[Featured image: Mural in downtown Memphis, Tennessee created by Marcellous Lovelace]
Dear Random White Woman,
You don’t know my name. You never cared to ask. You never even said “hello.” When you saw me in the grocery store right after you allege a man, whom you could only describe as “black,” stole your purse, all you saw was another black man who just had to be connected to your perpetrator because either you believe we all know each other or you believe that we are all inherently criminal.
You walked past several other white men and women in the grocery store to get to me. You didn’t say hello to them either. You approached me with mixture of anxiety and anger steeped in privilege, the kind of privilege that allowed you to open your mouth and accuse me of criminal collusion for no other reason than the color of my skin. Never mind the fact that I was wearing the black shirt, black pants, black jacket, black oxfords, and white collar that I wear to my parish every day as a priest, a vocation you later called into question. In fact, I tried to respond pastorally and from a space of compassion. You had just been victimized. I’ve been there and was trying to connect to your pain, but all you saw was a black man, completely inseparable from the black man who you allege stole your purse, or the black men you see on television or hear about in the news.
Your words seemed innocent, pleas for help baptized in white tears. But you and I both know that your motives came from a deeper, more insidious place. You walked up to me, a perfect stranger, and accused me of criminal activity merely because I was black.
Your accusation made me feel diminished and less than human. Your searching eyes looking me up and down with suspicion made me feel violated. Your insistence that I was somehow involved, despite my repeated denial, made me feel unheard and invisible. Maybe you are unaware of your racism. Maybe you can’t help it. But I can help how I feel about myself and I am angry that I allowed you to make me feel that way.
When I would later recount my terrible experience of meeting you, I would be celebrated for showing restraint. I know that people meant well, but upon later reflection, the honor felt unearned. The truth be told, I was in shock the entire time you were repeatedly accusing me of be involved with stealing your purse, or questioning whether I was actually a priest, or asking me where I lived (as if that was any of your business). I have dealt with racism before. I deal with the low-level, chronic racism that accompanies being a person of color living in a nation steeped in white supremacy, the kind of racism one can be tempted to just get used to. I also deal with direct assaults on my personhood: intimidation by police officers during “routine” traffic stops, being told how much I “don’t belong” in spaces long belonging to whiteness, being called “nigger” simply because some teenagers thought it was funny. Each and every time I encounter racism I would like to claim a certain braveness, like the Freedom Riders of the 1960s or Africans in U.S. who ran hundreds of miles to reclaim that God-given freedom, but I can’t and it hurts.
Instead, I resort to politeness – the kind of polite manners black parents teach their black children in an attempt to keep them alive in a society that is looking for any reason to kill them. Say “yes ma’am” and “no sir.” Don’t raise your voice. Comply. Don’t make any sudden movements. The rules are the same whether you are dealing with a police officer on the side of the road or a random white woman in grocery store. When you are black in America, there is no hiding place, and history is filled with black women and men who dared to disobey these rules of engagement.
So I survive.
My terrible encounter with you left me drained. The emotional toll it takes to choke down the rage that I felt in that moment left me exhausted. All I could do is leave and find the first safe place to cry, to release all the anger and rage you made me feel because of your coldness and utter lack of awareness of the racism you wear around the world as a security blanket.
But one day I won’t be in shock. One day I will encounter you again and I will summon up all my faculties to let you know exactly where you can go with your ignorance and how you can get there. One day I will move beyond survival mode and dare to thrive and woe be to you if you encounter me on that day. I cannot promise restraint. I am tired of being celebrated for restraint and for having to take the “high road.” I want your sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, neighbors and friends to take the “high road” and talk to you about your racism. I need them to call you out when you decry all the “black men around here.” I need them to snatch your security blanket from you and make you think long and hard about the choices you make as a human being. I need them to stop being like the store manager who looked away embarrassed. I need them to engage you and challenge the assumptions you carry around about black people and, hopefully, to help you become a better person. I need them to shoulder the burden of dismantling racism, whether systemic or interpersonal.
Because educating you about how wrong racism is is not my job. I am trying to focus all my attention and emotional energy on surviving the next encounter with you, because with each passing day that I survive I move closer and closer to thriving.
And I know that that’s your worst nightmare.
A Random Black Man