A friend tells me she was denied service at our school’s cafeteria.

She went in for breakfast with a white classmate who was served quickly and without question. After waiting for her order to be taken,

waiting
and waiting

She says, I’d like to place an order, and she is told that breakfast is no longer being served.

But you just served her, she says, and though I was not there, I can feel her voice rising to match this ancient memory rearing its ugly head.

The employees throw up their hands. Shrug their shoulders. Walk away.

When she tells me, I think: No way. 

Maybe they ran out of breakfast ingredients. Maybe you really just got there at the cut off time, and they might get in trouble for serving you. Maybe… Maybe… Maybe they didn’t see you until it was too late.

I say none of this, and though I’m sorry that happened to you is one of many thoughts running through my mind, I cannot quiet the noise of its company.

More often than not, my response to racial microaggressions is to give people the benefit of the doubt. To consider every possible alternative other than racism.

All of this is about survival.

My first year at Burning Man, I attended a workshop entitled “Being Black on the Playa.” One of the workshop leaders—another Black woman and a several-year Burning Man veteran—encouraged playa virgins to release whatever attachment we had to narratives about us being unwelcome or out of place there. She offered a manta that helped her navigate her experience as a Black woman in primary white spaces— one which allowed her to exercise a sense of agency that is so often denied us: The world does not happen to me.

When I heard these words, I felt relief. For so much of my life I was told—and believed—that I had no choice but to be a recipient of the world’s injustices.

This little phrase empowered and liberated me. I realized that, more often than not, I do give the world permission to affect me.

And who does that serve? Whose power does it uphold when I allow other people’s thoughts about me to become my own?

I carried these words with me and wore them like a shield during unpleasant encounters – reminding myself anything that seeks to destroy me can only do so if I let it.

~

 

Ultimately, I want to live in a world with fewer sharp edges. Where I don’t fear that every non-Black person is thinking the worst about me. Where I can go out on a Saturday night and dance and eat and laugh and not be reminded of how the world sees me, or worst: doesn’t.

~

The other night I went out with a girlfriend of mine in downtown LA—barhopping with some business school friends of hers. We end up at a faux-dive bar, a typical scene: dim warm lights, music no one has ever heard on the radio, hipsters with pints in hand moving in and out of the shadows.

We go to order a drink, and as we wait, I survey my surroundings. The bartender isn’t old, but he is older than me: thin, white, bald, and an appropriate mix of friendly and cavalier. I order my drink and as we wait I notice a small fishbowl full of assorted condoms and matches on the bar. Remembering an old boss’ impressive match collection, I dig my hand in. The bartender sees me and immediately turns away, feigning obliviousness—

Take what you need! I won’t look he says, with one hand covering his eyes.

Oh, I say, shaking my head. I don’t care. No shame here.

I pull out a small rectangular box, and slide the cover back to reveal a bundle of of bright-green tipped matches. Swoon.

I love match boxes, I say. So classy.

Right? He agrees, and I don’t doubt his sincerity.

My friend comes up behind me and peeks over my shoulder at the fishbowl. Whatchadoin? She asks.

Getting matches, I say.

Of course, she responds, and I love her for knowing me.

She’s got good taste, the bartender offers.

Oh, she knows, I say, smiling.

Do you know who Oscar Wilde is? He asks.

My smile disappears. (If I was a white girl, would you be asking me if I knew who the fuck Oscar Wilde is?) I give him my standard “are you for real?” face, which comes, at this point in my life, more as an instinct than an intentional response.

Of course I know who Oscar Wilde is, I say, my head cocked to the side, my words pointed, too many drinks in to fully process –and reign in—my offendedness.

Okay, okay, he says, throwing his arms up in surrender.

But why you gotta do me like that? I ask him while looking directly at my friend, a coded way of asking anyone around to witness: “Is this what I think it is?”

I was just going to say, the bartender offers, diffusing: There’s that Oscar Wilde quote, “I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.”

I narrow my eyes at him, purse my lips, hum a not-so-neutral mmhmm and walk away, over it.

My friend and I make one round of the venue, and though I’ve never been here, I know this place well. It’s getting late, I’m hungry, and now experiencing a general and un-noteworthy agitation.

Do you want to get food?

YES, she says, and I’m thankful for any reason to be somewhere else.

We dip out of the bar, past Oscar Wilde’s biggest fan. The night is surprisingly cold (surprising in the way that any weather below 50 degrees is surprising in LA), so and we lock arms for warmth and begin our search. A bougie pizza place to our right—nah—but a taco truck a block away. Yes.

A cardboard sign with pixelated photos of the menu options reads:

TACOS   QUESADILLAS   PUPUSAS   HOT DOGS

A small Latina woman has her back to the sidewalk, and consequently, to us. She is pushing onions and shiny green peppers around on the grill with a giant spatula, turning hot dogs over to reveal artfully browned undersides.

Ooh, pupusas, I say, like I’m hurt.

