That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval

Spanning four generations of a mixed-race family, Alison Hart’s novel Mostly White is a powerful tale of intergenerational trauma and the healing brought by wildness, music, and the resilience of women. In today’s installment of That Thing with Feathers, Alison writes from Alameda, California, of injustices nationwide and in her own city, the complexities of her mixed-race experience, the decentralization of self, and the move toward empathy.

No Room for Beige Tears

by Alison Hart

After the video went viral of George Floyd mercilessly murdered in the street by police, held down, knee on neck, for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the whole world woke up to the American dream for what it is. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, and many more Black lives brutalized and murdered by police and white supremacists in a country that claims “liberty and justice for all.” We still haven’t gotten off the plantation the racist system locked in place, four hundred years of Black resistance—


locked in place—lock them up in prisons, in poverty as disposable citizens.


In Alameda, California, where I live, a Black man was recently arrested for dancing on the street. That’s right, dancing. He was doing his usual morning exercise routine and a white neighbor called the police. The result: police pinned him to the ground, handcuffed, arrested, and detained him. It’s on video, you can look it up. It could have turned deadly when he reached for his keys, deadly at any moment. White people policing Black bodies by calling police because of their unchecked discomfort and racial bias too often yields fatal results and should be charged as hate crimes.


White America is uncomfortable, and I say get used to it. As a mixed race Black, Native American, Irish, Scottish, English woman I have developed the skill to decenter in this racially stratified society. In order to have empathy for another’s experience, I need to decenter my own. I am able to hold my disequilibrium when in any group of people. Decentering is the first step that allows you to feel empathy outside your experience. Wherever I am I do not expect people to “get” me, to make my existence okay, or to validate me.


In white spaces I enter cautiously, bracing myself for racist remarks and puzzled looks and comments: “I didn’t know you were Black, you don’t look Black, I thought you were Italian.” It doesn’t surprise me anymore; my beige skin can be perplexing to some, inoffensive to others—I never know until they open their mouths.


“I hold all my identities standing on the border.”


At powwows I exist on the sidelines, allowing the beat of the drum to vibrate though my body, my heart—being there is enough. I hold all my identities standing on the border.


In Black spaces I listen, I wait. I am aware of my beige privilege: I don’t fear for my life or my son’s life on a daily basis. I don’t expect Black people to appease my tears, guilt, or need for acceptance. I am there to support the community so another hashtag doesn’t show up on my social media feed, so Black people can live their lives freely in this country that claims to be about freedom.


That discomfort you feel is the beginning of decentering your whiteness, decentering your privilege to move from judgement to empathy. It is time for white America to do the work to bridge to BIPOC realities, it is your turn to squeeze yourself into our narratives. You are no longer the star of the movie, the center of everything: you no longer have the luxury of not thinking about race.


Alison Hart studied theater at New York University and later found her voice as a writer. She identifies as a mixed-race African American, Passamaquoddy Native American, Irish, Scottish, and English woman of color. Her poetry collection Temp Words was published by Cosmo Press in 2015, and her poems appear in Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry from California (Scarlet Tanager Books, 2016) and elsewhere. Hart lives in Alameda, California.


This project has received funding from Utah Humanities (UH). UH empowers Utahns to improve their communities through active engagement in the humanities.


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