“Every day I am deluged with reminders
that this is not
and this is my land…” from “Poem for the young White man…” by Lorna Dee Cervantes
The tall white man had bushy brown hair that hung to his shoulders. His beard was full with a mustache similar to Sam Elliott in Mask. He wore dark cargo pants, dark shoes, a black sweatshirt. The bandanna he wore over his nose and mouth bore the stars and stripes but they were colored black and blue, His light blue eyes bore into me as soon as our eyes met. As I studied his bandanna, he studied me. It being the Sunday before Inauguration Day, I had selected my Daughter of an Immigrant t-shirt to wear with my jeans. He would not stop staring. It made me uneasy. The older woman he was with tapped his arm and asked him to do or something. As he walked away, he looked over his shoulder at me two or three times. I broke eye contact and chose to study my phone. I texted my partner and my friend. My gut told me there might be a confrontation headed my way.
His mask. My shirt. Lines in the sand. Guns drawn. This town isn’t big enough for the both of us and yet it has been and will continue to be. I’m not going anywhere. Immigrant is a misnomer. I’m the descendant of indigenous peoples who arrived on this continent millenia ago.
The tension is a reality for so many people and yet when it happens, it feels surreal like you’re suddenly on a theater stage and you’re acting in a familiar scene.
My mouth went dry. My stomach lurched. My pulse quickened. I deliberately paid attention to my breathing. I focused on my inhalations and exhalations. I became acutely aware of the man’s height. He towered over me. I was grateful for the social distance between us. Two carts away. He and the older woman stood behind the glass partition as the cashier rang up their purchases. I hoped the cashier would look over at me. She was too busy scanning items with the handheld reader.
I have a right to make a political statement with my shirt. He has the right to make a political statement with his mask. The statements in and of themselves are equally acceptable. But, in combination with our personal demeanor and physical appearance, they became battle attire. Why was I put on the defensive? Why did he choose to be bothered by a female stranger in a black and pink tee shirt? I was wearing my glasses that morning. I was alone. I was quiet. I had grabbed a few items and placed them in my cart. I did nothing to warrant those looks other than be myself. I might have ignored him had he chosen not to stare at me. After watching our nation’s capitol erupt in violence earlier that week, I was on edge. Perhaps he was too but it wasn’t my people disrespecting our government institutions and leaders. My presence was triggering. I can look at those blue and black stripes and think a great many things but choose not to engage with anyone. I can judge in the quiet of my mind but I don’t often give the people a second look. I, on the other hand, was subjected to ten to twelve hard looks, even two or three over the shoulders. As we checked out of Costco by handing our receipts to the clerks at the door, he looked towards me one last time. He and the older woman headed to the left. I headed to the right, relieved they weren’t parked anywhere near me. I felt safe again. I was grateful there had been no confrontation. Still, I was shaken. I know, in my rational mind, that very little could have happened in a public setting. Yet, in my core, I know it could have gone so much worse.
Reflecting on this incident has caused me anguish. No matter how many professional or personal milestones I accomplish, I can be reduced, judged, labeled, hated. Before you argue that the same could be said for any person, I will snap back that a lot of folks won’t have reached out to their emergency contacts in a supermarket checkout line for fear for their physical safety. I was scared. My heart and mind went into flight mode. Should I abandon my cart of groceries and leave the store? Would he follow me to my car? Would the woman with him intervene? Even if the worst that happened was being called a racial slur or told to go back to my country, it would have hurt. Not like an owie, now I’m sad. It’s the pain of knowing in my physical body that I am considered an enemy or a problem. It’s a lifetime of pain from being considered foreign, invasive, wrong. Miss me with all the “we are all alike” platitudes to gloss over my reality. Accept me at my word. Accept me.