Commentary: Why it’s exhausting being black in Austin

Being black in Austin is hard work. And, I am tired.

The fatigue began years ago, when as a news reporter I would schedule interviews over the phone. I would arrive at the location, only to have people not answer their doors. Later, they would apologize, saying they didn’t realize I was the woman on the phone — because I didn’t “sound” black. A few even chastised me for not telling them in advance that I was black.

As an Austin parent, you grow tired of reminding your black sons what to do when the police pull them over for driving while black. Not “if” they get pulled over, but “when.”

You also worry that the names you chose for your children, based on ethnic pride, might be an artificial barrier to their success, despite their intellectual heft, degrees, perfect diction, and accomplishments.

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We all have stories of being asked about our hair, our food, our customs — not always because the questioners are interested, but because they find our difference exotic, even entertaining.

After a while, you grow weary of hearing other people’s Austin stories. For example, the one about the black Houston lawmaker, waiting for his car at the entrance of the Four Seasons, only to have a guy toss his car keys at him, assuming he was the valet.

When shopping while black, it isn’t unusual for sales clerks to either pretend they don’t see you or stalk you. But in Austin, we have had sections of entire business strips close during the Texas Relays because those places didn’t want to serve “that many” blacks.

In many places, these stories would be just random incidents. In Austin, they are imbedded — part of the fiber of the city’s identity.

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Despite its self-proclaimed love of all that is “weird,” Austin is not very accepting of difference. You can be a man in a tutu running for mayor — but don’t try to publicly be your authentic black self with dark skin, kinky hair, large earrings or other features or dress that others might find too black, thus threatening.

And, the burden of carrying our blackness has gotten heavier, as those corners, retreats and gathering places where others like us could meet, congregate and either embrace our color or not think about it – our choice – have all but vanished.

What black person who has been in Austin for any length of time hasn’t lamented our loss of place and the fact that we even feel marginalized in places that we once thought were ours. So not only is being black in Austin hard, it is also lonely.

I spent 30 years in a predominantly white northern state — Iowa. I have spent the last 30 years in Austin. I can’t imagine anywhere else where being black exacts such a toll on people as it does here.

The month of March will likely be indelibly imprinted on the minds of black people in Austin for years to come. A domestic terrorist-turned suicide bomber killed two black men: one a father, one a man still too young to have made his way in the world.

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When the links of the two families became obvious to most, it was beyond terrifying. Once again, my community asked: “Why us?” Then, we contended with those investigating the crime inferring that the first victim may have been complicit is in his own death.

As a third person of color was injured by a bomb, there was begrudging credence given to the theory that the attacks might be racially motivated. But for the families of the dead and injured black and brown families, it was more than a theory.

For blacks in this community and for too long, we have had to contend with law enforcement too quick to kill us — and too slow to protect us — and a larger community reluctant to believe racism could exist in progressive Austin.

I have spent years going to the public meetings — convened by leaders and community alike — where we talk about police brutality, low-performing schools, a lack of businesses, jobs, housing and opportunity. There is incremental progress — but seldom enough to make it easier to be black in Austin.

And, that is why people like me are tired. Being black is hard work in Austin. We all need to figure out why and do something meaningful about it.

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Evans is a communications consultant and former editorial writer for the American-Statesman.

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