an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
I do not want to write about leaving Austin.
I don’t want to write about it because it feels like generalizing. Because, as someone noted, African Americans are the most vocal minority in Austin to be such a tiny group — 8 percent in a city with an estimated 843,000 folks. Because writing about it suggests ambivalence or ambiguity and I feel neither.
But I’m writing because I think there might be other black women living in Austin or considering living in Austin who might find some recognition in my observations after living here for 8 years – both in Austin and in Texas. These sentiments can probably be extrapolated to other groups and ethnicities but the black woman component is unique and to me, uniquely significant.
Austin is the best part of Texas. But it is still Texas. We say this to one another in real life. For however people fashion Texan identity in their mental landscape, the state is an adventure of its own. Texas is a vast, conservative empire of space, perfect for a journey. It is a gigantic canvas with silos and fortresses of comfort, discomfort, colorful and mountainous dreams. It feels like the precipice, the cliff looking out over something potentially majestic. You know the narratives here, the history. You can feel it in the earth, cowboy boots or no, and you imagine everything your heart wants to project on that great giant sky. The blooming skylines in Austin and Texas, like the wide-open horizons, offer unspecified creative promises where you can write your future.
The patriot in me loves a great narrative, particularly if a space embodies the narrative. Austin’s narrative is that it is the cool, hip, laid-back kid who might dress like it’s Monday for a paycheck but has a heart for year-round Spring Break. All this beauty and fun and queso and breakfast tacos, all these festivals and all this live music and all that football and burnt orange everything and our shared contempt for Interstate 35. What only a few people say is that what keeps Austin from leaping from the precipice toward greatness is its aversion to constructive criticism, a kind of collective defensive denial about what it really means to be liberal, progressive and great. (For more, read Michael Corcoran’s great piece,Welcome to Mediocre, Texas.)
I loved that narrative, the one about the tacos and the creative class, so hard, almost 20 years ago, the first time I came here, back when Tower Records was a thing, and more recently when I became one of the dreaded legions of People Moving Here from California. But I am a sentimental woman. You give me something, and I will keep it forever until it breaks or dies or falls all the way apart. I keep cards and pictures and old perfume boxes filled with letters, ticket stubs, old printed-out emails from the days of AOL domination, certificates and birthday cards.
Some say hoarder, I say aspiring amateur archivist.
For someone so sentimental, I’m unsettled and surprised by my lack of sentimentality about Austin, about moving back to the East Coast. The people I love here who have shaped the experiences that made this feel so close to home for me all know about the non-narrative Austin, the pseudo-nirvana blind to its hidden luxuries and congratulatory, smug stubbornness. Like San Francisco, bless its heart, Austin prefers topical niceties over excavation, and redefines progressive intention, sentiment and fantasies as akin to thought and action.
This is part of what makes Austin and Texas exhausting locations for black people, especially black women. As in its liberal cousin hubs, like Berkeley and San Francisco, I feel a hypervisible invisibility in Austin. Like people are happy to see me because it means that they are not racist, because, look, there is a real, live black woman here, too, and it’s so great that she didn’t have to come in the back or that she’s enjoying a fine meal, too. More often than not, my presence provokes a stare from non-black people pregnant with class and gender assumptions and limitations. Put another way, even though I’m a homeowner, people frequently assume that I must be visiting from where all the black people live. Polite racism is still racism, and because black people with brown skin in particular are unable to pass as anything but, I would argue that people hear most often from us about bias in Austin and Texas because there is no way to blend in or avoid the subject.
This is no different from America. But at least in more racist pockets of Texas, I know where I stand. I mean, I know to stay the hell out of Vidor. But knowing your role in Austin is much trickier. There is no resting place. A tense smile in a liberal hub is a maddening, dangerous thing. It is to be placed in a category upon first meeting that requires black women to spend their social time and experiences treading lightly while we assert and affirm our individuality, knowing that we are often educating our well-meaning friends and while they appreciate it, it is repetitive, never-ending, tiring work. If they are not awkward (and it is a naturally awkward topic, race) or defensive, responses about racial stratification here prompt a white flag: hopelessness, a kind of dreaded silence, an acknowledgment of the awkward position of black women here, a change of subject.
Austin is growing but part of its story is that it is a small town. In this small town, the foundation of the city, the thing that makes it work, is an intricate and tricky political network of relationships. Maybe there isn’t any place that has a true meritocracy any more and that’s another of America’s fantastical narratives, but the word alone is not one you hear in Austin very much. If people like you, if you make them laugh, if you don’t make them uncomfortable, you have a shot at being One of Them. If not, well, you just don’t know what to do with all this Austin goodness.
Black women know this story well. We try to climb closer to terra firma in these social dynamics, delicately, lest we be interpreted/read as so different, so difficult and alienated that we are beyond being cultured enough to really understand how things work. To be a black woman is to live constantly in a house at the intersection of Mansplaining and Universal Condescension. If we are not One of Them, it is because we have not done enough work, because we just haven’t looked in the right places. In a life replete with all kinds of paid and unpaid work, the tense smile, the awkward silence says what the general culture always says to black women which is, If only you weren’t so Black Womanish, you could find a place to be happy. *shrug*
So while Austin is a comfortable place, it is not at all relaxing for black women. For those with containers — romantic relationships, school, office jobs, family; all of the above, one of the four — the search for kindred spirits and community is not quite as difficult if you work actively to build a silo of sanity for yourself.
