The election (twice now) of a Black president and stirring speeches by his equally charismatic wife--'when they go low (again and again and again), we go high'--has not changed the fact that when you are Black, or apparently just the right shade of anything darker than spray tan, you are othered, distinct, not fully American, not fully 'us.' So when my husband started the synopsis of his workday, which began with the phrase, "I have a crazy story for you...", I assumed he would tell me about a customer who yelled or an employee who got snippy. Instead, he told me a story that sparked the kind of anxiety that only ensues when you let your mind dip into the pool of what could have been or what would have been had exactly just one detail been different.
My husband is a Black man. To be more specific, he is a bearded, chai latte with almond milk brown complexion Black man. And to be even more specific, when glistening ever so slightly with sweat after walking from the Metro on a hot DC day, he, according to the residents of the quaint DC suburb in which we live and he works, is that perfect shade of brown Black man that signals a threat.
How do I know? I know because as he sat in the lobby of the small arts cinema he manages in said quaint suburb, early for his shift, his cobalt blue button down and patterned tie removed so he could cool down before working with customers, headphones on, listening to Nas, bookbag next to him full of the lemon-glazed yams, jerk chicken, and creamed corn I had prepared the night before, swaying ever so slightly to the beat, whispering to himself...
"it's mine, it's mine, it's mine,
whoooooooose world is this?
The world is yours.
The world is yours."
....my husband was confronted by the sight of two of his coworkers each walking by him twice. After the second co-workers' second gait, he explained, "a woman just reported 'a Muslim man in the lobby praying. The type of Muslim who likes to blow us up.' When we came to investigate, we realized that the man she was referring to was you."
While Nas (and Tony Montana) would like us to believe otherwise, situations like this, remind the darker than spray tan among us that this little part of the world--the United States--is anything but ours. As my husband began the story, I thought I knew how it would end. Rich White women scared of Black man, says something to management (of which my husband is a part of!). End of story. Maybe we'd laugh, maybe we'd get mad, maybe we'd reminisce about the last time this happened, but this particular situation aroused a completely different set of feelings, fears, angers, and anxieties, each more intense than the last.
First, the most obvious (I hope...). Why would being Muslim be equated with blowing "us" up? And why would praying signal a threat? SO WHAT if my husband was Muslim and praying! Last time I checked, neither was illegal (at least until November 8th, they aren't). Besides this most obvious audacity, there's the hypothetical, yet completely and utterly plausible.
What if he wasn't at work and instead was on the public bench just outside of the theater? What if this woman had gone to a police officer as opposed to a fellow employee? What if my husband's lunch bag of yams, chicken, and corn had been deemed a suspicious package? What if an officer had shouted out to my husband to get his attention, and he hadn't heard because of his headphones, and as he reached to take them off, said officer fearing for his life at the mere sight of a Black brown man, responded with a spray of bullets? The result, of course, being that the officer was 100% justified and my husband was 100% to blame; the media pulling up that one time in undergrad he got caught drinking under the age of 21, reinforcing the stereotype of Black (or any browner than spray tan) criminality, strategically darkening his skin in media photos to subconsciously drive their not so implicit bias home.
The ease with which this everyday, seemingly benign act--a darker than spray tan man with a beard cooling down and listening to Nas--could have spiraled out of control and into my mourning was so palpably vivid I had to hold back tears. Illmatic turned into a chant of destruction? My husband turned into a terriorist? Just. Like. That. And if you are not Black or Brown or visibly othered in some way in this country, I can already anticipate what you're thinking. That's a lot of 'what ifs" in that last paragraph. If he was not "doing anything wrong," he would have been fine. And to you, I say, just go back to the facts surrounding the too many to count men and women of color killed by police and other ostensibly justified neighborhood vigilantes over the past few years, and you will see that my "what ifs" actually have been, and are quite likely to continue to be, reality--when you are any darker than spray tan, that is.
And yet, despite these feelings, the wanna be Buddhist in me, really wants to interpret this situation through a lens of compassion and caring. This woman likely felt true fear and thought she was doing the right thing. The weight of what fear like hers has the potential to trigger however, stifles my ability to truly, truly empathize. When, just. like. that., the Black man can become the embodiment of everything mainstream America fears and hates, I have a hard time empathizing. For just like the recovered addict counts not days but each and every moment sober, Black America (and from this experience, I'd venture to say, many other groups in America) counts the hours, minutes, seconds, and milliseconds that fear-laden behaviors such as reporting a man listening to Nas doesn't morph into an act that strips us away from this world that is supposed to be ours just like everyone else's.