Living While Black

Updated: Oct 15

I want to live in a world where all lives matter, but society is not there yet. And so until we get to that world, I have to keep saying that Black lives matter, Black people matter, Black history matters, and that I, a young Black woman, matter.


Ariel Salmon, She/Her/Hers

Ariel Salmon is a member of the Class of 2020. She graduated with a BA in Political Science and is a currently Legal Assistant at the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Two years ago, I chose to stay on campus for Thanksgiving break, opting to do a Friendsgiving rather than go home. I was asked to bring a knife for the turkey, a simple request that I was happy to comply with, especially since my friend had spent the whole day cooking. But as I walked from my dorm to the dinner location, just a street away, I began looking over my shoulder. At that moment, I was terrified of someone seeing me walking, because I knew that if an officer saw me, they’d have a good reason in the eyes of the law and the media, to shoot me.


I was privileged growing up; for a long time, my Blackness felt theoretical. Not that I didn’t see color, but it was relevant only at a surface level. The apple is red, the bike is red, the toy is red; my skin is brown, her skin is brown, his skin is brown. My mom made a point of giving me books about Black history and African stories growing up, so I knew about the legacy of MLK and Ruby Bridges, and I knew that I wanted to be as strong and influential as they were. But I didn’t comprehend the deeper cost.


The first time I remember feeling my Blackness was when Obama was inaugurated. As I sat in my Vermont classroom, I became keenly aware that I was one of few Black kids in the room. I decided that gave me a kind of special, secret insight into this historic moment - as if I was part of the same club as the President. But seeing race for the first time in juxtaposition with my white peers meant that I began to understand the burden of Blackness as well.


My understanding started when I noticed that I, a light-skinned black girl with an afro, was constantly confused with my friend, a dark-skinned black girl with braids, despite the fact that we looked nothing alike.

When I realized that I was one of two people in my class, both of us Black, who learned about and recognized the brutality of slavery.

When I saw the entire class look to us to answer questions about Black people.

When I started wearing my natural hair in an afro, and people had the audacity to be mad at me for not letting them touch it.

When I heard two white guys on a bus say that Black people (n*gg*rs in their words) were better off drowned.

When I watched what was happening in Ferguson and realized that for my white classmates, the murder of a Black man was just another news story.


While walking home with friends, I saw a Chicago Police Department car. I immediately stiffened, careful to not act visibly nervous, but watchful of both the car and my movements until it passed. I’ve walked through areas where I was both relieved and afraid to see a police car. I’ve sat on the CTA with officers and random men harassing me, and felt anxious about both. I don’t feel safe around the police as a Black person, but I’ve been taught that they’re the people to call when I’m in danger. So who do I call, where do I go, when the “safe place” is dangerous too?


Even outside of physical safety, the question of prejudice constantly lurks in my mind. Do I straighten my hair for this interview? How many Black people, Black women, work there, and how do they wear their hair? Does my roommate know I’m Black? How do I talk to my friends about race and what Blackness means for me? Is that my job? Who else will do it if not me? How do I make them, you, understand that it is my birthright and my burden and my blessing to carry Blackness? How can I make you see what I live?


If you’ve been conflicted about the news, if you’ve been silent, understand that I do not have the luxury of silence. Know that what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey, Eric Gardner, Trayvon Martin, Lacquan McDonald, and so many, many more is a constant underlying fear for every Black person in this country. If you think we should protest peacefully, most are. But when we protest peacefully, we are told it is wrong. Kneeling during the national anthem is wrong, marching peacefully blocks streets, protest songs are too political.


How should we protest if every way is wrong?


All this to say, I’m deeply tired. I wish I didn’t have to say that Black lives matter. There is truly nothing I want more than to live in a world where I don’t have to defend my hair, my skin, my life, or my basic right to exist. I wish I didn’t have to worry about people saying racist nonsense to my little sister, or about some officer deciding my little brother looks the wrong way and putting his name on the ever-growing, never-ending list of Black kids murdered by an ill-equipped justice system and aggressive police officers. I wish I didn’t feel like I have to educate my non-Black friends about this. I wish I didn’t have to defend my pain, to justify the experiences of Black people in a country that will not protect us.


I want to live in a world where all lives matter, but society is not there yet. And so until we get to that world, I have to keep saying that Black lives matter, Black people matter, Black history matters, and that I, a young Black woman, matter. But, I can’t fight every battle. So please, take this one story, my story. Open your eyes and see how black students operate differently, open your ears and hear the voices of black people searching for justice, open your heart and allow yourself to be shaped by these stories, open your mind and read the numerous books and articles that others have written, far more eloquently and carefully depicting the burden of Blackness than I.


My life matters. My life is a Black life. My family matters. Their lives are Black lives. Black lives matter. And until they do, “all lives” is meaningless.

Exploring Race

A magazine run by and for BIPOC students at the University of Chicago.