But the emotional cost outside of those containers is a kind of subliminal, aggressive hostility that should be considered, and not just for the sensitive or sentimental among us. The hostility is not directly specifically at black women, but as the presence of black women in this space as avatars of change. Our hypervisible invisibility in spaces like Austin portend a demographic shift that a country that will tell our president to go back to Africa is obviously not equipped to process. To be the sole black person in any space brings its own challenges. But to find yourself as the sole honest black friend to numerous white people is more than a full-time job. It becomes a second identity, a shadow.
It is work for a number of reasons, but mainly because the discernment, concentration, the sporadic silence require deep and serious compassion, strategy and thought. Regularly. Like, every time you are outside of your home.
Black women are always confronted with the lessons of detachment versus engagement. We are aware of double standards, which are stitched into our emotional DNA. Austin, like Texas, likes petite cheerleaders in its women, and if we cannot be that, if we insist on bringing all of ourselves everywhere, we should be black women who smile easily, who are of good cheer and countenance. We should not talk overmuch about race, gender, class, gentrification and the like. Shorter: Stick to the good script, girl.
Honesty in conversation with my friends, 90 percent of whom are not black, require that in order to have a nice, neutral time out, I should couch my observations in niceties and caveats and disclaimers before I can get to my truth. I have been told some of this is my fault because I’m too nice, but that’s not true. It’s not because I’m nice. I would love to be nice, I love all of my nice friends. I love humanity but it’s harder for me to love humans.
It’s because I am probably overly self-protective of my emotions and energy after a long while of not even thinking about what it meant to keep some space for myself in conversations where I heard people asking for the truth and didn’t understand that they would have preferred a version of the truth instead of the actual truth.
Privilege is the unspoken luxury of whiteness, regardless of class. To acknowledge its power is not to disavow oneself of the privilege, and proclaiming weirdness doesn’t negate how privilege alienates us from one another. The privilege, for example, of not having to translate microagressions, intraracial racism, benign racism, everyday racism, and why or how they looms larger than any kindnesses because of their wide and large silence hanging like a curtain over every interaction, must be so relaxing and nice. As a part-time introvert, I can only imagine what it will be like, what it *is* like to direct the energy that goes to thinking about these things totally devoted to writing or being with my family and friends.
I once thought that the combination of a virtual and in real life community of good friends in Austin, combined with my characters, would sustain me. The sentimental girl in me believed I could build a fortress of love and support between virtual and flesh and blood lifelines, but time and prayer showed me that making a makeshift world is only a third of the battle for black women here. Nor is it the life I want.
As much affection as people have for strong black women, the strongest among us need places where we can take down the full armor of God, where we can be seen without being ogled, mistaken for famous black women we look nothing like (I am not Tracy Chapman!) where we can laugh and build community inside a context that doesn’t demand — with snark, with a smile — our silence on the things that make us weary, weak and vulnerable.
The bias, once internalized, is enough to make you feel paralyzed, depressed, suicidal. I felt melodramatic to even suggest that, and certainly didn’t want to admit it considering my family history. But watching bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry in conversation after talking to my wise sisters and friends validated for me what Austin and Texas will never be able to.
What black women know is that there are no cities or spaces in the world that roll out red carpets or throw parades for us. Whatever brings us joy, from how we talk to one another to how we dress to whom we choose to love, is caricatured, berated, held up as evidence of our ignorance or inability to be as fully complex as white women, then appropriated by hipster culture and sold back to us as brilliant wit. To paraphrase Paul Mooney, everyone wants to be black, but nobody wants to be black.
After more than a year of sorting through those emotions and feelings, I decided that to live in a place deeply attached to that kind of practice is to be complicit. Even if you can articulate why it makes you feel lonely, vulnerable, exposed, afraid, you cannot change the culture or the city. For me, it has been the equivalent of climbing a cultural Stairmaster for 8 years looking for ease and comfort I always felt was located somewhere else – or maybe no place on earth.
This piece was originally posted at jvictoriasanders.com. It appears here with her permission.
Joshunda Sanders has been a writer and journalist since 1998. Her writing has appeared in Kirkus Reviews, Gawker, Publishers Weekly and Bitch among other print and online publications. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in several anthologies, including Get Out of My Crotch: Twenty-One Writers Respond to America’s War on Women’s Rights and Reproductive Health, Stand Our Ground: Poems for Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander, Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists, Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place and Time and Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religion. She published Single & Happy: The Party of Ones in 2013 and was a TEDCity 2.0 speaker in 2013 (see the 49 minute mark in Session 4). She is working on a memoir tentatively titled The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans and a nonfiction book about race and media scheduled to be published in 2015. Her first published fiction, “Sirens,” appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Bellevue Literary Review. Joshunda is a proud graduate of Emma Willard School, Vassar College and the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned a Master’s of Science in Information Studies in 2009.