The city was no exotic landmark for any of us homegrown New York surburbanites, but we still all scrambled for bus seats as we headed to New York City for our high school Fashion Design field trip. We were seniors, caught in that giddy sort of post-exams state, knowing graduation and all that lay beyond it was only three weeks away. Decked out in our best Forever 21 and Charlotte Russe couture, we dressed the part of adults for the day and forgot we were riding a bleached-out public school bus.
After stopping by a design studio, we headed to Fashion Ave for our pilgrimage to the high-end stores there. My friend Hillary and I stepped into Henry Bendel, and my mouth dropped open. The store was a museum, several tiers of gleaming marble with clothes draped over the polished hangers with the effortless grace of a Greek sculpture garden. The black-suited saleswoman waved us inside the golden doors with a pearly smile, her heeled shoes clicking delicately behind us as our group drifted apart to explore on our own.
Hillary and I wove slow circles around the store’s highest level, inspecting each piece of clothing with the kind of quiet reverence usually reserved for cathedral halls. My fingers stroked the butter-soft brown skin of a leather jacket, and as I moved towards another display, I heard a few soft clicks nearby. I paused. Tap, tap.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the saleswoman who greeted us earlier hovering several feet behind me, partially shielded by a tree-shaped jewelry display. She wasn’t smiling anymore. I turned my head slightly, and I saw hers swivel to the side, gaze now fixed on the nonexistent flick of dust on a white tunic hanging nearby.
I moved even more slowly around the perimeter of the floor. Tap, tap, tap, tap. The heels followed me, drummed the marble in a methodical rhythm that seemed to grow louder even though I knew the volume had not really changed. Every sense heightened, my heartbeat thumped against my chest, and I sped up my steps. As the saleswoman’s gaze razed my back, I decided to make this, whatever it was, a challenge. I wound in and out of the clothes’ displays and searched for a place where she couldn’t see me.
I suddenly had the ridiculous urge to laugh because this was crazy, like some kind of warped Pacman game brought to life, and I was fleeing a lipsticked ghost.
It lost the novelty of being a game when I glanced to the side to check who was trailing Hillary, and I saw no one.
Two high school girls stood four feet apart on a store floor. One roamed without notice. I was followed by the saleswoman for the rest of the trip. The only difference, the only rationale I could point to was this: my friend was white…and I was not.
Two years later, I had a conversation with one of my white college friends about how I felt like eyes were on me every time we talked about slavery in class or when I walked around our predominately white Illinois college town. “Aren’t you just being paranoid?” she said. I didn’t know how to respond, but I remembered the alien sensation that creeped along my skin while evading the Henry Bendel saleswoman. I remembered all the moments since then where I was acutely aware of a white person’s gaze on me. In those moments, it was if there was a force field separating me from everyone else in that space, and I was more conscious of my body than ever before.
The stakes were lower for me. In that clothes store I lost the privilege of feeling comfortable in my skin. I didn’t lose my life. And as the unending list of hashtagged obituaries reminds me, so many people DO lose their lives because of our society’s need to soothe white people’s anxieties at the expense of black and brown bodies. My country gives me evidence every week that a black person’s detainment, incarceration (no matter how brief), and execution is a necessary inconvenience to make a white person feel safe when even the most minimal level of discomfort is breached.
The Cost of Black Anxiety
As humans we have schemas, mental frameworks that help us organize and interpret information about our environment. Our schemas shape the way we view people and our interactions with them, and they are profoundly influenced by the messages we receive from our family, the media, our governing bodies, our religious institutions. These messages don’t need to be blatant to be internalized, and often the most deeply-seeded concepts about race are conveyed subtly: a step aside on the sidewalk when a black man walks past, an lingering glance when a group of black kids enters a restaurant.
Other messages are less subtle.
The Scary Black Man Trope: Actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gets stuck with this role a lot…
(Images from Game of Thrones and LOST)
American society has taught us to be scared of black people for a long, long time, and this fear isn’t even isolated to non-black people. This makes it even more frustrating when there is an outpouring of surprise and shock when a black man gets arrested for trying to get into his own house or when a black teen gets shot at for the crime of asking for directions.
So either all these black people talking about racism are under some mass delusion of victimization…or there is some truth to their stories that deserves more attention. And if there is even the remote possibility that what they say is true and this racism thing is big enough to shape their treatment in every neighborhood and state in our country, then we should be seeing more non-black people willing to consider their experience instead of instantly trusting the testimony of white cashiers, store managers, and police officers. The everyday nature of racism requires this kind of reckoning–especially by white people. Without that self-examination and communal repentance, as a diverse national community we will not be in a position to dismantle the sway racism has over our interactions with each other.
A View of One’s Own
I can easily point to those first experiences that educated me on how non-black people might respond to my skin in a way that made me feel like I didn’t quite belong. I can also gather all the stories over time that have reinforced that reality until I could no longer deny the weight of it. Black scholar W.E.B. Dubois describes this experience:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Dubois’ understanding of double-consciousness helps me make sense of my struggle between how I see myself and how I recognize others may see me as a Black Latina woman. When you notice enough times that your body, your way of moving through spaces provokes different responses in comparison to white people, being called paranoid for pointing it out feels incredibly demoralizing. It feels even more unfair when it is that very hyper-consciousness around race that leads to white people calling the police on black people for the most mundane things–like hanging around a Starbucks.
The reflex to respond to a black person with fear or hesitation is a paranoia given far more legitimacy than a black person’s anxiety when they perceive they are being treated unequally. In more cases, we indulge the paranoia that black people are inherently threatening or reckless, coming up with all sorts of reasons to prove why the black person in this-or-that situation is wrong. Maybe they were too loud. Maybe they were holding a pencil that looked like a gun. Maybe they shouldn’t have been in that place at that time. Maybe they just should’ve known better.
This eagerness to downplay or dismiss a black person’s heightened awareness of how race affects them misses the mark entirely because in the effort to prove that a situation “isn’t about race,” the root sources contributing to that black person’s isolation and hurt go completely unacknowledged. The humanity of their experience goes unacknowledged because it’s easier to attribute an event to a simple misunderstanding than call it racism. To attach a racial element to it leads to uncomfortable questions we’d rather not ask because of what they might reveal about our own distorted perceptions or our country’s racial sins.
Not everything is only about race, but race plays a role in everything because our country established years ago that our race matters. Our history as a nation made race and racialized bodies matter, and so now we must honestly grapple with the aftermath in order to seek restoration of our individual relationships and our institutions. You cannot be family when you fear your neighbor, and I can’t be fully free when I am followed wherever I go.