[The following piece was written by Nicholas Powers, an associate professor at State University of New York (SUNY), and first published by website RaceBaitr on June 11, 2019. The website scrubbed the piece from the internet rather than responding when faced with questions from right-wing journalists. Coverage: NY Post, Washington Times, Breitbart.]
“Should I kick him in the face? Hard? No, chill, he’s not worth it. But why is this white boy begging for money in a Black neighborhood? Is he stupid?”
I shake the evil out of my head and go into the subway. He comes every Spring. The homeless white boy flaps down like a dirty migratory bird, makes himself a nest from garbage and sleeps on the sidewalk. A sign on his shopping cart asks for money—I never give. I should tho ‘cause he makes me feel good.
White people begging us for food feels like justice. It feels like Afro-Futurism after America falls. It feels like a Black Nationalist wet dream. It has the feels I rarely feel, a hunger for historical vengeance satisfied so well I rub my belly.
I know it’s not a good look. At least I think I know? I have the ghost of Martin Luther King Jr. in my head like a life coach exhorting me to “be my best self,” “show compassion to those who spite you,” “turn the other cheek” and “don’t give our enemies more reasons to hate us.” I need to kick Martin Luther King Jr. out of my head. Go fuck another secretary Martin! I need to ask what this white homeless boy means to me.
White homeless poor in the ‘hood are a Rorschach test. I see in them the history of colonization, slavery and mass incarceration that makes their begging Black people for money ironic—if not insulting. You wasted your whiteness! Why should we give to you? Others see that same history, but for them, he is a chance to be MLK’s dream.
Here is a descendant of murderers who killed our ancestors now begging us to save their life. So let’s turn the other cheek! But it’s not always honest. It is the trick of internalized racism that Black anger is transformed into showy altruism to show the “white gaze” that we’re safe—good Negroes. So we aren’t attacked by more powerful whites—instead rewarded by them.
I saw an older Caribbean woman, devoutly Christian place a container of jerk chicken at his feet. Holy light radiated from her. It was a public lesson to us all, that we shouldn’t let racism poison our souls with hate. “God bless you,” she intoned loudly as if performing Shakespeare in the park. Yet I saw this same Jesus freak walk by a legless brother pushing his wheelchair through traffic, asking for change and she did not even bat an eyelash. He wasn’t worthy. But the white boy is. She saw her best self reflected in his whiteness. She saw her beautiful white soul, doing a white God’s work, on the mirror of white flesh.
Sometimes folks see that same history and want to get even. I saw three brothers run up and spit on him as people cackled at the white boy who wiped sticky gobs from his eyelids. The laughter was cruel, joyful and belly deep. They might as well shook slave chains in his face and said, “Now you get to wear these nigga!”
All these thoughts crashed in my head as I got on the subway. “Help,” a cracked plea jabbed at the quiet. “Help me get something to eat,” a legless Nuyorican pushed his wheelchair between train riders studying their cellphones. Jesus, I thought, did all the homeless get their legs cut off? “Help me,” he asked and no one answered. I saw in his face the African, Native and European bloodlines spilled by war and rape. Just like mine. “Help me get food,” he asked the next rider and the next. I’ve known Nuyoricans like him my whole life, homeless or shooting heroin in doorways and like an x-ray, saw the history of violence and oppression that created their destruction. I just barely dodged it myself because of a fraught class privilege.
I hear “help” and see the Nuyorican in the wheelchair, or the endless parade of Black men or women holding out crusted hands for pennies. I smell their death. I hear their voices scraped on sidewalks and long nights in the cold. I see their scabbed skin, or gaunt thin lips, or yellow liquored eyes. I retreat inside myself, waiting until they pass like an image rounding the surface of a soap bubble.
But when a white person begs, maybe a white woman breastfeeding or a young white boy whining like a broken flute, I feel better. Good. It’s not just us. I feel happy. I feel like the scales of justice could shift.
The other day I jogged up the subway stairs and saw the homeless white boy again. “Can you get me something to eat,” he barked out to the river of people passing by. “Someone stole all my shit!” Scabs covered his mouth. He was sunburnt and thin. I ignored him but thought “Baby, you stole all mine.” I glanced at his blanket, shopping cart and books. Who is he? Why is he here? Where are his people?
I stopped myself. It’s the Martin Luther King Jr. life-coach again, saying, “Love your enemies! Get to know them as people.” No Dr. King! Today I own my anger. I want to snatch his food and say, “Go beg in a white neighborhood!” And eat it. And rub my belly. And laugh.
I smile. The cruelty cures my internalized racism that forces me to empathize with him—so I can be patted on the head like a good peaceful protester. All my white editors want me to write that way. All the white institutions that pay me want me to feel that way. But I don’t—and saying I don’t is freeing. It pulls the unconscious whiteness out of my brain. I don’t need to see my best or worst self reflected on his skin.
As I walk away, a white man in tailored clothes and exfoliated skin talked to the homeless white boy. His face is a mix of fear and disgust, race loyalty and pity. He’s doing what I did, confronting history.
How do I know? The fear in his tight mouth is disgust. The fear in his eyes is forced and unwanted racial empathy. He’s worried, like many whites are, that as they become the minority, fewer and fewer places will exist where they have power. They worry that at some point the roles will be reversed and they will have to beg for food. He looked at the homeless white boy and saw a hungry ghost, seemingly expelled from some alternate dimension where Europeans are enslaved, segregated and mass incarcerated. He sees the fall of America.
Neither of us ask the kid’s name. We don’t need to. His name is ink-blot. His name is Rorschach. It’s whatever we see in the dark shapes that sleep on the street or pass by us on the train. That occasionally reaches out to us and says, “Help.”