I recently had a day that was filled with running errands at various places across my town and in two others nearby. About 10 minutes from where I live, there were multiple protests happening and it was almost as if you could feel the world holding a collective breath. People all around me were fed up with social isolation. People all around me were fed up with injustice. People all around me were just ALL OUT distrustful of one another. Everyone has massively conflicting and steadfast views on recent events and these differences in personal conviction do not exactly promote harmony. Call me an empath but I could feel the conflict. I was explaining my day to an old friend, thinking that maybe I was just being dramatic or ….possibly neurotic, but she simply said “The world is on edge. Normal people are looking around like….Are you good?….Are you bad?”
When I spend a day running errands to exotic locations such as Stop & Shop, Walgreen’s or the Post Office, it can get super boring so I usually “spice it up” a bit by trying to enjoy my interactions with others. I talk to everyone. My first few interactions while out and about did not go too well. I was feeling tension in every face-to-face interaction I had. My first stop was the Post Office where I saw a very pretty, black woman about my age who was wearing amazing earrings. Anyone who knows me can vouch for my love of funky jewelry, especially colorful big earrings and these were awesome; a small white feather with turquoise and coral beads hanging from large silver hoops. Without hesitation, I expressed to her how much I liked them. She looked me up and down, shifted her weight onto her back leg while looking down at me and then turned away, saying nothing.
OK. Sure. I got it. You don’t know me, so why am I speaking to you?
I went up to the counter to pay for a few things and behind me I hear “fabulous earrings!” This same lady who had only a hot minute earlier ignored my compliment and stared me down for even speaking to her responded cheerfully to another apparent stranger “Oh, thank you! I got them at my favorite store, T.J. Maxx.”
But….but….I love TJ Maxx too I thought. What had I done wrong?
Similar exchanges would continue throughout my day. No response when I asked the cashier “How are you today?” Another stare down by the bananas when I said “hello” to a gentleman nearby. An eye roll from the lady in front of me when I offered for her to go ahead of me since she only had one item. She took my offer and went right on ahead of me…. but all I got was an eye roll.
I sent my first draft of this story to a few different friends because I was struggling. I knew that I had something to say and I wanted to help ease the tensions; write something meaningful that hopefully would make people think. It disheartened me to see so many people hurting and unwilling to accept kindness from a stranger, but I knew I was missing the point. Instead, I was coming across as some ridiculous white girl whose poor feelings were hurt. NOT my intention. Not how I felt.
A friend’s critique of my initial story was “Your article seems like you’re being treated like shit all day and you’re just tryna give the world a Pepsi like Kendall Jenner.” Yup. Hit the proverbial nail on the head. She is funny and honest and that is precisely why I have liked her for almost 20 years. (On a side note, look out for this amazing friend and her debut guest blog in August as Alli G., aka “Drained Brain.”)
This was my friend’s feedback: “Minorities deal with really horrible shit in their community daily: gang violence, war on drugs, redlining, horrible schools, income disparities, profiling, stop and frisk, etc, etc, etc. Even though you were trying to be nice and social you were doing it with people that are fucking suffering right now. They’re TIRED, Jenn. Probably like who the fuck is this Pollyanna tryna speak to me right now. We see the vitriol white ppl write about us (savages, animals, monkeys), the posts where they’re saying they want to shoot us in the street . You didn’t stop to think maybe they’re leery? Maybe it was all they could do to get up, put something on to run errands and get back home. Safely. Maybe they just didn’t have anything left….or they could just be dicks lol. IDK.” She also went on to explain about how she is always trying to hold it together when her son is out driving, worrying if he will be kept safe and if he will come home. Worrying about her husband while he on his home appraisal jobs and wanting to know the addresses he will be visiting, so she knows which steps to retrace should something happen to him. She also talks of how her Mom bought her son a dash cam to record any Police encounters he may have while driving. My friend also said, “I want to always know which construction sites my son is working at, so that if someone shoots at the (insert negative slurs) I know where to find my child’s body.”
I worry about NONE of the above. If I WERE worrying about these things, I wouldn’t be up for chatting casually with me either while out.
My last errand for the day was at Target which is usually my favorite place to be…..on my own and without kids. (C’Mon Mommas, you know what I’m talking about…..Can I get a HELL YEAH?) For the first time since March, I could smell the coffee roasting from the newly reopened Starbucks. It smelled heavenly but the joy had been sucked out my day and I hated everyone and everything at this point. I even hated my Target. I am sorry Target, my love. You have always been kind to me. It’s me, not you. I have a headache anyway.
As I was leaving the store, with my massive amounts of snacks that my kids would undoubtedly demolish within hours, I looked over and saw a black man wearing a Brooklyn hat. I am Brooklyn made (somewhat) and have many fond memories of growing up, visiting my Grandparents and cousins in Greenpoint. Bamonte’s. Frost Street. The San Gennaro Festival. Old ladies yelling somewhat menacingly out the windows….”Who’s there…..oh it’s only Patty and the kids…..you’re allowed up!” You always knew that if these women did not know you, there was going to be some serious ass whoopin’ from these tiny but mighty Italian Grandmas. They could have easily overtaken you with multiple wooden spoon attacks from every direction; like mini spatula wielding, housecoat wearing, Ninjas. If they didn’t know you, you were in trouble; they were a neighborhood watch to be reckoned with and you didn’t dare mess with the Grandma Militia.
