I read Questlove’s article about Trayvon Martin and how Black men are perceived in America (which also had the byproduct of teaching me who Questlove is) while it was making the rounds of twitfacetagram in July. I thought a lot about it, and what it means to walk around in a body that others perceive as threatening. I’ve been told stories in the past about hearing the sound of car doors locking as you walk by, of women clutching their purses a little tighter. I’ve wondered at that, at what it must feel like. When I read Questlove’s elevator story, it really hit me hard, as things do when privileged people suddenly become aware of a piece of their privilege previously invisible to them. It had never occurred to me that anyone would think that they had to be on their guard around me, fearing MY POSSIBLE FEAR OF THEM and its potential disastrous outcomes.
Soon after that, I went to Kaiser and parked on the 5th floor of the garage. I always park on the top floor of every garage ever because I can never remember where my car is. I stood alone and waited for the elevator to arrive. When it finally did, it was empty save one person: an older Black man with graying hair and a neatly-trimmed graying beard, in work coveralls, who had been cleaning the elevator. He was finishing a wipe as the door opened. We looked at each other and he instantly said, “I’ll leave the elevator to you,” holding the door as he stepped out. Time slowed. I knew he had no reason to leave that elevator since there wasn’t a damn thing on the top floor of that garage save a handful of parked cars: no office, no storage closet, no nothing. I knew he was doing it because he was nervous about frightening ME, about what I might say or do or accuse him of. Without thinking, I smiled and started teasing him, “You’re not riding with me? Is it me? I’m not good enough for you?” He smiled back and got back into the elevator, smiling and flirting with me the entire way down, calling me “good eye candy.” In one respect, it was one of the best elevator rides of my life (nothing will beat 33 floors with Malcolm McDowell), because who doesn’t want to be called “good eye candy” by an older gent? But I think about this man over and over and over, and I feel sick. I feel sick that he felt nervous around me. I feel sick that our culture has given him good reason to be on his guard around me. I feel sick that I had so much power in this exchange. HE’S the elder; HE should be the one deferred to, the one with the power. Who am I? I’m NO ONE. I have no power. But the racial dynamics in the US being what they are, I have power I do not deserve.
Whoever you are, elevator cleaning guy at Kaiser Richmond, you made my day with that “good eye candy” comment. You gave me the second best elevator ride of my life. And I’m so, so sorry.
Love this column. Thanks for writing it. We can only change if we are aware…Thanks for making us aware.
Made me cry reading it, Melissa. That is heart-breaking. Damn, our society.
I was at the bike store a few weeks ago, getting a flat fixed, and enjoying eavesdropping on a dad with two sons I’m going to say around age 10 or 11 – they were waiting on getting one bike tuned up, and one of the two boys was lobbying hard for a new bike – ‘dad look at this one’ ‘dad look at that one – it’s a real bmx!’ Dad finally responded to the ‘real bmx’ to say ‘nope, no way. No red bikes. No blue bikes either, Diego. We don’t do those colors.’
This was a big privilege recognition moment for me – I rode a red bike for most of elementary school and thought nothing of it – and I’m sure neither did my parents. To avoid the colors red and blue because you know that latino male + red or latino male +blue equals gang member and therefore a potentially dangerous response from many different sources, even to a 10 year old, who just wants to ride a ‘real bmx’ – all I could do was take this in, and recognize my privilege. Thanks Melissa.
Thanks for this melissa. I don’t like to pay attention to racial issues, but their everywhere. I tend believe that class is a bigger issue in the black community, and america at large. However,I can’t ignore the growing divide in america between the ethnicities. It’s sad and ridiculous.