Who Knew I Was So Terrifying

Just in time for Black History Month, I recount one of my favorite microaggressions

Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

There are so many microaggressions and racist experiences in the life of a Black person that it’s hard to choose just one. And while I’ve never been called the N-word (to my face), one thing that has always felt akin to the slur is that moment when your very existence in a space shifts the behavior or vibe of people (White people) around you. There are the many times I showed up for job interviews and was left sitting in the lobby while confused White people peeked their heads out to search for who they assumed would be “Tracey Ford.” There’s the moment you realize you’re being followed around a store in the least subtle way, or when you’re seated so far back in a restaurant that you’re convinced you’re being taken to the kitchen to cook your own meal. There’s the first time you’re confronted with the reality that you’re not going to get the same service as White or White-passing people doing the exact same thing. But, one of my personal faves, an experience that lives in my head rent-free and, unfortunately, encountered many times later, is having a White woman clutch her purse and (metaphorically) jump out of her own skin when sharing space with me.

I am apparently terrifying. A real menace to society — all 5 feet and 1 mighty inch of me. My first time witnessing this, unfortunately, occurred during my formative years which is likely why it still lives with me. My mom, born and raised in New York — in what is now for gentrification purposes zoned as the Upper East Side but was once upon a time considered a part of Spanish Harlem — navigated the city well and would often grab me and her purse and hop in the car on weekends to drive from the suburbs of Queens to run errands aka shop in the city.

On this particular day, after circling the east side for parking, my mom, in her fashionable big red-framed glasses and her preppiest ‘fit was a bit turned around. We were headed to Bloomingdale’s. We stopped on Lexington Avenue not too far from 59th and my mom paused, looked at a woman walking toward us on the sidewalk, and said “Miss, do you know which way is north?” Before she could get out the first bit of her question the woman jumped back into people walking by. My mom, normally calm, seemed shaken. She blurted out, “Are you serious?!” We walked away and found our way to the department store without that lady’s help. I spent the whole day wondering why she was so scared of my mother. Eventually, I’d have a White woman respond to me in the same manner. I’d come to realize that there are people who fear me, similar to the way that woman feared all 5 feet of my mom. (We’re a short family.)

The most ironic part of this fear that seems to bubble up in certain people when I walk in an elevator or stand too close to them (pre-Covid) on certain street corners is that I, in fact, am way more scared of them than they should be of me. I sit with an unnerving amount of anxiety in certain situations. I still believe there are sundown towns across this country and refuse to drive through certain states without making sure I’m working with an empty bladder and a full tank of gas. I’ve accidentally handed a police officer my Foodtown supermarket reward card when asking for my license because police make my heart rate rise. And, I’ve been followed around stores so many times that I randomly stop before exiting to make sure I’m not in fact a thief and haven’t inadvertently walked out the door with their merchandise. I’m convinced I’m going to be wrestled to the ground one day in Neiman Marcus even though stealing has never crossed my mind.

Despite all of the above, I do believe in living out loud and being as Black and proud as I can be. I find that, as cliché as it may sound, it’s an act of self-care. The alternative would be crippling. Responding to every clutched purse would wear me thin. Conversely, there are moments where I also find the whole lot amusing. Imagine fearing the very people who’ve historically encountered so much violence at the hands of hate?

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