[tw: racism, racial slurs]
In 2019, I stood quietly within a group of three to four bodies all covered in melanin. Rich brown skin slathered over in shea butter. Full lips once run over with a thick slab of Vaseline. Collectively, we occupied a very small corner of a McDonald’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a whole, we made up the only people of color in the establishment.
This did not bother us. Representation in numbers was not our goal, nor our focus. Instead, we sought lard-covered french fries dyed yellow and something called meat but never beef lodged in between two manufactured buns. So we ordered, stood patiently, quietly, and occasionally in laughter. But this, of course, was still too loud a presence for the white faces that made up our company.
To our left spilled in a petite white woman, English, with white chrome hair cut short. I would have admired the haircut if it wasn’t butchered by the two syllables that came crashing through her pale pink lips. “Nigger” cut through the world around me. In the moments it spent hurtling through space and time, I was pushed in between realities. The word seemed to materialize and leap right in front of me. As it landed, I looked around to assess the situation. The woman was satisfied. The employees behind the counter stared at us, blank, bewildered, but still in motion. White faces turned slightly only to glance at us, observe our parted lips and open eyes, and return to the process of ordering their all-American meals. After a moment of silence, one of my companions collapsed into a flurry of words, only in earshot of those black, of course, and not in any way physical. No need to cause a scene. We collected our food, thanked the employees, passed the woman and her haircut, and moved on as we were taught to do.
In 2020, I mourned George Floyd from Florida. In that way, I mourned George Floyd alone. Every stage of grief bubbled deep within me and white faces only had money to offer. “Let’s get our nails done. We’ll pay.”
A life and father can easily be exchanged for cheap acrylic and a free ride. The nail parlor was full of melanin. South Asian and, to me at the time, the closest thing I had to familiarity. The closest thing I had to family. I sat in front of an older woman speaking a language that I was unfamiliar with, and that she was unable — or unwilling — to deviate from. She was clearly the monarch, and the monarchy was unhappy. Roughly, she grabbed my hands and began working with a tweezer-like tool on the edges of my nail bed. Pain began to shoot through my body. Blood seeped through onto my skin and the monarch grinned. I gave her no reaction. I refused to flinch. Instead, we locked eyes. My stare hardened. Her smile began to fold.
“DO NOT PUT YOUR HANDS IN YOUR POCKETS! I WANT TO SEE YOUR HANDS AT ALL TIMES,” she screamed abruptly, throwing my hands down in anger. “PAY ME OR I WILL NOT CONTINUE! PAY ME NOW OR GET OUT!”
At this, chaos began to unravel around us, bodies suddenly in motion.
“Why does she have to pay? I haven’t paid yet. Should I leave?” The words were stated plainly. The room fell into silence. Next to me sat a white woman who, during the entire course of this incident, had hardly looked up. Her delivery could’ve been mistaken as nonchalant, almost as if she was saying, “What’s the big deal?” But what rested behind that was annoyance. Her statement was not in solidarity; it was out of being inconvenienced. But the fact that the white woman was inconvenienced was enough to shift the tide. The old woman fell silent. Surprised because, if nothing else, I was not supposed to receive help and she was not supposed to be challenged. A “no,” barely escaped the old woman’s mouth and, before I could return to her gaze, a new woman sat in front of me.
In the car home, the white folks around me reflected, “That woman was so mean today! She must be having a bad day.”
In 2021, I sat alone in Boston. I spent a good portion of that year alone. Loneliness often brings with it the desire to snack. I was hungry. So I slid a hat over my short cropped hair, put on a bright red coat and my mask, and walked to the corner store.
As soon as I entered, I knew I was being watched. Despite how crowded the store was, I was a star. The clerk, brown enough to be my cousin, studied each move I made with dedication and passion. I browsed, I spoke to the store cat, and I walked towards the exit, turned off by the crowd.
“CAN I HELP YOU WITH SOMETHING?” The volume at which the question was asked temporarily paralyzed me. Spinning on my heels, I could feel my eyes bulging. The clerk stuck his chest out and repeated the words slowly. “CAN. I HELP. YOU?”
Every white face in the store turned to stare at me. In terms of color, it was me and the clerk. I stuttered, “uh-uh-no.” The clerk’s expression fell at the sound of my voice and I realized two things at once. 1. He thought I was a boy and 2. The “threat” of a black woman is nothing in comparison to the “threat” of a black man.
In 2022, I was leaving France, wearing overalls and a striped T-shirt. In my front pocket, coins jiggled. Eventually, they buzzed. A French guard stopped me at the metal detector and yelled in French. I took the change out of my pocket, extended my hand to show him, and handed the change to my partner. Instead of putting them in a bin, my partner (white), held the coins in his hands, almost dazed, and proceeded to come through the detector with them outstretched in his palms. The guard motioned him to come over, explained in French what was to follow, tapped him lightly at his belt with a tool, and sent him on his merry way.
At that, the guard turned quickly, yelled something at me, and motioned for another guard to come over and assist. I was pushed through the first metal detector and ordered to come through once more. The guard ran a hand detector over my body. He then unhooked my overalls, making vulnerable my ass and underwear. I was pulled to a second detector and commanded to go through it. I was ordered to get out. Holding my overalls up, I was examined by hand, then again by metal detector, and then abandoned.
Neither guard talked to me. Neither guard gave me the okay. Neither guard sent me on my merry way. I waited, put my overalls on properly, and walked to the end of the security line, where my bags were being hand-checked. I cracked. Later, I cried.
“Are you still upset about that security thing?”
No matter what I do or where I am, who I am is gonna be a problem for someone. Aspects of my identity I couldn’t hope to change even if I wanted to. I am feared for something created by the fearful. I will spend my whole life being viewed as the lion in the cage.
Even in my relationships, experiences held against me can be challenged. White folks have a knack for seeing what they want to see when they want to see it and stepping clear of things that look a little too much like accountability.
For white people, black people are still an inconvenience. If it’s not our being, it’s our anger. For white people, racism and allyship remain a summer trend. A lion in the cage. The issue of race still rests on the shoulders of black folks. Even to other communities of color, we are still often seen as other. A lion in the cage. And how do I explain this to my children? How do I explain to them that they will experience things that their white father may not be able to understand, let alone protect them from? How do I explain to them that they will be celebrated and revered for the skin they wear and punished for it equally? A lion in the cage.
I hope we are able to find the key before I am dead.