I received a text message while I was driving home last week. I sent a quick reply while I was at a stoplight, but then received another message. I was near a country club, so I decided to pull into its parking lot rather than text and drive. (I act responsibly every now and then.)
As I texted, I noticed that a young man, who was obviously an employee, drive by in a golf cart. After seeing me, he swung his cart around and parked perhaps 10 feet behind me. He was looking down initially, appearing to type something into his phone. We made eye contact after a few seconds.
I assumed that he was sending my license plate to security given that I’m not a member of the club. Having finished texting, I decided to remain parked for a few minutes to see what would happen. The young man stayed behind me. I expected security officers to materialize ex nihilo, but they didn’t. Yet, I was extremely upset about being racially profiled. I made eye contact with the young man again before driving off, mentally noting that I only saw white men on the golf course.
Still seething, I turned around and headed back to the club so that I could confront the manager. I arrived, hurriedly exited my car, and headed towards the entrance. A total of three young men, all of whom were white, were parked in golf carts near the entrance. I was going to rush past them on my mission to give the manager a piece of my mind. I would also tell him (certainly it would be a white man) that I would never consider becoming a member of that club. (It would have been a moot point; I don’t like golf.)
At that point, everything changed.
The young man with whom I had made eye contact said, “Sir, do you need a ride back to the course.” In an instant, I realized that he had not profiled me. Neither had he taken down my license plate number to report me as “suspicious”. He had been merely killing time on his phone while waiting to see if I needed his assistance. I thanked him, and somewhat sheepishly responded that I was heading inside.
Once inside, I pretended that I needed to use the men’s room. As soon as I entered it, I saw two Black men who appeared to be members. They were having a good-natured discussion. I considered making small talk, but simply turned around and left.
The three young men were still in their carts talking. I chatted them up a bit, asking about their jobs, how school was going, etc. I learned that they were all high school juniors who were earning a little money and, better yet, gaining employment experience. After a few minutes, I wished them good luck and returned to my car.
Obviously, I had been completely wrong about my earlier encounter. However, rather than feeling reassured that society has progressed somewhat, I was left with a complex mix of emotions. I was embarrassed. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry. I wanted to go to sleep. I have endured more encounters with unmistakable racism than I care to remember; the less certain (but still vexing) uncertain encounters outnumber those by an order of magnitude.
These young men had done nothing to harm me. They were unwitting participants in my life story. Racial trauma is so insidious that it claims not just the combatants; it voraciously gorges on innocent bystanders, belching and regurgitating them into collateral damage.
To be transparent, situations like this one make me very envious of white people. While African Americans are not faced with overt racism on a daily basis, the compounded interest of our lived experience takes a physiological, psychic, emotional, and spiritual toll on us. Much of being Black in America (and in other predominantly white places) involves the perpetual possibility of racial slights – real or imagined – that we constantly face. The problem is that, sometimes, the windmills at which we tilt are actually real.
It’s easy for white people to dismiss the weight of this uncertainty, whose heaviness is distinctly different from those occasions in which racism is abundantly clear. In either scenario, we have to decide how best to address the issue – if we choose to do so at all. A superlative education, well-paid positions, nice homes, and professional recognition cannot fully insulate us from the damning, numbing, constant waterboarding of racism.
I am tired.