A couple of years ago, one Saturday night I was called—as I often was—by the security company that monitors my former school. As an administrator, specifically an administrator that lives less than five minutes away, I was the one they called when the alarm went off. It was never anything serious but I responded every time.
- 6:15 a.m.
- “Hello sir, we are responding to an alarm and possible intrusion at your school; we have dispatched officers. Can you meet them there?”
- “Yes, of course.”
- “O.K., what will you be driving?”
- “Silver Yaris, ‘08”
I jumped out of bed. I got dressed. I got in the car. I cursed my life. It’s probably one of my teachers, one who has insomnia and often shows up at 4 a.m. to work and forgets to turn off the alarm. Still, I have to take all of these calls serious; it’s part of my job. But I’m pissed.
I get to the school; I see his car. Before I unlock the back door I remind myself this guy is just here working? Why take my anger out on him? I will just remind him again about the alarm. I walk in and greet him; ask him if he’s O.K. I tell him I am going upstairs just to make sure “there really isn’t an intruder.”
The cops are probably upstairs at the front door waiting for me anyway. As I left his workspace and start to head up the stairs I stopped. Dead in my tracks. I looked down at what I was wearing, I reflect on how I look. I get scared. I try to discern—am I worried because I look like shit because I just woke up or because I look (am) black? I mean, its 6:30 in the morning and I jumped out of bed in a flash—my hair is all knotted, my beard is tamped down on one side, I’m pretty sure I still have some dried up drool lingering on the corners of my mouth. I don’t want to walk up the dark stairs into a dark room to meet the police who have no idea what I look like. I decide to turn around go out the back door and get back in my car and wait for the police out front. They know what my car looks like.
I was reminded of this episode as I was recently leaving a late school meeting in a predominantly white school district that I work with. At the end of the meeting it was just me and the superintendent. Everyone else on the floor had gone home. I needed to use the bathroom. I left him in his office, grabbed my bag, and walked across the hall to another office I knew had a bathroom. And then that old memory hit me. I walked downstairs, into my car, and drove to a gas station.
I remembered sitting In my car waiting for the police. I was angry again. But I was also relieved.
The feeling of not being welcomed is a terrible one. The sense that you do not belong is haunting. It sticks with you and you’re reminded of it on a consistent basis. The worst part about it is that most of the time you can little to remedy it—there is little you can say to someone who thinks you do not belong here. Especially not in the heat of the moment.
Make no mistake. The thought that you are where you do not belong is a threat to some.
While I understand that Trump is in fact threatened by the very existence of four women of color (“The Squad”) in what he perceives to be his world, I’m worried about the safety of these four congressional representatives recently attacked by our president—their president. Will they get killed just by showing up to work?
I worry that those who do not see anything wrong with what the president said also see nothing wrong with profiling, with stereotyping, with dehumanizing. But as much as I worry about them, I worry more about the people who are unaware they are being hurtful and violent—the ones who say they are acting out of “pride” and “love” and “safety.” I fear the outcome of weaponizing patriotism.
Ask yourself if you would have, even for one second, wondered about getting killed at your workplace because of how you look. And it’s not just at work that I worry. Being in predominantly white spaces I worry.
I worry when I get stopped by police. I’m one of the “good guys,” I contribute to my community, but does this cop give a shit or even consider those possibilities?
And it’s not just with the police. I worry when I am walking alone in Portland. I am a good husband, I do my best to stay positive, most people know me as a cheerful, shirt-off-my-back type of guy—but does that next white person whom I pass on the empty street give a shit really? I look out of place. I can feel it. I am not paranoid. I can be hurt at any moment because of the way I look. What’s crazy is that I know that in some bizarre twist of irony my presence also hurts those who feel I do not belong.
Telling someone to go back where they came from (whether they come from somewhere else or not) is not about patriotism, and it is not just racist. It’s also violent. It is meant to shock and meant to demean you. It is meant to take from you. Its aim is to amplify that painful sense that you are wrong for just existing. It’s also meant to deter you. It is a reminder that in the mind of those who believe they belong here, they have the right to oppress you.
Let us remember that it is the oppressed who will liberate the not just their fellow oppressed folk but also the oppressors themselves. We must continue to work on educating our communities, our neighbors, and if the chance presents itself even your fellow stranger. We must continue to correct the record and make space for each other. We must strive to create a sense that all who are here belong here. If we do this then we can ensure that our next generation of folks will walk with more confidence and less fear. Perhaps even that they or a generation soon after them will not have to worry when they show up to work. They will feel like they belong, they will contribute, and they will continue to make America free.
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2 thoughts on “Being made “not to belong””
Just now reading “Waking Up White” and taking my time to truly assimilate all I’m learning (and I’ve considered myself a fairly well educated individual on racial inequality until now). I wrote a short piece on my response to Ms. Irving’s book and made a strong recommendation for others to read it too. From that piece, a reader-friend sent me to BGIM.
Thank you for all you’re doing to wake people up to the white narrative that’s been spoonfed to us (whites) most of our lives. I graduated from Deering High School in 1965 when, out of a student body of over 1500 kids, there was a single student of color. I went on to a nursing school in Boston where there was also one student of color in my class. When the civil rights marches began in Boston, we were all locked down in our dorm so we didn’t go out “among those people.” She went out the front door and joined the march. I wanted to join her but I didn’t have her courage.
There’s a lot to learn, and the learning curve is long overdue. Thank you for all you’re doing to make sure we are better informed and educated about other lives than our own.
A thoughtful and nuanced essay. I know the feeling well.
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