, their actions are justifiable, which only further dismisses our humanity. When I told the young woman that I was not the woman she’d just given a bottle of water, she explained that she was just trying to remember what she was doing, that she wondered if she had actually just given a bottle of water to someone, as if she was somehow overworked and stressed by giving free drinks to an arts crowd. Perhaps she was stressed. I have no idea. But this: Had I been white, she would have never asked, “Didn’t I just give you one?” Perhaps she would have thought this exact question, but she would not have dared ask it. Had I been white, my white privilege would have said to her: “Give me what I want. Don’t ask questions.” And she, in her white body that knows white privilege–even if she does not understand it–would have complied. I have no doubt that had I been white, I would have received the bottle of water, whether she thought she had given it to me or not, with a smile. No disrespect. No questions asked.

At that makeshift bar at this party filled with artists, arts administrators, and arts funders, there was American history: when you are Black, you do not deserve plenty. You do not deserve comfort or what it feels like to have more than enough. You deserve scarcity. You deserve whatever white racist culture decides you should have, which is always lacking and never as bright or plentiful as their share. And you should be quiet about it. You should drink the water given to you and shut up. Or you should walk away empty-handed and stay thirsty.

Though I did not remain silent, I did not say all I could have said. But perhaps it’s time we should. Why should we continue to carry the burden of a racist culture, as if we created racism? This is the beginning of a new life for me. When I feel and see racism, I shall call it out directly to the person who has injured me. Because racism, most assuredly, is a deep wound. I’m tired of bleeding and being cut, over and over and over. I am pursuing healing instead. And as I do, I will be less concerned with being a polite, “respectable,” Black woman.

About the Author

Tameka Cage Conley, PhD is a literary artist who writes poetry, fiction, plays, and essays. She has received writing fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Workshop, and the August Wilson Center. Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals and magazines. She is at work on a first novel and poetry collection.


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  • sarah huny young

    No thank you to anything you have to say re: microaggressions or the experiences of Black women. You’re not qualified to opine, much less snark. Plus, a cursory search of other comments you’ve made elsewhere make it pretty clear what your perspective is on how people of color move through this world. Not “worth it” indeed. Take care.

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