I have soft teeth. Root canals, an extraction, cavities; I've had everything done to my teeth. When I was very young, I had dental surgery on the front tooth I knocked out. In adulthood, I've spent a fortune at the dentist because being an artist in America often means terrible dental insurance or going without. One painful memory involving my teeth happened in middle school. The popular girls made me think they wanted to be my friend. We passed notes, we had sleepovers and watched the same movies on repeat. We had code words, inside jokes and sat together at lunch. But when things went sour, I uncovered notes they’d written to each other about me in the classroom trashcan. They made fun of my teeth, drawings included. It’s been over twenty years since I was in middle school and I still worry about my teeth. It’s extraordinary; the lasting pain that comes from being made fun for something intrinsic about you.
What threatened my sense of safety in middle school was vanity. Because of my whiteness, I’ve never contended with a world that devalues, oppresses, and kills me because of the color of my skin. George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor were murdered by white supremacy – the evident and insidious hatred that grips our society and shapes our systems. James Baldwin said, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” Like the decay that creates abscess, this country’s entrenched racism has to be scraped out, examined and extracted.
But a cavity is also a hallowed out space, an orifice, a pocket, an empty room in the human body. Mr. Floyd’s murder left the nation breathless. The Black Lives Matter movement surged with such solidarity and power that every state in this divided nation protested. Like a ruptured tooth, the pain was so exquisite, Americans leapt to their feet -amidst a pandemic - and took to the streets, further endangering their bodies, their communities and children to demand reckoning and reform.
If I were in middle school now, wearing a mask may have spared my ego from the mean girls, but it wouldn’t have obscured my desire to belong, to be valued and accepted. Beyond the freedom to live without systemic oppression, violence and murder, being intrinsically valued is what every human being needs. To ignore or deny the human cost of racial supremacy is to truly rot from within. Instead, I will fill the cavity inside me with the unleashed pain of this moment, live with it, feel it, listen to it, then let it direct me to march, vote and demand change. BLACK LIVES MATTER.