Mama Outsider: Learning Black Zen in a White House

I moved in with a white family because sudden poverty broke my brain. Literally. My brain has been on high alert since Ferguson exposed racism in technicolor and made my job so uncomfortable that I left it without crafting a plan B, then moved my daughter and myself into the room where I held my father’s hand as he took his last breath. In short, I’ve been tortured. My brain has responded by pumping the adrenaline it thinks I need to survive this pain. When the brain is high on adrenaline, its capacity to process information and make rational decisions diminishes.

This is how I came to be laying across my mother’s bed, talking to a cute, racially ambiguous girl on the phone for the first time and agreeing to move in with her and her two daughters the next day. My broken brain put everything into two categories: pleasure and misery. My main goal was to increase pleasure and reduce misery and the problem was that my brain was unable to adequately gauge either.

Black Zen is accepting that “it is what it is.” I hadn’t reached Black Zen that morning, so my attitude toward life was “It is what it feels like.” My mother’s house felt miserable. The idea of the cute girl’s house felt pleasurable. I was hopeful. I packed my clothes thinking of ideas and ideals. The ideal living situation: two single moms skipping the first-comes-love narrative to support each other financially and emotionally and get over on the system. I packed my clothes and uprooted my daughter on the radicality of it all.

I quickly found out that racial ambiguity was more than skin-deep. I say this not to make the dubious argument that a person isn’t Black “enough,” but to acknowledge the truth that some racially ambiguous kids are raised to be color-blind — to think of every racialized slight as inexplicable, ambiguous ignorance with no pattern or history. To never have to face America in the ways I’d been made to face it since I could read.

By the time I read her text asking if my “baby daddy” was safe, my bags were already packed. “That’s racist,” I wrote, then softened it, “But I know you didn’t mean it that way.” But I didn’t know she didn’t mean it that way. What I did know was that she hadn’t even considered the implications, which is an unfortunate symptom of color-blindness, but also the reason that she’s happier and more social than I am. Here’s the thing — I have studied race, class, gender, and representation as a graduate student. I don’t say this to brag, but to admit that my studies have ruined me for the colorblind world. My brain is crammed with a lot of clutter that most people don’t use on a daily basis. And what I’ve learned in my year away from the university and on various forms of government assistance is that it’s easier not to know.

Not knowing the racial implications of “baby daddy” might have made my life a bit more livable this year. I might not have felt as wounded by my caseworker if I hadn’t read Patricia Hill Collins like some Holy Roller’s Bible. My love for the writing of bell hooks, a Kentucky girl like me, couldn’t save me from Kentucky. Instead, it has provided a lens through which everything looks like white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. The fresher fruit at the Kroger’s five minutes away from my roommate’s eastside house is proof of the world order. Her young daughters throw high-decibel tantrums and my first thoughts are about my daughter’s potential public mimicry and the children who have been murdered by police officers for less. I have begun to parent with a demented hypervigilance that I’d hitherto only seen in stores.

“Don’t touch a damn thing or I’ll pop you!” a mother said to her toddler son just two years ago when my student loans were still placing me securely in the lower middle class.

“Why some people mean?” my 3 year old daughter had asked, holding tight the hand that wasn’t paying for some toy she didn’t need.

“Some people are just angry,” I said with not a little disdain for the mother who had snatched her son’s hand and dragged him away from the toys placed at children’s eye level. I couldn’t have imagined then the financial strain that turns people into exposed nerves, tortured by every ask.

In the past year, I have told my daughter to stop asking for things through my own gritted teeth as if she was the reason I couldn’t afford a “yes.” In short, I’ve been mean. Why some people mean? One income that isn’t a livable wage plus racism will do that to you, and you can’t imagine the rage until you’ve lived it. I don’t excuse myself. I am practicing mindfulness, learning to notice my feelings and where they sit in my body. I am trying so hard to be nice to my daughter, who didn’t ask for a mean mommy with a cortisol-riddled brain.

Living with a colorblind family has given my brain space to adapt to the gray area between pleasure and misery. I am retraining my brain to withstand discomfort. I am learning that every bump isn’t a threat. I am learning how intentional colorblindness can be a sofa, a place to take the occasional short nap. I am learning that I don’t have the kind of brain that can “stay woke” without periods of rest. I sometimes feel like the spook who sat by the door, squirreling away my training in willful blindness to plot a revolution. I am training myself not only to survive the kind of job I left, but to navigate white spaces deftly enough to spot allies (which don’t exist to the cortisol brain) and support those who are like me — wide awake and impervious to Zen.

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Asha French is a writer living in Baltimore, MD. She has been published on, Mutha Magazine, Emory Magazine, and poetrymemoirstory. She is currently working on her first book. Check out more at her website.

Asha has written 6 articles for us.


  1. You have such a distinctive writing style and voice. I really look forward to reading the rest of this series.

  2. Was is Uma Narayan that wrote about ‘bifurcation of consciousness’ as a survival stategy, especially for Black women? That’s what this piece brought to mind.

    Thank you.

    • an Onion headline I had bookmarked for a while: “woman takes short break from feminism to enjoy TV show”

      Not sure if that applies re: bifurcation, but it’s what came to mind while reading

  3. Asha, this is so great! This struggle with being woke and anxiety is something that’s been on my mind lately so your piece is also very timely. Thank you for sharing!

    • Aww thank you for reading and commenting here! I appreciate you so much! You’ve held my hand on this journey in many ways. It’s still a struggle and it helps to know I’m not alone.

  4. This speaks to my heart. So many details ring true. My daughter, homelessness, dealing w roommates, racism, family woes, running running running. Thank you for validating my life.

    • No, thank YOU for validating mine. I was hoping to fling my story into a cave to hear some echoes. The isolation is the part of this that kills the spirit, so I’m grateful to know that you connected. I wish you lots of joy and strength. Thank you again.

  5. I inhaled this than read this aloud immediately to my partner. This writing is beautiful and deep and true. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    • Thank you thank you thank you! Your feedback is the opposite of what goes on in my head when I sit down to a blank page– internet trolls invade my self-talk sometimes. I appreciate your feedback and your sharing the story. Thank you so much.

  6. Asha, this is such a good read! Thank you for sharing this part of your story.


    “I am learning that I don’t have the kind of brain that can “stay woke” without periods of rest.”

    As a person with chronic illness including depression & anxiety, I’m just now learning how to navigate my world with this kind of balance. It’s hard and exhausting work.

    • Thank you so much Dani! I still haven’t found the balance. This arrangement lasted for less than two weeks and I honestly don’t know where I stand with the last paragraph anymore. I think I still believe in occasional willful blindness, but definitely not in any space as intimate as a home. Wishing you so much peace. Thank you for responding.

  7. Thank you so much Asha, for writing this and sharing it with us. It is so powerful.

  8. Yoga & meditation – do it religiously. Being able to ‘stay woke’ is the path of the razor’s edge as they call it. Stay strong, sister.

  9. This statement resonated with me: “…the financial strain that turns people into exposed nerves, tortured by every ask.” I remember at an early age understanding that asking was a futile exercise when I knew what the answer would be. Why build up hope only to know you would be let down? Reflecting on my mindset when I make decisions from adolescence into adulthood, there is a prevalent part of me that always feels that it is easier not to expect things from others and to silently carry my dreams/burdens. Clearly this can be unhealthy if left unchecked, but after years of hearing ‘No’, one becomes conditioned to the expectation that life is a lonesome journey.

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