I’m about to make it not about the chuckles, for once. You know I do that every now and again. If you come here for laughs, today’s not that day.
I have a lot of privilege in my life. I have a secure place to live that I can afford, I am able to communicate in the dominant language around me, I am cishet, I am literate, I was raised by parents that stoked my agency and respected my autonomy, and the list goes on. And yet, the ways that I move through the world can sometimes feel like a barrage of experiences that tell me that I am not welcome and that I am Other. Race, gender, nationality, ethnicity: these are the ingredients in my particular cocktail that I drink day after day, week after week, and are all signifiers of some of the ways I choose to love myself and some of the ways that I am made wary of the world around me.
When I went to college, it was a culture shock. The manner in which my higher education spoke to me about myself were demeaning and the mostly-white cohort consisted, with some exceptions of course, of well-meaning but racially illiterate peers. Not to say that this was not present in my younger years, but the weight of it and the size of it in my first year of college was unexpected. As a new adult, I did not know how to hold it nor how to beat it back. My freshman year I kept a small notebook, in which I would log each and every aggression, (some micro and others larger) that came my way. Reading it now, it runs the gamut. From the time my professor incorrectly explained to me in front of the class the meaning of my own name, to the time a guy told me that he “likes dark skin on white” as he asked me out, to the time a girl in my dorm told me that white girls could wear colors that were “spring, fall, or summer,” but that all women of color were “winter,” to the time a classmate shoved me into a chest of drawers, causing it and me to fall onto the floor just after calling me a fucking sandnigger (part of being ethnically ambiguous and people not understanding history or geography is that you get all of the slurs used against you). I didn’t talk about any of these things to anyone. I just wrote it all down. It wasn’t a journal. I didn’t write how these things made me feel or what I thought about them. I just logged them, like a police blotter. It’s hard to explain why I did this, but the closest I can come is to say that the little notebook may as well have just said, over and over again, on every page: this happened. I didn’t imagine it. I didn’t make it up. It’s real. It’s real. It’s real. There is a tiny part of me that understands when some people don’t believe that racism, sexism, etc, is true. Even when it’s happening to me, it can feel unthinkable.
Yesterday, I was walking down the street with three co-workers, who are also my friends. We were talking to each other, and a man walked toward us. I saw him see me, and within a fraction of a second, I knew something was coming. As he continued to approach, he yelled something racist about 9/11 and me, as if the link between the event and my identity was self-evident and I bore some blame. As he came nearer, he spit. I heard the saliva hit the ground inches away from my pant leg. Then he kept walking, as did we.
I barely acknowledged that anything was happening. I kept talking with my coworkers, I didn’t look at the man, I didn’t flinch away from the act of being spat upon. Whatever I was saying to my friends right before he approached had been light and jokey, and my tone did not change. Soon after, one of them said to me: did any spit get on you? and I just said, no, and then another said wait, he spit at you? I didn’t see that, and I just said yeah.
Here is what happened inside of me in that event, in three parts. There are actually more like a hundred parts, but ah well. Three will do.
- As it was happening, I was terrified, but in that bone deep way that many of us feel who are used to feeling threatened, like when a guy aggressively hits on you on the bus and then gets off at your stop. Scared, but normal scared. Let me say that to myself again to hear the absurdity of my own words: scared, but normal scared.
- As soon as I was sure that the man wasn’t going to stop or do anything else, I felt thankful. I had just been yelled at, spat at, and my humanity insulted, and I was thankful it wasn’t worse. Gratitude for debasement because at least he didn’t physically hurt me. It was hours later before I thought to myself: these are the choices? This is the spectrum of dignity allowed?
- I feel sure that had he felt a little bolder, the man might have actually physically assaulted me. I do not pretend to understand what people who act this way have in their hearts and minds, but I do suspect that part of what they seek is for their targets to tremble and wobble, to de-center their sense of self. And them main reason why I kept talking, kept joking, kept walking, kept steady, was to not let that happen. Look at me, you rabid, detestable person. Watch me not flinch. Watch me not waver. Despite your attempt to use me as the tool for your garish display of brutishness, in this moment, I will only see myself. I belong here, with these people, on this street. I will not stop.