I was deciding which eyebrow brush to buy in the makeup section at Walgreens. A young Black man walked toward me: 16, 17, or 19 years old with short dreads and a wide nose. He carried a skateboard and the burden of racial bias so I wasn't going to do what most people do. I wasn't going to assume he was up to no good and suspect him. I wanted to communicate that to him somehow so I tried to look him in the eye and smile. His eyes were downcast. He played with his dreads and passed me.
I found a good brush; the kind that looks like I could use it to apply mascara. It was $1:49. He was standing in the aisle to my left, playing with his dreads. He had the right to be there too I told myself. Everything was fine. He was quiet. The kind of quiet that makes sound.
I also needed contact solution and I wanted to check if the next aisle had more shaving cream options. I took a quick look and saw that it didn't. He was suddenly in the same aisle.
I proceeded to the back of the store for contact solution. I bent down to decide between one brand or another. He was in my right periphery. I decided that he needed contact solution too because I wouldn’t allow for the possibility that he was following me.
"Hey," I said then looked at my contact solution options. Now he was too close. I looked back at him. His penis was out.
Let me rephrase that. I looked back at him and he stood there presenting his penis with a blank look on his face and suddenly his silence was no longer a descriptor it was a weapon. I was in danger. What was next? Was he in charge or was I? I was.
"Security!" I bellowed using my full skills as a stage actress. He stayed planted in his stance. "Security!" I repeated, walked around him and headed toward the main middle aisle. He started walking slightly ahead of me but almost by my side. "This man took out his penis! This man revealed his penis to me! Security!”
There was no one in any of the aisles. I looked left, right. From a distance I saw an employee at the cash register with a customer. "Security!" I screamed toward them.
He started to run.
I followed behind him as he headed toward the front of the store. There I saw a manager and some more customers. The manager went to grab him but at the last moment he pulled his arms away and let the him run out of the store.
He was gone.
The manager and customers turned their attention to me. "I noticed him," one woman said, "I thought something was strange." "You should call the police," said another.
Call the police? How can I call the police on a young Black man? We all know what could happen if they catch him. If an encounter with the police results in his injury won't it be my fault?
The manager informed me that the store cameras don't capture the area in the back where I'd been standing but he would check the footage and report it to headquarters. "Do you want to call the police?" He asked.
I didn't know what to do. I felt sick. My adrenaline had stopped and the weight of what happened began to pull my energy to the floor. Plus I carried the burden of feeling responsible for this young Black man even though he'd done me harm.
I am a woman. I am a Black woman. I am a mother. That young man could be my son. Was I a fool for considering not calling the police? I called my husband and he told me I should absolutely call the police. "You were assaulted," he said. I couldn't process that but I hung up, took a deep breath and wearily told the manager to call.
As I listed his attributes over the phone to an officer: young, black, short dread locks, skateboard, baggy jeans I registered how I could easily have been describing any young black man in the area. Would someone innocent be mistaken for this guy? Would they resist the police officers because they were innocent and would harm come upon them? That would be my fault too.
A police officer arrived on the scene. Before he started asking me questions he informed me that he was wearing a body cam. All I could think of is the body cams that captured the murder of Stephon Clark an innocent Black man shot by a police officer in his grandmother's backyard.
"Was he wearing a jacket or coat?" the police officer asked.
"A sweatshirt--I mean a hoodie. I think?"
I lied when I said sweatshirt. I knew it was a hoodie but when I said "hoodie" I could only see Trayvon Martin dead on the grass under a yellow tarp. As soon as I said it I was ashamed that I gave the officer that detail.
The officer escorted me outside to my bike and I rode home. On the way I tried not to minimize what happened or blame myself for letting him go. I was angry at myself for letting my desire to be unbiased usurp my "gift of fear."
Gavin DeBecker wrote the book "Gift of Fear: Survival signals that protect us from violence" The book speaks largely to women and encourages us to trust our instincts and relinquish the obligation of "being nice”. I consider the book a must read and have recalled it on many occasions letting it shore up my willingness to let my instincts guide me.
In this case I let go of my instincts for what I thought was a bigger cause. But I can't be in the cause if I'm not safe. My desire to be equitable, inclusive and fair isn't a super power that makes me immune to other people's intentions.
If I’d gone with my gut I would have absorbed that he was hovering around the makeup aisle and didn't once look at any products, followed me to the next aisle and didn't once look at any products and then followed me to a third aisle with all his energy focused on me two inches away. If I’d gone with my gut I would have said, ”Stop following me." or "What are you doing?" instead of smiled apprehensively; a total prey to his fetish.
I was so focused on giving him the benefit of the doubt that I didn’t do myself the same favor. If I had given myself that benefit than I would have known that my suspicion of him had nothing to do with him being Black. Fear of Black men is not my default. I say that after a personal inventory based in my experience.
The work of being unbiased is about releasing the tendency to generalize other people. Period. Black men are not a monolith. No one is a monolith.
When we encounter others we must force ourselves to view them on a case by case basis related to the moment to moment interaction we are having in the present. We must commit to the radical now.
So I will carry forth with this new layer of knowledge and responsibility. I will take this event as a hard-earned lesson and a gift. I hope it is a gift to you as well.