There are places I don’t go. That isn’t anything unusual. Lots of people have places where they won’t go, right? But one of the very real facets of being a minority is that there are seemingly normal places I will not go, or if I do go, I have to take extra consideration before I do.
Restaurants, theaters, bars, stores. My skin color makes trips to these places a crapshoot of “Will something terrible happen or not? Maybe if I straighten my hair/wear khakis/be extra polite. Maybe then it’ll be safe.”
One of the fundamental things white folks cannot get is the feeling that nothing is truly “safe”. I’m sure we’ve all heard the story from the white guy who gets lost in the 'hood, and how he was super worried and lost and just “EEK!” But he wasn’t really afraid. He was at best uncomfortable. No one put him in physical danger. No one threw a drink at him, called him a slur, tried to inflict violence upon his person. Maybe someone watched him drive by, their eyes hooded with suspicion. But he didn’t feel scared. He knew, deep down, that everything was going to be All Right.
To be a minority is to carry a low level hum of fear with you wherever you go. It’s an anxiety without treatment.
And an attack can happen at any time.
On the way to work today I drove in behind a truck decorated in Confederate flags. The woman was older, her hair the kind of ashy blonde white women clinging to their youth dye their hair. While I was driving in behind her, reading her bumper stickers of “Confederate American” and “Heritage, Not Hate” and a hundred stars and bars, all I could think was “This woman probably has children. Maybe grandchildren. There are probably a passel of kids ingesting the poison she spews in between jumping on the trampoline and making popcorn and just being a kid.”
When she turned to drive into the same place I work, I parked my car and watched her get out, bouncing on into the building. I sat in my car a long while, thinking, seething.
There are places I don’t go, but even that doesn’t keep me safe.
Trump is a joke. A laughingstock, someone not to be taken seriously.
I didn’t hear this from one single person of color.
Maybe it’s because we know how quickly a joke can turn mean, how often friends become aggressors, how even those we trust can slip up with a flippant “Well, you know, it’s one of those black names” or “ugh, I cannot tell Asians apart.” Maybe because we know that deep down, too far down to really think about, more of our neighbors are nodding along with Trump’s speeches than people suspect. More people are whispering about how Trump is a “straight shooter” than anyone wants to consider.
We know because we’ve been there. It’s a place we’ve been forced to visit often, whether we wanted to or not.
Whenever people ask me about writing black people I tell them “You need to figure out the places where your main character won’t go.” For the most part this confuses folks. They list the obvious: country bars, the white side of town, etc.
I can’t explain to them the the list is longer, broader, deeper. How to you say to someone “Remember a time you were scared, terrified. Now squeeze all of the emotion into a pebble and put it into your shoe. You don’t feel it all of the time, but every now and again you step on it, hard, and all of those emotions come roaring back. That is what it is like to be black in this country." How do you say that to someone without seeming to overreact?
Most folks don’t get it. Or if they do, they get only a small bit of it. It’s hard to fully internalize.
We all have places we won’t go.