This morning I left my house feeling a little groggy and trapped in my head; I’d slept 12 hours and my to-do list is long from 5 days of putting everything on hold. Typically I’ll have a conversation with myself about what is weighing most heavily on my mind and that helps me prioritize and relax. But I hadn’t yet, I was making my tea and I was out of milk, so I had to go down to the corner-store to buy some non-organic milk (and as you can see I’m already unconsciously heaping some guilt on myself about that). So here was the series of interactions that followed;
Two older black women and a man walked onto the corner with beers in hand talking to each other and glancing at me. I wasn’t making any assumptions but I felt anxious about an interaction. As I said, I wasn’t very clear so I put the “even though I’m in my pajamas I’m tough” look on my face.
One woman said “Good morning ma’am!” with a big smile.
I automatically smiled and said “Good morning!” feeling a little silly about having just experienced anxiety around a friendly neighborhood interaction. I continued to walk briskly into the store.
I’m looking in the cooler at all the Berkeley farms milks that comprise my options for tea since I haven’t made it to the store in the last week. A black man, probably my age, walks in and is muttering under his breath, we do a little dance of me stepping past him in the narrow aisle and I automatically say “I’m sorry” to which he responds “you don’t have to say you’re sorry” in a tone that communicates “we’re all cool here, nothing to be afraid or weird about.” Though I would have said that to anyone in a store, part of my internalization of not taking up space as a woman, he took it as me being fearful of him and being overly apologetic. I’ve have to stop blurting out apologies when they’re not called for.
Then another guy comes in, guy #1’s friend. While I’m in line and he says “You married sweetheart?” to which I kind of laugh like (what?!?) and say “no.”
“You got a boyfriend?” I laugh again and lie, “yeah.” He nods at me as though to say “as long as you’re spoken for I’ll leave you be” but in a respectful feeling way. He goes on talking with his friend and exits the store. I’m not really what I should’ve done there, that situation always leaves me feeling a little confused.
I pay and leave after negotiating with the cashier about credit and atm fees. As I walk back I have a smile on my face, still amused by the “You married sweetheart?” comment, and the same woman as before says “Now that’s what I’m talking about, everyone should have a smile on their face.”
“Have a great day.” I respond, still smiling.
20 paces later she yells after me, as though to defend herself from an imaginary attack, “I’m being for real, that’s not the beer talking,” and I look back and make eye contact with her, smiling and nodding “I know!” and I think about turning around and introducing myself to her, and thanking her for her outspoken friendliness. But my tea is calling me so I go in resolved to be more aware when I leave the house next time.
Unwrapping these interactions I think about internalized racism and classism, how it played into both my actions and theirs, and how I can step outside of those roles and dialogues by simply leaving my house with the intention to do so.
I don’t think I’ve ever lived somewhere where I’ve had as many daily opportunities to confront the insidiousness of prejudice by simply being down to earth and friendly with people. If I’m ever called “ma’am” again, I will make a point to respond in kind with respect.
A lot of the people on the streets here feel forgotten about, occasionally persecuted by the police because of drug and alcohol issues, and a little besieged, I think, with the influx of mostly white middle-class people moving into the neighborhood. Rightly so. Some of the new people in this neighborhood think that they have more of a right to be here than the people who have been living here for years. I’ve seen this attitude in the emails sent within our neighborhood association. Many people are writing angry, if not occasionally hysterical emails, about how the police do nothing to clean up all the “druggies” in this area. From the tone of these emails “clean up” means getting these people out of here. It actually reminds me of this cultures’ waste mentality; throw it away, get it out of sight, I don’t want to feel responsibility for this system. I’m really grateful that the owner of the complex I live in is equally critical of these emails and their sentiments. Having lived here for 20 years she knows people, understands the complexity of the neighborhood and the interactions, and always acts with courage and calm respect.
My prejudice manifested in a more subtle manner than some of my neighbors, but it was prejudice just the same. This morning, I feared a negative interaction with some people drinking on the corner, in spite of the fact that I’ve never had a negative interaction with anyone in this neighborhood. Though I have had offers of marriage and phone number requests, it has never been intimidating, rude or intentionally disrespectful (There is oppression in repeatedly being treated like a sex object, but I understand that minority and/or simply disenfranchised men often objectify women as a subconscious rebellion against the indignities they endure, an assertion of not being on the bottom of the heap).
In each of these situations my intuition now is to be kind, respectful, and joking in a way that defrays any sense of tension. In acting from a place of fear I can actually dehumanize people, in a way that they can feel. It is an act that reifies subtle prejudice in both of us. If you believe, like I do, that dehumanization and lack of sense of dignity leads people to be capable of violence against themselves, others, and ultimately the world, than the first step in cultivating peace is to always treat people with dignity and respect. This is at the heart of the principle of nonviolence. Indeed, though nonviolence is thought of as an alternate way of dealing with conflict, it is actually more of a way of life.
In my community I want to cultivate relationships with the people I live side by side with. This place ought to work for all of us, and a community can be a place of healing when people that may traditionally not interact decide consciously that they are going to work together. This is a lot of work. Distrust runs deep where people have been systematically marginalized, and have lost family and friends to drugs, prison, and the streets.
Additionally, while I’m coming from idealism, theory and good intention, others are coming from the reality of deep deep hurts and anger about being mistreated. Some have also lived through civil rights, meaning that within their lifetimes they have been treated as second-class citizens and were may have been raised by parents who taught them to be good and call all white people “sir” and “ma’am” regardless of age. So yes, it’ll take a long time, likely many generations, and it will be challenging. And maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about and I’ll fail. And that is okay, because it just feels like the right thing to do; to engage with the injustice and imbalance that is going on around me and that I am a part of. I can start next time I walk down to the corner store.