The Awkwardness of White Joy

I’m glad you’re trying to figure it out, but where the hell have you been all this time?

Photos: Shane Paul Neil

Four days later, the results were final. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were in. Donald Trump and Mike Pence were out.

I spent that Saturday morning sifting through the latest updates while watching the coverage and joining the chatter on Twitter (yes, the Black one).

When the news hit, I watched Black joy in the form of GIFs, memes, and clever takes. We laughed while embracing all of our pettiness, mocking the racist cartoon Trump and his MAGA supporters had become in the wake of their loss.

I watched the joy of Black women.

I watched the joy of Brown women.

I watched the joy of AKAs.

I watched the joy of women and men who attend(ed) HBCUs.

I watched a collective release. An exhale of the stress and anger that simmers and boils over from Black folks’ collective souls onto the collective conscience of America.

Black joy has flair. It has a style and a heft that reflects all the resilience necessary to survive often unhappy situations, and even pull happiness from them. Every smile and laugh is earned.

As news of Trump’s ousting spread across the nation, parties spilled into the street. Someone I know tweeted that it looked like we’d won a war. I replied that we had.

What I saw felt like the celebration of a victory not yet won by those who only just got on the team.

I watched clips of celebrations in Harlem and Brooklyn. The dancing and laughter in the streets felt communal and familiar; they reminded me of the block parties I grew up with where the neighbors would pull out their massive sound systems and grill jerk chicken in the street. (That’s a story for another day.)

I wish I could have seen it firsthand, but I would have to settle with spectating from my apartment in New Jersey.

As I watched, I got a text message from my ex-wife: “Have you seen the streets in town? They are packed. People have signs, and cars are honking up and down the boulevard.”

As she texted me, I began to see throngs of White people on television and in my news feeds celebrating with fervor, many of them holding up Black Lives Matter signs.

This year has, in part, been defined by an influx of White patrons to Black causes. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, along with video after video of police brutality, served as the underpinning of a fresh wave of White guilt. This guilt was further abetted by the bad behavior of Karens and Kevins (we never really got around to naming male Karens). Among other transgressions, these people railed against mask-wearing and social distancing while still finding time to yell, “Fuck Black Lives Matter!”

What we saw from their more open-minded compatriots was more than White guilt. It was something more powerful: White embarrassment.

But much like other iterations of enflamed White angst (who remembers the safety pins?), this one seemed to cool with the autumn breeze. Between the election and the slow shift back to normalcy from Covid-19 shutdowns, there were newer, fresher things to glom onto.

I decided to go into the center of town and join, or at least observe, the celebration.

Cars filled with young White men and women blared YG’s “FDT,” while throngs of White people of all ages hooted and hollered on the sidewalk.

They waved Biden/Harris signs along with those for Black Lives Matter. They honked and yelled and pointed at one another:

“We did it!”

In the middle of it all, was me, doing what Black people do in these situations. I looked for other Black people. We caught eyes with one another and psychically made sure we were on the same page:

“You see this, too, right?”

“Mm-hm…”

“Is this real?”

“Maybe?”

“You going to the secret Black meeting later?”

Okay. That last one isn’t real.

White joy can be challenging to process for Black people, especially when part of that joy involves us. If this celebration had been solely about being excited for a new president, for seeing who was easily the worst president in my lifetime (you’re off the hook, GWB) ousted from the White House, it would have been easier to process. But this felt like someone pinned a Black Lives Matter cape on Batman. And to be honest, Black folks are pretty sure Bruce Wayne would vote for Trump.

What I saw felt like the celebration of a victory not yet won by those who only just got on the team.

I should say that from the inside looking out, being a White ally (I hate the term ally, read this to see why) isn’t easy. Sorting out where your place is and how to effectively support is a tricky proposition. Too much or too little can be problematic.

When do I speak up?

When do I shut up?

When do I ask my Black friend a question?

When do I figure this shit out on my own?

Can I sing all the lyrics from “Niggas in Paris”?

It’s a tough gig, indeed.

But that difficulty is really all your fault. White folks are very late to the party. It often looks like a kid jumping from Pop Warner to the NFL — the team needs you, but you’re just not ready. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you’re trying to figure it out, but where the hell have you been all this time?

So, moments like the one I watched the other day quickly become awkward, especially when it seems like Black people are the patron saints of White wokeness.

The election was historic, especially with the first Black/Asian/HBCU grad to be named vice president, but it felt like a 100-meter dash where White folks started the race 25 meters in and crossed the finish line 25 meters early — and still celebrated with a “look at what we did!”

The most difficult part of watching White joy, especially when it is adjacent to Blackness, is that it shows us what we are missing out on: untethered freedom. It’s a freedom that even the most sincere of allies benefit from because the cause they rally for is a cause they are largely protected from.

At its best, it is third-person activism.

Being Black means knowing that all of this is fleeting. The achievements (look at what Trump did to former President Barack Obama’s legacy in just four years), the interest (allyship is only as strong as its ROI), and even our lives (no example needed). Black joy comes with an asterisk:

*The happiness you are experiencing can and will likely be revoked at any time. See Black Twitter for terms and conditions.

White allies, despite their best intentions, can often be a triggering reminder of how far removed we are from the American promise. A reminder that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness aren’t extraordinary ideals but somehow remain insidiously out of reach.

Yesterday made clear that we are a divided America — and the division between us, in many ways, is only visible to those of us who never wanted it in the first place.

Writer (duh). Bylines @LevelMag @thegrio @NBCBLK. Co-creator of the Good Talk Podcast Network. Don’t forget to add me to your Medium email list!

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