Race has been on my mind a lot recently. I worked heavily with a struggling population of predominantly Spanish-speaking patients in East LA after leaving my job in Harlem last year. My boyfriend is black and continues to unpack his past with me, and my own skin is a topic of conversation in my predominantly white classroom in Malibu, CA.
But this morning, I felt a deep, dark sadness.
My boyfriend lay in bed with me, as he often does when we have both been busy and need to steal a moment to nurture our connection.
“Tell me about your day yesterday,” I asked him, nuzzling into his arms.
“It was a good day. We did a great job at the event. I think we got a new client. I took care of things at the shop, I got my invoices taken care of. I got pulled over by a cop because apparently my headlight is broken, and I walked way alive. All in all, a good day.”
I stopped breathing for a moment, trying to understand why my body froze.
I ran his words through my mind again.
I got pulled over by a cop because apparently my headlight is broken, and I walked away alive.
I felt my anger rise in my throat, and I bit my lip. This wasn’t the time to rage. To cry. We were bonding. This wasn’t the time to hate the world.
My boyfriend is a broad-shouldered black man. His chest is covered in tattoos that he got when he was a reckless youth growing up in the “hood” (as he calls it), and they peek out over the top of his shirts if he doesn’t button them all the way up.
He sometimes wears a gold chain, a gift to himself when he clawed his way out of poverty to become a successful businessman with a profitable company that emphasizes diversity in its hiring. His straight teeth flash brilliantly white against his skin when he laughs, which is often.
But I see how people look at him at night, when he’s not smiling because he’s trying to figure out where we are. Or he’s tired. Or he just doesn’t feel like smiling.
And there has been more than one occasion when a waitress has avoided eye contact with him. Even in nice restaurants, where he spends 3-figures on a decadent meal for the two of us.
“She didn’t even look at me,” he said once when we were at a chic restaurant in Studio City, CA. He was wearing a soft blue sweater, black slacks and shiny shoes. He looked so handsome, and I was so caught up in his scent and how happy I was to be finally seated that I didn’t truly process what he observed until our meal was completed.
But he was right. The waitress gave all of her attention to me, never once acknowledging him. And my man, who is usually so strong and ignores the sidelong glances people give him, was hurt. I wanted to confront her (partly out of guilt that I didn’t notice her neglect until the end), but he squeezed my hand. It’s not worth it, his eyes told me.
And the fact that he pointed out that he was pulled over by a cop at night in LA and walked away alive should NOT be a thing. It should NOT be something that he thinks makes his day better. A positive. It should just be a given. Why the hell should any innocent, law-abiding citizen think being pulled over while driving would lead to any sort of violence?
When I was young, my father was pulled over by a cop while driving his Cadillac. My father was dressed in a paint-stained t-shirt and paint-stained shorts. He had on a ball cap, more to shield his eyes than to protect his dark brown skin.
“Sir, can I see your license and registration?”
“Can I ask what the problem is, officer?” my father asked.
“Sir, please give me your license and registration.”
“I wasn’t speeding officer, so I’d like to know what this is about.” Even as he said the words, he reached over to the glove department and found the documents.
As he handed them over, the cop replied, “Just making sure this car is with its rightful owner.”
The cop saw my father driving the car and assumed it wasn’t his. As I grew older, my father explained, “He thought I stole the car. It’s okay. I have friends in the LAPD. I wasn’t worried. But stuff like that happens when you look like me.”
My dad is a dark-skinned Punjabi man. He grew up in India but came to the United States as a teen. He grew up rough and rowdy, a street rat always getting into trouble because what else did you do when you weren’t in school or working and you live in a neighborhood bordering the ghetto? And your parents have a store in the ghetto? You play. You fight. You get yourself into situations that you then have to get yourself out of.
But my boyfriend’s experiences physically make me ill. I’m so tired of it. Every day, I’m surrounded by white men fighting to climb the ladder in corporate America bitching about how hard they have it. And rolling their eyes when people discuss race.
“Reverse racism is a thing,” one man I dated stated. He had piercing blue eyes and white-blonde hair. He worked in finance and was upset that his black co-worker was being promoted over him.
“I don’t get it,” I responded, already knowing I didn’t plan on seeing him again. “You told me that this man has worked at your job longer. And that he has an advanced degree. Why do you think race has anything to do with it?”
“They gave him the job because he’s black. I could have done that job. I deserved that job. But my company has these stupid diversity and inclusion hiring practices, and I’m quite frankly getting sick of all this race talk. I’m suffering because of reverse racism. It’s real.”
“I’m pretty sure his advanced degree, senior experience, and overall entire personality made him a better candidate for that job,” I said as I slid off the stool. I left and regret the fact that I let a man like that touch me.
As I walked away, I thought of my ex in New York. Who dealt with this type of situation in his office all the time. White co-workers who would beat their chests when they walked by him and grunt. My ex was a large African man with an athletic body and a wide chest. He’d come home and tell me stories of office mates giving him the peace sign and saying, “Sup my brotha,” as they walked by him. Punching his arm and calling him “big guy” and then grunting as they slapped his chest.
It’s all just so ridiculous.
So to anyone who has the safety of white skin, please remember your privilege. Yes, you’ll have to work hard to get where you are; I’m not saying that things come easy to you just because you’re white. But you have a freedom that many others don’t have: safety.
Remember that you don’t have to worry about people exiting subway cars when you walk onto them late at night. You don’t have to worry about neighbors calling the cops on you when you forget the code to your girlfriend’s apartment complex and are waiting outside for her to let you in.
Remember when you get pulled over by a cop at night, you’re not afraid that the night might end with your blood on the sidewalk.