That moment of weakness is always triggered by a midnight burst of Zoom fatigue. I’m sinking into my L-Dub couch after a day of formulas, lecture slides and biology reading. Sentences from my reading float out of my screen — set to the lowest brightness setting possible — and begin crashing into each other. My lids touch for a second, then a minute, then two. As an unknown song from a random lo-fi playlist fades deeper into the background, I oscillate between giving into temptation and honoring the strong moralistic version of myself that I claim exists. So deep into my couch that anyone would mistake me for another cushion, I know it’s time.
I open and close the app a couple of times. My dress is casual — sweatpants. This should be quick. The brick cold that greets me outside my entryway wakes me up, bringing me back to the bitter work that waits for me after what will be a 10-minute affair.
Four minutes and three shadowy crosswalks later, I arrive at my destination. A tender pull of flesh lies under a rough exterior. Teeth circling menacingly until they pierce the surface. A deeper dive is met with the familiar sour tang. Then that eager ooze… of dressing — Russian dressing. Finally, a satisfying sigh. Mission accomplished, I wrap up the leftovers of my GHeav Reuben. My suitemate waves the cashier goodbye as she packs up her monthlong stock of almond milk. What a successful study break!
Months ago and 600 miles away from campus, I resolved never to shop at GHeav. During my short stint enmeshed in Yinsta culture, I was bombarded with calls to spend money anywhere else but this Yale classic — and rightfully so. I was disgusted but not surprised by the establishment’s racism over the summer, and I’m too disillusioned to be impressed with their quick firing of their employee, so my decision to abstain was made.
A late-night study session would uncover how shaky my resolve really was. Back on Elm, flashes of social media posts circulated in my head, and I was increasingly aware of the corn beef stirring in my digestive tract. Self-condemnation bubbled in my stomach as I was reminded of an earlier moment of guilt.
It’s a hazy Friday night, and I’m FaceTiming my friend, who I’ll call Tim. His college-student™ LED lights flash on beat to Doja Cat’s “Cyber Sex.” My torso innocently grooves to Doja’s crooning. The familiar tune that defined my first year of college, only to be ripped away from me by an internet scandal, tugs on a deep reflex we both share. In a moment of realization, our eyes meet, and I try to put an end to this flawed moment. We agreed not to stream Doja! But the entire “Hot Pink” album is already queued and no catastrophes occur after we press play (it helps that he’s on a private Spotify session). David Duke hasn’t appeared outside my window. At this moment, it’s hard to remember why I so profusely vowed to practice self-denial in the first place. After our FaceTime, I text him jokingly apologizing for the judgment, confessing that I’d streamed Caroline Polacheck — another singer who I vowed to sacrifice after a public display of anti-Blackness — while showering that morning. Tim and I send a couple “sksksnfjff”s in the chat and all is forgotten. The celebration that characterizes Black joy isn’t always pro-Black, but our joy is.
That same joy overlaid the shame I previously thought I should have felt while tearing that Reuben up. The fun of a jittery late-night outing or my suitemates gleeful exclamation upon finding the thing that guarantees her cereal breakfasts for a week or Tim and I sobbing over our first-year soundtrack, miles apart from one another — aren’t they worth more than the moralistic stake that I have in… whatever? What a falsehood it would be though, to claim that I am completely removed from the ethical conundrum that comes with monetarily supporting a business that hasn’t supported me. Even after ordering food and acquiring the precious dairy-free goods, my suitemate and I whimsically discussed the urge to shoplift from the same establishment that shunned our skin in June. Wouldn’t that be so funny?
My pop-culture obsessed mind has become a database of canceled and greenlit. Was there a change in leadership? Notes app apology or Instagram Live with their publicist’s shadow in the frame? The only exception is Nicki Minaj who floats around in some grey un-cancellable space (“Roman Reloaded the Re-Up” basically defined my childhood). But the thing about holding a mental database is that it’s only useful once your hypervigilant inner voice masters its controls.
The ethical worry that I’m co-signing anti-Blackness every time I dance to a problematic artist in a (socially distanced) dorm room on Friday night or shop at questionable establishments instead of giving my bi-weekly check to a Black-owned business is only aggravated by some sense of respectable obligation. In my head, I am the last line of defense, struggling to wade off the precariousness that colors non-Black people’s anti-racist commitments.
Often, I imagine the sadistic look of victory that crosses some lofty oppressor’s face, overlooking me from their lair while I succumb to capitalism and begin building my perfect Reuben on Snackpass or press play on Spotify. All eyes are on me and waiting for my judgment: canceled or greenlit. I reject that unwavering responsibility — the love child of pro-Blackness and respectability politics. My actions don’t announce when something is canceled or when it isn’t or serve as some metric of “problematic” or “OK.”
Fresh shower suds sliding down my back, I will still judge the hypothetical white girl on my floor who plays Caroline Polacheck’s new single (hypothetical because the suite across from me is empty; we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, people!) even if it was removed from my playlist only yesterday. I’ll wonder if, before the situation was addressed, the packs of students in GHeav ever planned to boycott — while simultaneously picking up my ramen. Because the thing about practicing Black radical joy is that the ultimate objective — liberation — is so freeing that it can look like hypocrisy.
Amina Niasse | email@example.com