Stone Mountain, GA is famously known as former confederate territory and the KKK capital. This is the city I called home for about 22 years, the city where I loved to walk the the confederate cemetery, the city where I knew some streets weren’t safe for my skin appearance, the city where my church still had not so open arms when I went for a hug. However, I didn’t experience overt racism until I moved to upstate New York in a town that is the quintessential representation of upper middle class, white America: the perfectly manicured lawns, the large houses one can only dream of, the American flags above the doorways, and the “Trump for President” signs in the front yard. The experiences don’t stop with where I live, for I find myself working in a place where customers complain because of how I look. I contemplate how I ended up in this place, and how I am to create a life for my family and myself with such surroundings.
11:30 p.m. On the last stretch of my hike home from the bus stop after closing the store, it began to drizzle. I was wearing all black — my work uniform, which happened to include a black hoodie. I put on my hood to keep my head dry. As I got closer to the final hill decline toward my apartment complex, a police SUV rode by; however, just as it passed by me, it slowed down significantly. My immediate feeling was of nervousness and even slight fear. Dear God, don’t let this be my fate!, I thought to myself, I can’t get killed 50 feet away from my apartment complex! I immediately removed the hood from my head, no longer caring for the cosmetic consequences. Immediately after I removed the hood from my head, the police SUV increased in speed and continued on its way.
Although this moment was brief, it was intense and elicited anger and fear in my heart. I thought I moved to a better area and a better life? Is this really what I got myself into? Did I make a mistake with this move? These thoughts among many others clouded my mind as I tried to reconcile the who debacle. Thanks to one incident far beyond 1,000 miles away, I cannot even make it to my apartment complex in upper class white America without a sense of fear. One would think that my ability to live there and keep the rent paid would say enough about my character! Even worse to think about, what if I wasn’t a female who is lighter than a paper bag? One would think that having such thoughts in 2016 is absolutely absurd, but in the racial and political climate we endure today, this is a harsh reality we have to face and live with each and every day as if it were 1960.
One morning, I was working the fitting rooms at my store. I work for an old school British, luxury fashion company and one of the highest profile stores in the world. Our fitting rooms have strict fitting room guidelines to ensure protection of company assets, and it is often a challenge to be the face of color that has to deliver the message to many a privileged customer who feels that I shouldn’t even be allowed to work there. Plenty of times, I have been deemed a bitch for simply doing my job, but one interaction was special. I said my usual mini-speech prior to letting in a customer with more than the allotted amount of items. She responded in objection, as many female customers do, and I continued to reinforce the policy as always. With just one reinforcement, the woman became angry. Typically, the customers are more angry with the limiting policy than they are with the messenger, but this particular customer took exception to the fact that a colored person had the power to put limits on her life.
While I heard the woman speaking loudly in protest after she left the fitting room, I did not know exactly what she said. The supervisor at the time came back to have a conversation about what happened, as he was supposed to do, and I had to take extra steps to ensure that my voice was heard and that my side of the story was understood. He stated to me that there were “outside influences” that clouded the customer’s judgement. As first, thinking lightly, I thought maybe she was drunk or high, but then I realized it was a wee bit early for such influences, and then my mind immediately went to racism.
A few days later, in the break room, I was speaking with the cashier who was working the morning of the incident. We were talking about racially charged experiences in the news and what happens in our store. She brought up the morning prior, and when I asked what the lady said, the cashier stated that she didn’t hear the woman because the customer complained to the supervisor. The cashier went on to say that after the supervisor came back to the her, she asked what happened, and the supervisor alerted her that the woman was simply a racist and that the situation was blown out of proportion due to the negative, mental influence. While this was a moment of confirmation, it was also a moment of harsh realization of what I deal with day-in and day-out in the work place.
Coming from a place where the KKK used to burn crosses on the mountain I climbed, I still hadn’t had the experience where I had to deeply contemplate the reality of my physical appearance negatively impacting my work performance, or the perception thereof, until now. This was mind blowing and heartbreaking. How do I reconcile this experience? How do I create a life for myself and my family when I will be attacked no matter how well I do at work? What are the underlying forces that are truly creating the greater challenges I face in my latest life transition? What is the quality of the characters that I am dealing with, and how do I get ahead in this life whilst maintaining my own integrity? The answer isn’t as simple as, “go within” or “send them light”. These solutions, while effective, are not as practical when it comes to the face-to-face interactions that impact my ability to create a new and better life for myself and my mom and our dog.
So many continue to reinforce being true to myself and staying strong in my personal truth. That sounds nice, but it doesn’t really work in some practical aspects of life. There’s more to it than how we speak or act; it’s all about how one looks. I have the double whammy of being Ramapough Lenape Native American on top of looking like just another black girl that doesn’t matter. This reality leaves nothing to be in my favor — nothing! I can walk the walk, talk the talk, and outperform anyone who is in the building, yet, I will still face hate, envy, vitriol, and racism to the point where I have to rethink what it really takes to move forward in life. I once thought the solution was to ensure that I performed perfectly in order to be able to maintain the integrity of my character; however, that is proving to not be enough, especially in such a competitive job/business market where everyone is competing and no one has to care about you anymore. Not to mention that I cannot even wear authentic luxury brand clothing comfortably while walking home in the rain, or probably in the dark period, due to the latest, gross turn of racial events and tension in this country.
This relocation experience has been nothing less than challenging and enlightening. I have to look at myself, my conduct, my mentality, and my integrity completely differently now that I face the reality of the volcano of racial consciousness erupting before the eyes of the world. My life will never be the same, as I now have to revisit and strategize how I do life in this political and racial climate. So many stick their heads in the sand and tune into the latest reality television show or awards show, not realizing that the grossest of atrocities is taking place in their back yards or at the workplace — maybe even their favorite place to shop! I cannot say I didn’t have a time when I was engulfed in the delusion that certain things only happened in certain places, but no more. Everything is happening right here, right now, in this moment, and I am in the middle of it.
Sobering and humbling, indeed.