My degrees will not save me.
I came to this realization when I was 21 and nearing the end of my first year of my PhD program. It was Spring Break (that is the last time those two words ever meant anything to me) and I’d journeyed to NYC to visit my two best friends: one of whom was completing her first year of law school and the other of whom was gearing up to begin her first year of medical school. Because it was early March in NYC it was still a bit chilly and two of us were wearing Dartmouth sweatshirts while the third opted for Cornell (her law school). We’d decided to see some awful Halle Berry movie at a place near Columbus Circle. When the monstrosity movie ended, we left the theater and entered the NYC sidewalk foray. I was walking on the edge of the sidewalk near the street chatting with my friends about our precious wasted dollars when I was suddenly pushed from behind into the street of oncoming traffic. Fortunately a car slammed the brakes and I was able to jump back onto the sidewalk soon enough to see a middle aged white woman push past my friends saying ‘I’m so sick of all of you!’ To make a long story short, I ran after her and caught her at a crosswalk waiting for the light to change. I politely asked her why she pushed me in the street. She responded ‘because I’m sick of you girls taking up space and being so loud!’ When I replied that we were not being loud, she said ‘well no, YOU weren’t but black girls are always so loud. The other day I had to walk through two black girls fighting to get to my car!!!’ I was honestly baffled because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what that had to do with me. She then went on to tell me a story of how she got in an elevator with a black man and he didn’t speak when she said ‘hi’. She also noted that he was wearing headphones and perhaps hadn’t heard her…I cut her off after story number 3 of how she was pseudo-offended by black people and told her that had nothing to do with me. It was clear this woman was in no way going to apologize for her actions so I just suggested to my friends we leave. Instead, my soon-to-be attorney friend had a twenty minute heart to heart with her. The woman started sobbing saying how she’d been very stressed lately and just couldn’t take more of ‘those people’ getting in her way. My friend asked her what we’d done to be in her way and she replied ‘you just are.’
Episode 2 (this is actually episode 3. I wrote about episode 2 in Narratives of Success in the Black Community)
Fast forward to last Fall. I was driving the 1.2 miles to work and was about a block away driving behind a pick-up truck on a one lane street. After you go through the light, it opens into two lanes and the left lane pretty much becomes a turning lane (read: sit behind 8 cars waiting to turn at a light with no arrow). So as soon as we went through the green light, I put on my signal and moved into the new right lane, as did the car behind me. During that process, the pick-up truck decides he too is going to get in the right lane, but because he is driving slower than me, he cuts me off. In order not to hit him, I have to swerve and drive into someone’s front yard. The car behind me swerves into their driveway. No one is hurt. We all proceed forward. I am smart enough to not drive behind that truck anymore so as soon as possible, I move into the left lane. Then the one thing I was hoping didn’t happen, happened. We end up side by side at a red light. My heart was beating fast. I started to sweat. And I kept repeating this in my head: don’t look over. Don’t give him eye contact. Despite me acting like he wasn’t there, I could see out of the corner of my eye he’d rolled his window down and was leaned out yelling, ‘You Black Bitch!’. All I could do was pray the light changed soon. It didn’t. I was confident this man had a gun as I live in Colorado—an open carry state, and his pro-second amendment stickers on his car confirmed my suspicion. I was confident this man was so enraged, he was going to reach for his gun at any moment and shoot me. I contemplated driving through the red light because a car accident is certainly safer than being shot from 8 feet away, right? Then I saw the white man who’d been driving behind me get out of his car and approach the screaming driver. I wanted to turn and tell him ‘sir, please get back in your car. That isn’t safe.’ But then I thought, ‘he’s white. Of course he is safe.’
This past May I was headed to commencement. I needed to be there early because I was sitting on stage to introduce an honorary degree recipient. I left my house at 7:05am. At 7:06am, there were flashing lights behind me. I live at the top of a hill so I can pick up speed coming down the hill. The speed limit is 30, but I am certain I was driving well above 30. I was speeding and deserved a speeding ticket. The white state trooper pulled out of the gas station where he’d been sitting, but by then I was about to merge onto the highway. I saw him coming and knew he was coming for me but I merged onto the highway anyway. Why? Because I didn’t want to turn right onto the abandoned access road parallel to the highway. My first thought was ‘I need to be somewhere with a lot of witnesses.’ So I got on the highway and when he was directly behind me, I pulled over. Before he got out of his car I was sure to get my registration and insurance out of the glove compartment, and my license out of my purse. I knew better than to have my hands anywhere but on the wheel when he approached my car. He approached, I lowered the window half way and he went through his spiel…with his hand resting on his gun (yes, that is standard practice for police when they approach a car). I was terrified. Not of a $117 speeding ticket, but of the reality that at any moment, this man could pull his weapon and shoot me because I sneezed, or scratched my head, or in some way made him feel ‘threatened’. When he walked back to his car, I realized I’d been holding my breath and had tears in my eyes. By the time he’d given me my ticket I was so anxious, my hands were shaking too badly to drive. I sat on the side of the highway for 3 minutes willing my body to relax enough for me to arrive in time to don my academic regalia and hob nob with the Board of Trustees and College President before the ceremony.
These are just three incidents in my life where it’s been made abundantly clear that no matter how ‘articulately’ I speak, how many degrees from top institutions I have, or how many tenure-track professorship positions I am offered, I am and always will be perceived as a volatile, Black woman whose life and worth are of little to no value.
So as the scene in Ferguson, MO continues to escalate and black lives continue to be thrown away because of perceived threats (read: bias and racism), I continue to wear my business clothes, get in my Sante Fe, drive to a campus where students pay $55k a year, and teach in a classroom where I am the only person of color with whom many of my students have interacted in their lives.
In other words, every day, I live in fear.
Which picture would they use?