Not long ago, I pulled into a parking space at our local Aldi to pick up a few things for dinner. I do most of the cooking for my very appreciative wife. As I sat in the car gathering myself, I noticed a pickup truck pulling into the space diagonally in front of me giving me a clear view of the driver and his door. The man and woman were white. As he slid out of his truck, his shirt caught the handle of a large pistol on his hip. He pulled his shirt over the gun and headed into the grocery. Perhaps he feared the produce was a threat and he would need to “stand his ground” or the meat was too fresh and he would defend his wife’s honor. Weeks later, a white man walked into a grocery and shot two African Americans to death because he couldn’t get into the nearby Black church.
As I got into an elevator of the hotel I was staying in, returning to my room, a white man got on with his bags. I asked him what floor. He said “Two” same as mine. The door opened and I waited for him to exit with his bags before getting out. He turned down the same hallway where my room was located so I followed him. Then it occurred to me that I was walking behind a white man, a total stranger, and suddenly wondered if he was carrying a gun. I imagined him wondering if I was going to assault him in this narrow, empty hallway. I slowed my pace to put more distance between us to hopefully ease any concerns he might have about my presence. He stopped at his room door, seemed slow to insert his key as I walked past not making eye contact. I unlocked my door just steps away quickly so he would know I wasn’t a threat.
Walking through a lightly populated mall, a woman emerged from a corridor just steps ahead of me. As we passed shop windows, she would look sideways as if to notice the merchandise displayed but perhaps to take note of my presence. I recalled the white woman walking her dog in Central Park who called 911 to report being threatened by a Black man who simply asked her to leash her dog. I recalled the white woman who assaulted a Black teen in a hotel lobby wrongly accusing him of having stolen her phone. The history of Black men running afoul of the law, for no other reason than a white woman’s unjustified panic, is long and sometimes deadly. Many Black men were lynched at the mere suggestion of an inappropriate interaction. The long-promoted stereotype of Black men being inherently dangerous is pervasive, at least one that I keep in mind.
I became sensitive to my relative proximity to the woman ahead of me, our pace matched with me just steps behind her. I adjusted my path slightly to make my location easier to track in her periphery. She stopped at a store window a few steps further and I walked on. Perhaps there really was something of interest to her in that display. Perhaps it was just my imagination or rather paranoia. More likely the latter.
This kind of tension is relentless. As much a part of daily life as the air I breathe and almost taken for granted. How much so became apparent to me during a long layover in Amsterdam with a crew on our way to Kenya for a film project there. Because we had the time, we caught a train into the city. We arrived in the station at the edge of the city square. I walked out into the bright sun into a postcard. People coming and going. Boats bobbing on a canal lined by colorful buildings. As I stood taking it all in, I realized an unfamiliar sense of calm that was literally visceral. I felt at ease for some reason, relaxed. What I really felt was unnoticed.
Until that moment I had never realized the effect of living in a racist culture could have on your total, subconscious being. Constantly wound up. In the square was a diverse crowd of people moving among each other as if they all were the same. The sense of having the eyes of strangers on me was absent. I felt that no one cared that I was black, that no one was uneasy about my being there, that I was invisible. I could breathe!
Black? White? Or Invisible?
Which would you choose?