This reflection was originally posted on May 8, 2016.
Today, I was spit at for the first time.
At 44th and 9th, roughly four guys outside of a bar gave me some odd looks as I walked toward them, weaving around other people. Thinking nothing of it, I walked by trying to avoid eye contact and attempted to squeeze past a group of women walking in the same direction as me. I heard the spitting sound a split second before I felt the spray: clearly something carbonated involved, landing in a dozen spots on the back of my head and the back of my shirt.
The women I was passing at the time did not even flinch – not sufficient by itself to conclude that it was intentionally directed at me for…some reason, but enough to raise an inference, particularly given that the spray was high enough to preclude the possibility that it was just a spit gone wrong.
My immediate reaction was to force myself to continue walking. Partially because I was running slightly late for my bus, but partially because I did not think a confrontation would be in my own interests. I am not particularly inclined to seek out conflict, but the vast uncertainty regarding the actual motivations for the spit and the way that such an encounter could escalate was sufficient to dissuade me.
I have experienced plenty of microaggressions in my life simply because of the way I look. They tend to top out, at worst, at roughly “go back to China” or similar statements while I am on a bike. That is a far cry from feeling like there may actually be a fear of physical harm from somebody who takes issue with the way you appear WHILE you are actively trying to appease them.
And that is still not as severe as it can be in this country, as it was well within my control to continue walking and avoid the situation at all, and probably at worst I ran the risk of sustaining minor or moderate injuries.
Last week, on the bus i was on back up to Albany, the NYPD made a pretty significant bust. At least six detectives halted boarding about halfway through and ended up arresting a woman after conducting a thorough sweep of the bus using a dog, making it very clear that they were each armed. A woman of color ahead of me in the boarding line instinctively shrunk away from the police and the bus, even turning her face away as they brought the woman off in handcuffs. On the bus a few minutes later, she stated: “I thought they were just grabbing people to send to Rikers.”
Two days later, I ran across the street on my block to make it to my apartment building. As an unintentional result, I crossed the street away from a well-dressed Black man walking in my direction. When I noticed him from the middle of the street, he also noticed me, and then visibly sighed/slumped his shoulders. I at the time felt badly and hoped he would move on quickly, but in retrospect doing so would actually be an internalization of this insidious set of snap-judgment principles.
Even if I were to somehow be attacked or killed due to some sort of reaction to me or my appearance, I retain the privilege of having such an incident spark outrage and action on its own due to my appearance, my background, and my networks. I legitimately cannot say whether I would be more afraid of such a death or its potential use to further perpetuate these prejudices. (That itself is a statement indicative of the privilege I carry simply for my own death to be considered such an abstraction.)
I am privileged to be a minority in a country that views me as “acceptable”, “nonthreatening”, and at worst a “curiosity”. This experience is unusual enough for me to be worth 1200 words of my time by itself as I wait in annoyance at, of all things, a delayed bus. As a man, I am privileged to be able to ignore the possibility that my achievements or accomplishments have been influenced, either positively or negatively, by objectification. And as such a privileged person, if I do not credit the overwhelming chorus of stories that illustrate that these gender/race snap judgments are real, impactful, and harmful, I am using my privilege to deny the pain of countless people who live in regular and constant fear, doubt, and pain.
How likely is it that those men were prepared to actually fight me even if I responded with a calm and reasoned response? Probably not very. But there is no opportunity to communicate that in a world of a billion potential misinterpretations.
So how is change brought? One billion thoughts at a time.