We met yesterday on the train platform, waiting for the train that would take us downtown. I stood silently scrolling through Twitter, catching up on the topics of the day. You approached me, never saying hello, you just looked at me. You kept looking at me, looking to me. You stood uncomfortably close to me, and when I moved away from you, you inched ever closer. I texted my friend, “This woman on the platform with me has zero sense of personal space.”
There was a young black man standing under the heat lamps with us. He stood at a reasonable distance, unlike you. He asked me, casually, “Hey, you got a quarter?” Take a minute to remember that exchange. He asked me, not you. He never looked at you. Yet you clung to me even more closely. I answered him, “No man, sorry.” He walked away, not too far away, just enough to check on the train and paced a bit like we all do when we’re cold and impatient. It was then that it occurred to me why you invaded my personal space. You pegged him as being unsafe and me as being safe. You looked at me again and said, as he walked away, “I’m so glad you were standing here. You just never know with people like that. Can’t be too careful.” You continued rambling about your fear of being alone in the city and the likelihood of the young black man being a “serial killer or something.”
I have some questions for you.
Did you know the man you were afraid of is my brother? Not by blood but that doesn’t change anything. He’s my brother, ten years my junior. He asks me for advice and homework help. He asks me questions about women. He wants my approval and he will always have my protection. He asked me for a quarter so he could do some laundry. Is that a frightening prospect for you? A man trying to wash his baby son’s clothes?
Did you look at me and see our shared skin color and assume safety? Did you see my rainbow-dyed mohawk and masculine demeanor and assume I’d be the one to protect you? That I’d be your white savior? More than that, did you assume I’d share your sickening and irrational fear? Let me tell you, you made the wrong choice. I’m not here to protect you, never will be. My protection is for the people that need it, like my brother, from the dangerous assumptions of people like you.
You saw his skin and mine and simply could not fathom that we were together, didn’t you? And sure, I’ll give you a little leeway in that assumption. I had headphones on and he and I weren’t talking at the time. We’d been together for hours and had exhausted the day’s conversation. In a passing glance, it wouldn’t have looked like we were together, but I’d bet those things never even factored into your thinking, did they?
Did you look at him and see his dark skin, his sagging pants, maybe his earrings or the little scar that runs through his eyebrow, and assume he was there to hurt you? And for what, a quarter? Would you ever look at him and assume that he’s a good guy? A single father who takes amazing care of his child? A student trying to earn a degree? A business owner? Would you ever look at him and see a twenty-five year old kid who is the youngest of his mother’s four kids and her entire world? Would you assume that he’s never been in any trouble of any kind? That he calls all women “ma’am” and stands from the dinner table when his mother or sister get up? Not that all of the great things he is add value to what would otherwise be a wasted life. No, he’s a human being and that’s the only qualification he needs to not be deserving of your bigotry. But I wonder, would all of these things add any value to his life for you? Do you know you’re the reason people of color have to qualify their lives in this country?
Do you know that your behavior hinges on a century old lie told by slave owners upon the abolition of slavery. The lie that black men raped white women while their husbands were off fighting in the war was exposed by Ida B. Wells in her anti-lynching pamphlets written in the 1890’s, yet still, you believe it.
Do you know that you are the reason the Black Lives Matter movement must exist? Your insistence on perpetuating the absurd image of the white woman, the damsel in distress, that must be saved from the savagery of black men. You have created a world of fictional monsters that you’ve assigned bodies to. Bodies of real people that have to live with the painful and dangerous assumptions you make without a second thought.
Do you think that perhaps it’s time you examine your behavior? Try to pair it with facts and when you come up empty, change your behavior? Do you think you can’t hold racist beliefs and behave in bigoted ways because you see yourself as a liberal woman (and I know you do view yourself this way because you didn’t react to the sight of me with disdain or disgust). You told me on the train platform that you fear Chicago, yet still, there you were, in the city. Don’t you think it’s time you start living in reality and use your privilege as a white woman to help the city and its people who have given you a place to call home?