To be Black and politically active in Austin is to work among liberal whites who are glad to be educated about racial injustice, but then want to educate you about what degree of change is possible and when. In 2015, when I was seventeen years old, I gave my first public speech about institutional racism. Under Zach Theatre’s bright stage lights, I asked questions about my Black American life. Where should I dedicate my political energy? How do we stop anti-Black violence? For the next few years, as I spoke at elite political fundraisers and events, I kept asking. For a time, I accepted the answers I got back. “We can’t be too ambitious with our political goals. We hear you, but don’t expect to see big changes.” These past few weeks have reminded me of my misplaced energy. Now, I put an old version of myself to rest.
Five years after that first speech—and a week after my graduation from the University of Texas—there would be the start of another American race protest. The dead in focus this time were George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two more Black Americans killed by police officers. As a moment in time meets years of organizing and worsening conditions, Black Lives Matter protests have spread farther than before, across the country, including to Austin and even small Texas towns. It annoys me that these events of mass mobilization are not more commonly called uprisings. That’s how we would refer to similar events in other countries. But in America, as I learned through my speech-making, you are not supposed to use terms that upset the white world.
I was raised in South Austin on a street called Slaughter, named after land-owning Kentuckian Stephen F. Slaughter, who came to Texas when it became a republic. The road branches comfortably to streets containing low-end duplexes and upper-middle-class neighborhoods. When I was eighteen, I was invited to speak at a small gathering of the local elite. I had won a speech competition on that bright stage the year prior, and since then I had addressed audiences of white Austin liberals with my musings about institutional racism—the brutality, mass incarceration, and discriminatory hiring practices that persist in this country. While at a high-rise that showed me a view of my city I had never seen before, I spouted statistics about the number of Black folk killed by police officers every year, as members of the audience swirled their wine. When it was over, a white woman, sitting with perfect posture, told me that for her, I was a “translator,” someone capable of explaining racism without seeming too angry. I smiled the smile I had always smiled.
A Black American’s earliest learned tool is how to be likable. Likable enough to be an exception. You are to understand that white people mean it as a compliment when they distinguish you from other Black folks. For the Black adolescent, if you have passed the hurdle of internalized racism and self-hatred, this is not a condemnation of your fellow Black American. But it’s an acknowledgment that to make it in the white world, you are not supposed to challenge the ways white people think, especially those who consider themselves heroes to Blacks. When they are made uncomfortable by something they said about race, it is your job to make them feel better.
In the summer of 2016, shortly after my trip to the high-rise, police officers killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in Baton Rouge and St. Paul. I remember, as many Black youths do, marking my life’s significant moments not with birthdays or school trips but with the unsolicited martyrdom of Black people, of their blood mixing with oil and rainwater on dirty streets.
A few days later, a Black veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Micah Xavier Johnson, opened fire on police officers in Dallas. I was at my college orientation. Ignoring the pain I was carrying from the deaths of Alton and Philando, I experienced the joy and excitement of learning about the next stage of my life. Then, when Johnson took his first shot, I lay under the covers of my temporary dorm bed and stifled myself as I watched the news unfold. I cried for him as I wondered what they would think of us.
Back at my home in South Austin, I remembered that I was not supposed to show my anger to the world, lest I lose my distinction as translator. I tried to distract myself in my room. As I stared into my phone screen, I saw a picture of my white ex-girlfriend from high school casually hanging out with the white man who had once called her a “Nigger lover.” I got into my mother’s car and drove with no destination in mind. I connected my vocal cords to my heart and screamed out in anguish as I flew down Slaughter Lane.
I’ve always found it odd how my liberal peers would be so quick to call out overt racism but never consider their own biases. Many white moderates and progressives alike share an impressive power to dodge messages clearly addressed to them. In any discussion about race, I find that liberals sidestep any association they may have to racism. Racism, you see, is for the other team.
