It has to have been seven or eight months since this happened, but it has haunted me ever since. So much so, in fact, that I have resisted writing about it here out of my embarrassment and shame. But, delinquent blogger that I am, I have to write something, and so here goes . . .
I was in the food court at the mall, and because I was still recovering from my ankle surgery last year, I was maneuvering with the help of Speed Racer. Sara had Elijah and was getting herself settled with him, and I was trying to get Chinese food and make my way back to the table. Yes, on one leg and while trying to maneuver a tray of food.
An African-American woman at the next counter over saw me struggling and had compassion on me. She told her son (who was about 9 or 10) to come over and offer to help me, which he did.
I was not paying attention to my surroundings, as usual, and so did not notice this sweet young man coming up to me until he was right next to me. When I realized he was trying to speak to me, I jumped . . . as I was trying to get his words to translate from my ears to my brain (something I tend to have trouble with under any circumstances), I looked at him with a panicked, forced smile and shook my head while sputtering something like, “no, thank you, I’ve got it, but I appreciate the offer”. I think I then said something about how I was shaking my head “yes” while saying “no” with my mouth–something like, “I know that I’m shaking my head the opposite of what I am saying”–but I don’t know. maybe I’m not remembering that part correctly.
I know I am remembering the forced, automatic and fake smile, though. My facial muscles still ache with self-condemnation every time I think about it.
I have so many excuses for why I jumped out of my skin when he approached me. Primary among those is the fact that having both ADHD and PTSD means that I both zone out easily and startle easily. One of my coworkers, after having seem me react that way one time too many, has taken to using very deliberate footsteps when she approaches me. I hate when I am jumpy like that, because it is never in any way the fault of the person who has (unintentionally) startled me, but people quite often take it personally.
But I have no excuse. This sweet, polite young man had absolutely no reason to interpret the look of terror in my eyes, combined with the fake, plastered smile and meaningless words, as anything other than what I fear it really was.For this young man, and for his mother, my personal history was not even a factor. I am certain that they could only assume I was reacting in that over-exaggerated way because of a fear or a distrust of black men. How could it be interpreted any other way?
I still wish to this day that I had gone back to them and said something. I sometimes fantasize that I’ll somehow run into them again and will be able to make my apology, even though I barely remember what they looked like anymore. And I don’t want to give a complicated justification for my actions–“It’s unconscious–it’s a learned response”, blah blah blah, shut up, Lorraine . . . I just want to tell him how very, very sorry I am.
All I know is that in that moment, I wounded the heart of that little boy, and somehow sent the message that, no matter how many kind things he might do in his life, that there are always going to be white women reacting in unfounded fear at the very sight of him. And as I sat down for dinner with my own precious brown-skinned godson Elijah sitting next to me, my heart broke at the thought that he too will grow up in a world where people will instinctively and automatically jump in fear when they see him coming . . . even if he is the sweetest little boy in the world, and even if he comes with the most altruistic of motives . . . because at the end of the day, the inheritance we’ve all carried down through the years is one of mistrust, of irrational fear, and of unconscious, yet immediate judgments based on appearance.
I do not want Elijah to have to face the reality that I subjected this boy to . . . this young man who only wanted to be helpful, but who got only disdain and disrespect in return.
I can’t go back to that day and change my actions . . . all I can do is to continue to fight this monster of racism that rears its ugly head so often. I owe it to that young man to do so. I owe it to Elijah. And I owe it to myself, because this below-the-surface racism is a poison that needs to be eliminated from my body, mind and soul.
I’m so sorry, young man, wherever you may be. I’m sorry that you have to face a world filled with people like me. But I have to thank you as well, because your kind gesture taught me so much more than you will ever know.