I’d experienced it before, but it was especially palpable one morning when I had to run around two white women out for a walk at a high school track. I felt the need to shrink—to make myself small and move past them at a distance comfortable to us all. If they perceived a threat—albeit, one clad in a Harvard shirt, “Go Navy” shorts—it could turn out rather poorly for me. So my body language, involuntarily and quite naturally, conveyed passivity. Of course, I’d done or said nothing that should have made them feel endangered, but the presence of my blackness in a space where they hadn’t expected to encounter it placed the onus on me to make them comfortable.
This is what it feels like to be black in America. It sounds like the symphony of locking car doors as I traipse through a grocery store parking lot, armed with kale chips and turkey bacon. It looks like smiling when I don’t feel like it. It’s the instinct to enunciate differently, to use acceptable methods of signaling that I am safe to engage, or at least to disregard. “We wear the mask that grins and lies,” wrote the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. I feel that mask covering my soul, never allowing me to just freely exist.
I could argue that any negative reaction to my skin is a problem for others to grapple with and of no concern to me. I’ve tried that approach before; one memorable attempt ended with me being pulled out of my car by two police officers and handcuffed for the felonious infractions of having a blown headlight and insufficient self-abasement. It is an unspoken rule that blackness’ first and most important task is to make everyone feel safe from it. We ignore this mandate at our own peril, realizing that a simple misunderstanding is a life or death proposition.