Three Little Words

shoppingThis weekend was wonderful in many ways.  After a very trying week, I decided to just really have some fun.  Over the last year, I have had a great deal of strife and loss and to find myself in a position of financial and life security to be able to simply enjoy myself seemed like the greatest gift.

I started the weekend by going to a baseball game for the first time in maybe 20 years.  My friend Lee who came with me, got to witness something few people get the chance to see…me acting like a 10 year old.  We are both big New York baseball fans (him Yankees, me Mets.) Although this was an Oakland game against Los Angele, just being in the stadium and seeing the diamond and the players on the field was a thrill.  We had great seats at field level and a perfect view.  An icy beer and a couple of polish sausages didn’t hurt either.  What looked at first like it was going to be a cloudy day, turned into a bright crisp, perfect baseball atmospheric setting and what looked like at first was going to turn into a trouncing by Los Angeles turned, in the 5th inning, into a fairly swift triumph for the Oakland A’s.  I have kept minor tabs on Coco Crisp since meeting his sister Sheileah at a black figure skater’s event in 2003.  He and the rest of the team made us all proud…3-1 Oakland.

Throughout the game and then afterward over coffee, Lee and I enjoyed wonderful conversation about seminary and life and his latest passion the television series “Orange is the New Black.”  I have yet to watch an episode through, but have caught bits because last year I was fortunate to meet Laverne Cox at the National Black Justice Coalition “Out on the Hill” conference in DC.  She is a wonderful speaker and a passionate advocate for trangender rights and is breaking incredible ground with a starring role in a series like OITNB.  Lee and I would love to see someone like her make a connection with transgender folks out here in the Bay…maybe there’s a way…wheels turning!

I was light on my feet leaving Lee, feeling really nourished emotionally and intellectually, and went on to a great and unexpectedly fun party in Richmond with my friend Zak.  Zak tends to be as intense as I am about social justice and its refreshing to find someone who is willing to meet me on that level.  I think we would happily talk ourselves blue in the face about issues and policy and history, but we managed to actually also just have a laugh with people at the party that was a fundraiser for Richmond Councilmemeber Jovanka Beckles, a black, out lesbian, someone who is yet another force of nature.  What a treat to meet someone with that kind of energy and dedication.  As it would happen, I then had the opportunity to meet the Mayor of Richmond, Gayle McLaughlin.  This was extremely handy in that we’ve been trying to get her for an event at work.  What a stroke of luck!

Sunday was full of beautiful sunshine and church, reconnecting with my friend Julia and discovering that she might be a childhood connection with my friend Nicola in England and spending time with the youth at the church.  I spent the afternoon relaxing and catching up on my two guilty pleasures, Archer and Top Gear, U.K. By the time I went to do my grocery shopping on Sunday evening, I was fully spent and thoroughly satisfied that my weekend was complete.  I had connected with people I care deeply about, I had made new business connections and reflected on other important people who have been in and out of my life and thought about what a gift it is for a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Boston to brush elbows now and again with people who make great differences in the world.  After going to both Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, I decided to look for a small tub so that I could soak my feet in Epsom salt.  Neither of those stores nor Walgreen’s carried such an item, but I knew that in a black neighborhood, at the local market there would be some kind of something that I soak my feet in.  Bingo!…a bright orange tub at the local Lucky’s.  I decided in honor of OITNB that this was quite appropriate.  And then all of the fun and privilege I enjoyed this weekend, all of the reflection on the famous and powerful people that I know and have access to faded in three little words.  They hit me like a slap in the face.  A middle aged white woman approached me and in an angry tone barked at me:

“You work here?”

I was wearing a sweatshirt, scrubs and sandals, my hair was a wreck and frankly, I looked like I should be headed to bed…most clearly not working.  There were white hipsters, black and Latino families, a real mix of people in the store at that time.  The employees of the store are easily identified by the crisp white shirts they wear and the brown aprons that say in big letters “Lucky’s.”  I looked down my nose at her and barked back “no.”  It is this kind of odd juxtaposition of situations, that I could have the weekend I had and be who I am and still have someone approach me in a supermarket, regardless of how I am dressed, and assume that I work there.  I have nothing against grocery workers.  My own mother, during our lean years, worked for A&P; several of my dearest friends through highschool worked at Stop & Shop.  I have even applied (and was no less turned down) for work with Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and Safeway.  People work where they work.  I do however, have something against someone who all she can see is the color of my skin and therefore assume that I work there, wherever “there” might be.  But maybe my assumption is wrong as well; maybe she has a visual impairment, not just a cultural one.

Now you might think I’m overreacting.  But this is a regular occurrence.  I’ve experienced it my entire life.  But sometimes I get lulled into the pace and excitement of what my life is really about and I forget that for some people, in the end, I am just another brown face that is there to serve.  Post racial?

I think not.

Lee Wittaker “Coffee With God”

4 thoughts on “Three Little Words

  1. Thanks much, enjoyed reading — not just the part about your joy, but also about how that joy can be quashed in a second. I get the same feeling when people cut in front of me in line or otherwise treat me with disregard because, IMO, they see me as a passive, nonconfrontational Asian person, a kabuki ninja on the stage of life. I’ve heard a term for such slights — “microaggressions.” They’re not malicious, and they’re not thought-out, but that just makes them worse, if anything. For people’s assumptions about others to become so deeply ingrained that they fall below the level of awareness and spawn unconscious behavior — that’s disturbing. And dehumanizing.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Alby! Its funny, just this morning in my office staff meeting (we deal with social justice policy) we were talking about micro-agressions. I think it is very important to be aware of how these add up…but it is also important that we don’t make this impersonal and over intellectualize. With the example you use, it is very personal, someone invades or invalidates your space because of what they assume. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I’m sure that part of it is making these conversations about race, class, gender and sexuality personal. 🙂

      1. One thing I dislike about this kind of treatment is that it comes with plausible deniability. (“I didn’t know you were in line” or “I’m in a hurry,” for example.) Also, most of the time this happens to me, the perp is some testosterone-filled meathead (yeah, I’m assuming and labeling) who looks predisposed to throttling anyone who denies him his way or throws him off of his mental script. (Recently, it was two post-frat-looking white guys and a beefy Latino gangster-looking type.) I dislike having to choose between my dignity and my physical well-being, but I guess that’s a dilemma others have been dealing with for hundreds of years.

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