Cuanto cuesta una pupusa? I ask, empowered after a few drinks (typical) to communicate with her in Spanish.

No tengo pupusas, she says, her body now half-turned, dividing her attention between us and the grill.

No tienes pupusas?! I whine, dramatizing my disappointment even though I’d happily tear up anything on that menu.

Want to split a hotdog? My friend proposes.

Duh. I say. Everything on it?

Duh, she responds, and I revel in the delight of shared delights.

How much is a hotdog? She asks.

Five, with soda.

Oh, no soda. Just the hotdog.

Four.

As the woman prepares our food, my friend digs through her purse, pulling dollar bills from various pockets and folds. A white woman steps up beside us and orders a hot dog, everything on it. Arms still locked, my friend and I sing a chorus of  as the woman piles on onions, mayo, mustard, and ketchup—the works—onto a thick, glistening piece of meat.

She picks the hot dog up with tongs and places it gently into a little cardboard boat. My friend and I break apart, both preparing to receive our bounty.

She turns and hands the hot dog to the woman in line beside us.

Oh. Didn’t you guys order? She says.

Yes, we respond in unison.

Oh… I think that’s—she begins to say to the server, but the hot dog lady has already shoved the hot dog into my friend’s hands and turned back to the grill.

My friend and I exchange a look.

Thanks, she offers to the white woman.

No problem, she says.

That was so nice of you, my friend continues, and I am simultaneously irritated and grateful that she’s never been one to fail to recognize someone’s kindness. Most people would have just taken it.

 Well, you guys were here first, our hotdog ally sort-of laughs, and I can’t help but wonder why this fact mattered so much to us and not at all to the woman behind the grill.

We’re used to it, I say, in a learned tone—an attempt to make her feel better about witnessing what we live every day.

We pay, and eat our food on the sidewalk. The hotdog is cold.

~

We go back inside the bar and now that my hunger’s been quieted, I’m aware of my body’s other needs. I have to go to the bathroom, I say, and lead the way to the back of the bar.

On the way to the bathroom, we pass a photo booth. I notice a wallet has been left on the seat. It’s pink and spotted with polka dot hearts. Someone left their wallet, I say, looking around for its owner. My impulsive empathy for the party girl and my “I don’t want to deal” vibe bump heads. I decide to leave the wallet there, in hopes that its owner is somewhere around and will find it soon—or someone else will see it and make the philanthropic gesture of returning it to the bar. I continue on to the bathroom.

There’s a line. Of course, as always. We wait, and wait, and wait. When we finally come out, I check to see if the wallet is still there.

It is. God dammit. I can’t tell if I feel empathy or guilt now, but I go to the photo booth and pick up the wallet, hoping a photo ID will make it’s owner quickly apparent. I open it up, and shuffle through some receipts that have been placed in the middle. Before I can get much further, it is snatched from my hands.

WHAT THE FUCK!? A short white girl is looking at me with panicked, angry eyes. She storms away, wallet in hand, hair trailing behind her as she disappears around a corner.

I wasn’t trying to steal it, I say to no one, and I am all of a sudden exhausted and ready to go home.

~

These three encounters all happened within the span of half an hour. They all happened. All happened to me.

And yet, when my friend tells me she was refused service in the caf, my heart stumbles over itself to get to a reason that is less painful than the one I know to be true.

My mind knows that any of these instances could easily have been simple misunderstandings. Unfortunate coincidences. (Maybe the bartender doesn’t have a lot of literate or educated customers. Maybe the taco truck employee got confused and thought we were all eating together. Maybe the woman who snatched her wallet from my hands just had too much to drink and would have had that response to anyone.)

I am aware of how much energy it takes to conjure a new reason for each of my life’s many inconveniences.  I recognize how absurd it is to call these “inconveniences,” as if they’re minor hiccups in an otherwise smooth experience.

My lived experience as a Black woman in this country compels me to understand that these are not isolated incidents. These are the front-line effects of a terrifying and invisible system.

Is not letting the word happen to me just pretending that the world is not happening?

~

I’ve been reflecting on the words of Toni Morrison, who explains that racism is a distraction.

“It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.”

How do I not let racism distract me? What does that look like?

To consider microagressions as minor annoyances that I can choose to dismiss is to deny the daily psychological battle Black (or any “othered” person in this country) has to face. It puts the onus on me to respond to systemic injustice with forgiveness and grace, instead of holding the perpetrators accountable.

We are expected to let racism slide off our shoulders—to continue chatting it up with the bartender (it’s okay), to still tip the taco truck generously (don’t worry about it) to find the white girl and apologize for her confusion (I’m so sorry; it’s not your fault.)

How do we not let racism distract us without silencing ourselves? How do we tell the truth about these experiences? To name them without spending every minute cataloguing the day’s injustices? How do we take these moments seriously without letting them destroy us?

I don’t know the answers yet, but I know that I’ll never find them if I don’t ask the questions.

 

 

 

 

 

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