Eyes Like That Are Code Words

When I was twenty-two years old, I drove thirty miles each way to work in downtown Memphis. It is a straight shot up and down the highway, the same route my husband now takes for his job. I was working at the bar of a very popular hotel, and most of my shifts ended with the bartender and I partying our way up and down Beale Street before I drank a bunch of water in a bid to sober up, and then stumbled to my car to drive home like the young, reckless, drunk idiot I was.

Part of this drive is through a rundown part of town. There are always stray dogs running out into the road, empty and broken shopping carts turned over on the sidewalks, old men sitting on overturned crates drinking from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. When you live in the South, and don’t surround yourself with overt racists, there are code words for the areas populated mostly by black people. The ghetto. The hood. Places that are “rough,” places where you better make sure your windows are up and your doors are locked. This stretch of highway was a code word.

I was driving home one night. It was one or two in the morning. I was mostly sober, had my music turned up loud, was probably going five miles over the speed limit. A police car turned off a side road onto the highway and began to follow me. The longer he tailed me, the more paranoid I became. Did he know I’d been drinking? Was he going to pull me over, ask me to step out of the car, have me walk a straight line with my finger on my nose? My heart thumped painfully, and I broke out into a cold sweat. Then he abruptly moved from behind me, pulled up alongside my car, and when I glanced over at him, he made a motion for me to roll down my window. I did.

We both slowed down to a crawl as he hollered at me from his car, “You alright, ma’am?” I shouted back that yes, I was fine, just making my way home from work. He eyed the streets around us, and turned back to me. “This is a real bad part of town, young lady. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You go on and hurry out of here, it’s not safe for a girl like you to be out here this late at night.” Then he tipped his hat at me, rolled up his window, and drove off, leaving me dumbfounded and grateful and irritated and sad.

In the wake of the grand jury decision in Ferguson to not indict Darren Wilson, I thought about that police officer. I thought about the way his eyes looked when he surveyed the scenes around us, shifting quicksand that held a mixture of contempt, fear, and utterly sincere concern, and I wondered if my eyes have ever looked like that. Eyes like that are a code word. Eyes like that really believe they aren’t racist. Eyes like that are earnest when they talk about reverse racism.

Is that how Darren Wilson’s eyes looked as he pulled the trigger half a dozen times?

Yesterday a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who literally choked the life out of Eric Garner. What did Daniel Pantaleo’s eyes look like as the cries of “I can’t breathe!” echoed around him?

When I moved to the Bronx, it was the first time I’d lived outside of small southern towns. Suddenly, shockingly, blindingly, I was thrust into the role of the minority. I walked down the streets and went fifteen blocks without hearing one word of English spoken. I wore my whiteness like a coat, dragging at my feet, tripping me up. I was shy in the bodegas, silent on the trains, an awkward ghost of a thing sliding under the streetlights. “Blanquita!” “Hey, little white girl!” Sneers from the sidewalk, an aggressive face pushed into mine, daring me to do something about it. I was Other. I was indefinably out of place, and when I would lay in bed with my arms wrapped around myself like loneliness, I would think about all the black kids I’d known back home. Was this their reality? Was their reality even worse than this? When I exited the subway station in Manhattan, I could shake off that trailing sense of less-than, pick up right where I’d left my privilege. But what about the girl in my chorus class, the dishwasher at my old job, the mechanic who changed my oil? They couldn’t cast off their coat — it was meticulously stitched into their skin.

This was the first time I really understood racism. Not because I experienced it, but because I didn’t.

We get so comfortable in these white skins. It’s easy. History is on our side. The odds are ever in our favor. Books, television, movies — our stories are everywhere, familiar faces telling us how brave and bright and daring we are. Lullabies of how high we can fly, how big we can dream. Even when we’re poor, even when we’re sick, even when we’re ten years old carrying ninety-nine pennies to school in a sandwich bag to pay for our lunch.

My mom kissed us all goodnight and never had to worry about stray bullets piercing our bedroom walls, piercing our bodies, piercing her soul.

I will never have to tell my son to leave his hood down and his hands out of his pockets when he’s walking down the street, even if it’s cold.

My husband will never have to talk to our children about how to walk in a store, how to talk to a cop, how to hold in all those years of emotion because you don’t want to come across as angry, you don’t want to be seen as a problem, you don’t want to give someone a reason to suspect you, or hurt you, or kill you.

I won’t ever go to bed with the legacy of centuries of tragedy lying on my chest like a stone, suffocating under the weight of it.

“Use your imagination! Color outside the lines!” We encourage our children to flex their creative muscles for all they’re worth while they still can, before the realities of being human in this beautiful mess of a world begin to creep in at the corners, cutting off that instinct to make the world over in your own image.

But what if we could do that now? What if we could pretend to unzip the skin we’re in and step out of it? What if, in our minds, we could pull on someone else’s and walk around in it?

Could we stop seeing ourselves as saviors? Stop defending ourselves so vigorously? Stop talking and just listen?

If the eyes that looked at us in our borrowed skin were code words, would we understand the bright burning anger? Could we see how the residue of resentment calcifies around the heart? Would we get a taste of the shame that coats the throat, the hurt that makes it hard to swallow, the fear like a live thing jumping in the pulse? Could we understand the exhaustion, endless and bone-deep, the lethargy of living while black? Would we get a glimpse of how every celebration, every joy, every moment of pure unfiltered happiness has just the faintest shadow behind it — a shadow in the shape of little boys shot down, baby girls dead where they lie sleeping, men who had their hands up, men who had their heads down.

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe that’s not the way it would be, not the things we would feel. Or maybe we would tear ourselves out of that haunted home, throw it to the ground, jump back in our own comfortable skin and stand shivering while we struggled to acclimate. We can do that, you know. We can stop thinking about it. We can turn off the TV. We can shut down our imagination and power off our laptops and tell our Facebook friends we’re overwhelmed and we need a break. Our whiteness allows our escape. Their blackness prevents it.

It isn’t just about Ferguson. It isn’t just about Eric Garner. It isn’t just about Aiyana Stanley-Jones or Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice. It’s all the names we don’t know, all the names we’ve forgotten. It’s endless messages that begin with RIP. It’s systemic violence and undercover oppression and a society with subconscious undercurrents of racism so insidious that many of us don’t even realize we contribute to it. It’s so many things that it honestly feels like an avalanche of emotion, but white friends, can we just let ourselves feel it for once? Can we just let ourselves be buried underneath it, crushed by the weight of it, feel the terrible burden of it in our nose and in our mouth? Can we accept that it’s the inherent privilege we are born with that allows us to free ourselves, to claw our way out and mostly avoid anything more than a slight case of frostbite? Can we just own that? Can we just stop saying things like

not me
but I have black friends
they’re just playing the race card
I don’t see color! 
but reverse racism

and open our ears, and our hearts, and then just shut up and listen?

I don’t have an answer. I only have a voice. It’s a small voice. But if I said “I can’t breathe” in that small voice, I bet someone would listen to me. If I said, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” in that small voice, I bet someone would listen to me.

If I say “empathy and action are your birthright and your duty”, will you listen to me?