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A month or so ago, the homie Rebecca Carroll reached out to me about contributing to a podcast essay series she created for WNYC. Titled Dear President: What You Need to Know About Race, the series also features Robert Jones (Son of Baldwin), Kirsten West Savali (TheRoot.com), Theo Shaw (Jena 6) and Samaria Rice (Mother of Tamir Rice) and is comprised of each of us writing an essay about a particular part of our Black American experience and then reading an edited version of that essay as a podcast episode.

Mine is titled "Nigga Neurosis" — a term to describe the surreal state of being where a Black person isn't quite sure if something happened (or didn't happen) because he happens to be Black. In my essay, I give more context to the term and describe a recent situation that exemplifies it.

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Now, this morning I was on The Brian Lehrer Show to discuss the essay (which you can also listen to here), and I brought up something that adds even more context. I wrote this a month or so ago and recorded it a couple weeks ago — basically, I did all of this before the election. And I wonder if I would have written and recorded this after the election if my tone would have changed.

Also, Nigga Neurosis exists as a byproduct of racially tinged reactive uncertainty. Basically, maybe we think that cop stopped us because we happened to be Black. In fact, we're 99.99999% sure of it. But there's still that 00000.1% of uncertainty. Like, "maybe I'm just being too hyper-aware, too sensitive." And that's where the neurosis is born.  Now, though, since certain types of White people seem to be quite emboldened by Darth Cheeto's win, maybe there will be a bit less of that uncertainty. Now maybe more of them will have the confidence to admit that they're doing exactly what you suspected them of doing.

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Anyway, the full unedited essay is below.

Although it is a condition that plagues (approximately) 92 percent of 12.2 percent of America’s population, you will not find “Nigga Neurosis” in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Nor will it be in any previous iteration. But it should be.

“Now” I can hear you asking “why would it be in the DSM-5 when this is a condition I literally just heard of for the first time today?” “Also” I anticipate you following that question up with “I strongly suspect this is something you just made up of the top off your head.”

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These are valid and relevant concerns. It is probably true that you’ve never heard of Nigga Neurosis until today. Niggas with neurotic tendencies, maybe. (And definitely if you’re a Kanye fan.) But not nigga neurosis. Because it is something I made up. Well, I made up the name. The condition it describes is very, very real. And it’s something that’s impossible for me to have invented because I’m 37 years old, and it’s been brewing for roughly 400 years — or however long Black people have been in America.

Nigga Neurosis is a byproduct of racism that can very often veer into absurdity. Since it’s not socially polite for racists to just outright admit to racism, we’re left in a perpetual state of flux and ambiguity where it becomes nearly impossible to experience anything without wondering if and how your race is involved. While you think you know, you just don’t knowknow. Which often results in a dynamic where we anticipate it so readily that we actually profile first. It seems irrational, but it's actually a learned pragmatism that keeps us relatively safe; physically and emotionally.

I live in the Mexican War Streets, a middle to upper middle class neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s Northside that consists of restored brick row houses, and, according to Wikipedia, streets named after battles and generals of the Mexican–American War, including Buena Vista Street, Monterey Street, Palo Alto Street, and Sherman Avenue. It’s the type of neighborhood that blocks off its streets once a year for a fundraiser that consists of people opening their homes and allowing strangers to hang out inside of them. This is easily the Whitest block I’ve ever lived on. And that’s saying a lot because I’ve lived in Pittsburgh – the White person’s Atlanta – my entire life. And not just White demographically, but White enough socially to host what is effectively the grown White person’s Halloween.

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We (my wife, my 10-month-old daughter, and I) rent a house that sits near a popular neighborhood pub. Between the pub and our house sits a fire hydrant. While parking approximately seven feet away from the hydrant — with daughter in tow — a man standing outside of the bar gestures at me through my window. I open it to see what’s up.

“Hey man. You gotta back up some.”

“Huh?”

“I’m a retired firefighter. You gotta be at least 15 feet away from the hydrant.”

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I take a moment to consider who he is (a middle-aged White guy who says he’s a retired firefighter), where I’m parked (seven feet from the hydrant, which is technically illegal, but a law that is broken literally every day on this block), where I am (peak White Pittsburgh), who’s with me (my infant daughter) and who I am (a Black guy) before deciding how to respond and what to do.

This is Nigga Neurosis.

I back up, deciding that I just don’t want to be the Black guy who argues in the street with a White man about fire hydrants that day. I figured I’d use my “Black guy arguing in the street with a White guy” yearly quota for later in the fall.

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The next day I went to the same pub to grab a ginger ale. Bartender says, “I see you met Nate yesterday. I could see what happened from the bar. Don’t worry about him. He does that to everyone — including me and I’ve known him for 10 years.”

While I appreciated the bartender’s implicit message (“Hey, it’s not a race thing. He’s just a bit of a dick about that with everyone.”), it didn’t do much to alleviate my Nigga Neurosis. Variants of the same questions still exist. Maybe he does this to everyone — Black, White, Yinzer — but was he less polite with me than he would have been with a 37-year-old White guy with an infant in the car seat? He wasn’t a raging asshole — just a bit of a dick; a normal amount of mundane dickishness — but would this dickishness have dissipated if I didn’t happen to be who I was and where I was?

And, if I just ignored him, what would have happened next? Do we start arguing? And if we start arguing, does someone call the police? And if the police come, is there any doubt that this white and middle-aged retired firefighter receives the benefit of the doubt instead of 30-something Black guy with sweats and a fitted and a driver’s license that still hasn’t been updated with my new address?

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If you think I’m doing too much right now — needlessly obsessing over impossible to determine motives and increasingly far-fetched hypotheticals — I see your point. I even agree.

And I also know you must not be Black.

Dear President: What You Need to Know About Race is an ongoing narrative project by WNYC. Browse all of the essays here.

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