There are things I never had to learn while growing up, and there are many things I’ve taken for granted as an adult. Recently, I stopped a couple of men and asked about their experience living in Utah and not looking like anybody else. We talked about situations that come up wherever they go. The differences between the men and me were startling, and the longer we talked, the more I recognized what many people do (including myself) that worsen the situation.
In Utah, I can blend into a crowd. I can walk down the street towards someone else and not expect them to cross to the other side.
No one says they are impressed with how articulate-sounding I am. No one tells me, out of the blue, for no reason at all, that I’m scary-looking, or look like a thug. Generally, I can dress how I want to, say what I want, and behave exactly how I regularly behave, no matter the circumstances. Nobody ever expects me to adapt.
There is not a single time in my life when a stranger has sought me out, asked about my hair regimen, or if I had special tips for their hair, or question how much it cost me to get my hair looking the way it does. And nobody has simply reached out and touched my hair, not ever, not once, outside a salon.
I’ve never had to prove myself while browsing a grocery store aisle looking for spaghetti noodles. I’m not followed everywhere I go or quizzed about the blond person I’m walking with.
People haven’t come up and said, “I watch Ellen,” or “I listen to 90’s Alternative,” expecting that this is the way to understand me.
No one assumes that I’m violent. Nobody worries about approaching me or is wary about turning their back to me as they walk away. I don’t worry about turning my back on them either.
When I make eye contact with someone, it’s odd for them to purse their lips and quickly turn away. In my experience, people look directly in my eyes, and when they smile, they show teeth. It would be offensive and strange if they didn’t.
If pulled over, it would be because I was doing 35 mph in a school zone, and ran a red light, not because seeing me go by made the cop suspicious. And then, as the police officer approached my car, I could reach into the glove compartment, dig behind me in the backseat, or on the floor of the passenger side searching for my driver’s license. It wouldn’t occur to me that if my hands weren’t in clear sight, my life would be in danger.
I never had to learn anything really different while I was growing up. The words, “Whatever you do, don’t run,” was never part of my rite of passage. Anyway, why would I run? I didn’t do anything wrong! I’ve always had the luxury of believing that, too.
If someone says something horrible disguised as a joke, it’s rare that I have to laugh it off—I mean, how many slurs and innuendoes are there for people who look like me?
Nothing about me is divisive. Nothing about me causes riots or unrest because I’m not a target. There is no byline when I’m described, I’m simply a woman, my shade of skin is never discussed.
My name never comes up. I’m not asked how to pronounce it and then told to pronounce it slower this time. My name doesn’t demand an explanation, nor do I have to wait while someone decides whether or not they find my name acceptable or pretty or bizarre.
Nothing about my appearance connects me to something delicious to eat. My skin color doesn’t automatically conjure up desserts like Ladyfingers or Twinkies. And nobody has to make up kind words for my pigmentation because there seems to be no need to soften the color related to my race.
When I was growing up, I wasn’t told there might be a day (even if I had done everything right) that I could lose my life at the hand of someone else. I wasn’t told there was a possibility that an authority figure would be responsible for my end.
I am guilty of doing a lot of these things, but I refuse to be guilty of not doing anything to change.
Individually, maybe, these experiences wouldn’t be too bad. Perhaps one or two, even three or four, wouldn’t tear out small pieces of my soul. But if everything that is listed was said to me repeatedly, how would I feel? Alien? Would I have to announce and rally that my life mattered just as much as anyone else’s because if I didn’t, nobody would?
After thanking these gentlemen and wishing each a good day, I felt more empowered, not less. We had shared a moment and connected. For an hour or so, we were not black and white, we were simply people who met at a gym.