I continued to speak about politics throughout college. With few exceptions, I was the youngest and, in my memory, the only Black guest. I was always surprised by the people I was supposed to be impressed with. One night at a private dinner, I watched the chairman of the New York Times brag about outsmarting President Trump in conversation. The guests gave him a rousing round of “attaboys.” I managed a laugh, ate my well-prepared steak, and pretended that my rage began on Election Day in 2016, as I suspected was the case for many at that gathering. But as they teared up defending themselves against the new president’s attacks on the press, I recalled how the newspaper, along with other white media institutions, had vilified my people for years with racist coverage and headlines. But I kept that to myself. I told them all we were in this together. I praised the New York Times as I peppered in my pleas for abstract progress. While they cheered, I found myself grating my fingernails against the palm of my hand. Later, in the dimly lit bathroom, I made faces at myself in the mirror as I prepared to go smile some more. I picked my drink back up and thought that perhaps it was true: maybe change does have to be achingly incremental.
On another night, one I remember as cold, I climbed up to the roof of my college apartment building. As clouds covered the moon for short periods, I practiced my latest speech for a congressional candidate. I named all of the cruel practices and policies I hated and tried to align them with supporting a statesman whose voting record and stated goals opposed only half of them. I smoothed out the contradictions. On the stage the next day, I smiled a smile I was growing tired of.
“How do you do it?” the former mayor of Dallas asked the mayor of Detroit at another private event (both were white). He wanted to know how the Detroit mayor managed to be well liked by the Black residents of his city. I looked around the white crowd. I wondered if I would have been honest with them if they asked me about race.
I approached the mayor of Austin as the room buzzed with smiles and good feelings. Extending my hand, I told him about the ugly racism I had seen in this liberal city. With all the politeness of doing things the right way, I translated my pain into something digestible. Our hands bopped up and down like a raft in a storm. He looked me in the eye. “It’s great that we have young people like you,” he said. “Racism is the biggest problem we have in this country.”
Now, this month in his city, my city, blood caked the concrete as the Austin police force shot rubber bullets indiscriminately at Black Lives Matters protesters along I-35—a roadway that historically segregates the city.
The decision-makers are less impressive than you want them to be. The white liberal will express solidarity with Black people, but will then explain that the change your community needs is simply impossible, or can be achieved only very slowly. And if you don’t accept that, you are immature.
For years, I was treated like a hero for speaking about my experience. But those speeches were, in effect, rarely more than political performances. To make the pain of my life—my Black life—make sense among the wineglasses and fancy dinners, you have to divorce it from the substantive action required to relieve it. It is hard to see when you are in there, awarded with applause.
To truly translate how I feel is incompatible with maintaining the image of heroism in which white moderates and liberals wrap themselves. I fully understand the ways in which the overt racism of a Donald Trump is a graver immediate danger than the more implicit racism of a Joe Biden. Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric and actions are not an option for Black Americans. He spits in our faces by calling for “law and order” at his rally in Tulsa, the site of one of the most horrific racial massacres in American history. But Biden and the Democratic party abuse Black America by counting on the “other team” to be worse for us. Biden devastated Black communities for years by spearheading the 1994 crime bill. More recently, his “joke” on the Breakfast Club radio show (“then you ain’t black”) created yet another controversy. And I read all 10,000 words of Biden’s plan for Black America. It’s a weak statement, full of the lip service that wants to bandage our pain, to gloss over our deaths, with small grants and endless capitalism.
What I fear that white Democrats do not understand is that Black Americans have no interest in playing team games if they do not see themselves alive on either team. Democrats offer minor reforms and change street names to Black Lives Matter Avenue. Many of them paternalistically say actions like defunding the police are unrealistic. But if I die in the best world that you can imagine, then there’s a problem with your imagination.
As Democrats pretend that my only option for political action is to vote for candidates who don’t offer me what I need, I have to wonder: how can one look around at streets once empty from a pandemic and now filled with the righteous anger of the oppressed and think that the tried-and-tested liberal methods of opposition work? On May 31, an Austin police officer fractured the skull of a demonstrator, a twenty-year-old Black student named Justin Howell. It did not matter that he was in a liberal city, one that always champions its “progressive” nature. It did not matter that he was “peaceful.” And it did not matter that the assault happened a few blocks from a street named after the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
I’m just a kid, an out-of-work translator who no longer has an interest in the position. I was raised on a street called Slaughter, and I attended college on a street named MLK. I am ready to say goodbye to an old me—a me that sought white acceptance, that spent my political energy on a system that could not imagine me being alive.
Jade Fabello is an Austin-based writer and a recent graduate of the University of Texas, where he was a double major in the Journalism and the Communication and Leadership programs.