I had made eye contact with the man in the Brooklyn hat and my gaze lingered a bit longer than I would have liked, so I immediately looked away. I was afraid that I would offend, yet another person, if I stared too long or acted too friendly. The tension from my interactions throughout the day had seeped into my core and it had hardened my usually soft edges. I don’t like being negative or closed off and I hated how it felt but it felt almost like survival. Survival with a little bit of deference. Despite my having quickly looked away, Mister Brooklyn paused, held my gaze and happily yelled out “Hello my dear! And how are you on this lovely day?” It was such a relief to let my breath out, smile from behind my mask and just have a conversation with another human. I shouted out “I’m Brooklyn made,” to which he responded MeToo!” Quarantine and the latest world events have been a total life suck, so this was a welcome exchange; human interaction. Mister Brooklyn and I ended up having a nice conversation about Greenpoint and Bushwick, New York real estate and all the craziness both abroad and locally. Mister Brooklyn sent me off with “God bless, Mami. Stay safe.”
Just keep the kindness going people. This statement was originally how I was supposed to end this story but somehow it felt hollow. I had started writing to incite change. Instead, I felt like I had failed to appropriately express any meaningful viewpoints. I had failed to use my writing platform to help. Realizing that I was stuck, I knew that I needed to reach out to friends of all different backgrounds. I had received a lot of helpful input already, but I still was missing something more in my perspective.
I reached out to an old friend from my hometown who had been posting some more unique viewpoints about racism on Facebook; not the same token, repetitive B.S. that I had been seeing. This friend described her teenager as being extremely “woke,” and possibly having a unique perspective for me. I was intrigued and I was certainly not disappointed by Skylar’s words. I was kind of blown away that someone so young had so much wisdom to impart; Skylar possessed my missing puzzle pieces. (Skylar is non-binary and prefers the terms they and their) They explained to me that there would be no way for me to change the narrative of my story from the perspective of having been written by, and for… racial majorities. Skylar went on further to explain “your perspective is stationary and you can never
experience minority struggles. You can never explain to them what they want to hear.” It took one extremely aware teen to explain to me what I was missing. I was completely missing the fact that I was trying to be a facet for people of color. Noble intent but horribly misguided. I was showing my white privilege without even realizing. Who the hell am I?
Talking about racial differences shouldn’t be taboo and denying the existence of any inequality is showing our white privilege. I used to hate hearing that term white privilege because I took it to mean that somehow I was assumed to be a discriminatory asshole who was unaware of the gifts I had been given in life; an unaware, discriminatory person just because I am white. It used to upset me because my knee jerk reaction was to feel insulted and say the cringe-worthy “but I love ALL people.” That reaction misses the point. Nobody is telling you that you are a racist or terrible person. Privilege in this situation doesn’t mean you are a bad person, it just means that there are things we can never understand despite all the world’s empathy because the world was set up for us to succeed. We don’t see the other side. We can’t see it, because white privilege IS REAL.
What I was totally missing here, is that black people do not need ME….or YOU to be their facet, “they want to be their OWN facet, they do not need white people to speak for them, which has happened for years, decades, centuries” Skylar eloquently stated that as a member of the majority I “can serve best by being an ally. I can hear the call to justice. I can assist in the demolition of the constructs that make equality and equity impossible. Destruction of the system” I can stand with others and help them fight for the comforts and rights that every person deserves, but I will never fully understand (as much as I wish I could). I can only listen. I can only be empathetic. I can also do something. I will stand by and help in any way possible. I will be an ally…..LED by my black friends and neighbors.
***Thank you to all who assisted me in putting my pieces together. Vanessa Caldas-Martin, Alex Martin, Michelle Cornwell-Mollick, Stephanie Orlando Reader, and Mark Herbert. Even if you only added a small comment or tried to help and I was too technologically inept to properly share my rough draft, you were all still willing to help a friend in need. I appreciate it immensely.
Extra special thanks to:
“Drained Brain” – Gorgeous lady inside and out, intelligent, funny, amazing Momma & friend. Thankful that you didn’t let my resting bitch face (prior to complimenting your hair) deter our friendship 20 years ago.
Skylar Blue Reader – A person who will probably conquer the world with intelligence, confidence and a truly “woke” perspective on the world. They are a 17-year-old CT resident who identifies as non-binary & is a model, singer & artist.
Jenn Miele Leslie lives in Woodbridge, CT with her husband, three kids ages 7, 9 and 14 and a stubborn but cuddly bulldog who likes to fart and snore. Originally from Long Island, N.Y. (yes, that IS how you say it – if you’re from there you just understand) she misses being able to find a decent bagel or breakfast sandwich. Once an Art Therapist specializing in working with adults with various developmental disabilities, Jenn now spends her time shuttling her minions to: school; playdates; dance classes and competitions; occupational therapy; coding classes; and what feels like a million additional places, on a daily basis. In her occasional down time, Jenn enjoys photography, painting and an iTunes playlist that boasts way too many 90’s alternative songs.