By Megan O’Neill
Before I’m a Black woman, I’m a woman. Even before I’m a woman, I’m Megan O’Neill. I’m tall. I love the color turquoise. I feel prettiest wearing a swishy skirt and having done yoga that morning. I live for summer. I’m afraid to do acid. The subway—and being crammed up against all those people—energizes me. I love my mom ineffably. I’m thirty-five but often still call myself a girl. I’m indecisive because everything has some appeal. I’m a first-generation American born to Jamaican immigrants. I want kids and have some weird-cool names in my head. I’m optimistic.
I know that when I walk into a supermarket or a doorman building or a job interview, before anything else, I’m Black: a color and a qualifier that snuffs out my summer-loving, my swishy skirts—my complexities. It’s a wild dichotomy, knowing who I am and knowing I’m also someone else entirely to people who, overtly or subconsciously, believe my Blackness gives me qualities that live only in their minds: I’m dangerous, raucous, eager to shirk responsibility, turgid with criminal urges that will, sooner or later, ooze forth.
Before COVID preyed hardest on Black people, illuminating a grim new level of racial disparity, and before police departments’ most recent spate of perfunctory mauling and killing of Black men and women happened to be caught on camera and disseminated in a way that made flimsy pretexts no longer convincing—I made an effort not to ruminate on race constantly. But of course even then, part of me was always focused on it. Every Black person is hyperfocused on race, because the second we leave the house, we’re not judged as individuals.
If you’re a Black person and you don’t fit a crude stereotype, you’re confusing. In my case, you’re a White Black Girl, which is a thing that’s about as real as a mermaid. I’ve been called a WBG more times than I can count—behind my back as a slight, and to my face as a slight wrapped up in a joke. I suppose it means that if you were talking to me over the phone without having met me, my Valley Girl lilt would be antithetical to my skin color? I suppose it means I have a vocabulary? It’s too absurd to deconstruct.
Just out of college, I babysat a girl named Julia. She was seven or eight years old and enrolled at the same school I’d once gone to. We’d eat cupcakes, I sautéed carrots for her as part of her dinner once, and we worked on her homework together. She was eons ahead of your average second grader and didn’t need much tutoring. We had a good vibe going. One day she asked me, “Why do you talk like you’re white?” I told her I talked like me, that it was wrong of her to assume that an entire race of people should sound the same.
Her question jabbed me in the stomach, though, and time hasn’t eroded the sensation: It’s still in my head, that dusty idea that there is only one way to be Black. It’s emblematic of the wide scope of racism; every one of its varying degrees minimizes and subordinates. Racism is a messed-up question innocently posed by a White second grader, and racism is three White men in Georgia chasing down and killing an unarmed twenty-five-year-old Black man named Ahmaud Arbery on his afternoon jog—and not being arrested until the video of their vile act goes viral. The scenarios are obviously incomparable, except for the throughline: White people don’t have to deal with this kind of thing.
Racism can be obvious in its asinine-ness. I once interviewed for an assistant position at Vogue and later found out that the editor I’d spoken with expressed misgivings about hiring me because my hair was “unruly” (read: “curly”) and I didn’t seem “subservient enough.” Racism can be something you and your mom and brother perversely laugh about at the dinner table, because what on earth else do you do with the fact that the smart person in the high position at the prestigious magazine where your mom worked as a freelancer asked her if her excellent posture was the result of carrying baskets on her head when she was growing up. Racism can be blindsiding, like the time in high school my good friend’s boyfriend instant messaged her about making sure to stay safe from “the dirty niggers” we might encounter at the hip-hop concert we were going to that night.
Racism is the reason I’m three to four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than a White woman. It’s why Black teenagers who love the way they look in a hoodie have to balance wanting to look cool with their risk of getting shot. It’s why banks are more likely to deny loans to Black mortgage applicants than to applicants of any other race. Black women earn roughly 66 percent of what the average White man makes—that’s racism.
Racism is why, for years, I was the only Black person in my grade at my Upper East Side all-girls private school, and why most of my friends and the women I work with at goop—and I love love love my friends and the women I work with at goop—are White. To go a bit further upstream: My single mom worked doggedly to send me to a private school on scholarship because it was a better education than the one I’d get at the surrounding, more diverse public schools. Education affords you choices, especially if you’re a Black woman. The private school was predominantly White because yearly tuition was upwards of $25,000 (today it’s around $52,000). The net worth of a typical White family in the US is roughly ten times that of a Black family, due to discriminatory policies that were put in place after slavery and throughout the twentieth century, like Jim Crow laws and redlining, which prevented Black families from accruing generational wealth.
I’m lucky. My mom fought for me to have a beautiful life. I live in Brooklyn, surrounded by a lot of woke people who are actively putting in the effort to be anti-racist. I feel supported and seen by those in my immediate orbit. I’ve never lived in a food desert. I’ve never been chased by White men targeting Black people out on an afternoon jog. But I, too, deal with the psychological maelstrom of having dark skin.
You’re always wondering if it’s what’s motivating the salesperson to surreptitiously follow you around the store when you’re browsing. Is it why the woman at the resort in Arizona, where you’re vacationing with your blonde college friends, double-checks that you’ve paid for the mineral sunscreen you’re walking out with?
It’s an utter mindfuck to be Black. But I don’t wish myself to be any other way. To be Black and live your life fully and joyfully in spite of omnipresent ignorance and injustice and a president who hasn’t said a real word about Black lives mattering is a triumph of colossal proportions.
Early in the school year, when I was little, my mom told me something that all caring Black mothers tell their children. “You’re going to be great. It’s different for you, remember. What you do or don’t do matters more than it does for them.” She wasn’t stern, and I was receptive. By then I’d already picked up that my being Black meant a lot more than the empirical certainty that my skin was a shade somewhere between the shell of a coconut and ground cinnamon.
My mom always says she can only be as happy as her unhappiest child. It’s true of America, too. We can only be as happy as the families of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Rayshard Brooks, and every other Black person who’s been gruesomely, unjustly murdered. We are worse than unhappy right now. We want Black lives to matter as much as White ones do. We want equality, not revenge. It’s such a mild ask.