The Varied Pictures of me in the eyes across the city streets and trains
The Cure noted long ago in their angst-riddled voice “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you, that I almost believe that they’re real.” It is a haunting song that has reverberated in my ear this past week. Interestingly in a state where Latinos are the plurality my Latina identity causes odd reactions.
I am a Latina, a Hispanic woman. I am brown in terms of skin-tone. I am 5’4 and petite. I wear pink and for the most part I am fairly non-threatening looking. Yet, grown men in the streets of San Francisco have run ahead of me to open an apartment building door so that I can’t sneak in behind them. Something about me is apparently scary. It could be my New York street-smart and straight to the point demeanor. But most would not get that from looking at me. I mean I am not dressed in all black in combat boots or striking 5-inch heels. No way people should know I am a New Yorker. But I digress.
Today I got onto Bart and an older woman took up two seats with her bag. I asked if I could scoot in to grab that seat. I asked politely. She ignored me and placed herself across two seats. I asked again. She ignored me. I asked again. I noted that the train (yes, admittedly New York terminology) was getting packed and it would be nice to make room. She ignored. I finally decided to just go in and sit. As she noted I was reading to sit she moved over by the window. She then held onto her bag tightly to her chest and put sunglasses on. She was not only rude but she was scared of me! Which was rude. Really? Why in the world should she be scared of me? I wondered if she perhaps was European and didn’t speak English or…
I wracked my grain and got angry. See yesterday a tall business woman waiting in line at Starbucks had done the same action. When she looked back at me, she pretended to need something in her bag, zipped it up and clutched it to her. She had been scared of me. She was a good 5 inches taller than me. As I sat on the train and thought further of these two events, I got angrier.
I breathed in and vented through a series of texts hoping the scared woman was reading them. I didn’t want to cause a scene. Yet, these two women -two white women- were inexplicably scared of me. Inexplicably so unless you consider that they were afraid because I am brown.
As we neared the next stop, she nudges me and says “I am getting out can I pass by” she spoke perfect English, she could hear and communicate. Yet she showed me no respect or recognition when I asked politely to be allowed to sit. I got up and let her through. Then I said out loud. Sure I will let you pass. Interesting you showed me no acknowledgement as a human being before. She ran out clutching her purse. I felt dejected for a second and shook it off. But my sense (ok more than that, I do watch the news) is there are many more people who suffer through these micro-agressions. Are there people who truly believe every Hispanic is going to rob them? Yes! Yes, there are.
Interestingly and frustratingly I had a different experience where the perception of me was reversed. This past week I had to make some tough calls in the workplace. Some of my decisions, made in the vein of fairness and accountability, angered a few people who were used to a lack of accountability. One such person in the heat of the moment, but even thereafter, noted that I, as a White woman, was disrespecting him. I am not white. My skin is not White. Not even coming out of tanning salon would people think I am White. Even if I was White, it should not have mattered in that situation. However, in his eyes, as he noted because I am not Black, I am White. Meaning, I have power and “privilege”. I suppose, privilege is relative and in the eye of the beholder. I have certainly done well for myself in that I studied hard, was offered a way out of the South Bronx and went onto get my doctorate. Yes, that does actually provide some privileges and access to resources.Yet that privilege doesn’t stop random strangers on a train or Starbucks from thinking I’m a potential mugger just based on my appearance. Either way, across these situations I was not that which I was deemed to be.
In the most “liberal” state in the US, racial politics are raw, bitter and real. Either that, or they all know I have a pink taser in my bag, and are truly running scared from me in fear I will somehow zap them. In all seriousness, I never know through which lens I will be viewed and what my brown skin will connote. For some its danger, for others its privilege. Walking with such ambiguity is tension-laden and leads to a certain unease with one’s environment and that is my reality. Others have different experiences. Am I naive to ask to just be judged by my charm, smarts and exquisite shoe style?