Black Men in Sweatshirts, Sneakers and Jeans

Self-Portrait by My Husband

Mr. Vulcan reached a boiling point recently.

He’s tired of walking down the street, particularly in San Francisco, and white women clutch their purse, or shift their posture when he walks by them. This often happens when he wears a sweatshirt, sneakers and jeans.

These white women generally are in their forties and up. Mr. Vulcan is a brown man in his late twenties.

Mr. Vulcan and my husband don’t look alike. But they both have Mexico running through their veins. If my husband is ever able to enter the US again, he’ll  face the same shifting and clutching. He’s a brown man about to hit his forties.

He sometimes wears sweatshirts, sneakers and jeans.

When I first moved to East Oakland in 2011, I realized that I had no problem walking by latino men in sweatshirts, sneakers and jeans. Alone or in groups, it didn’t matter. The men looked like my husband. Like Mr. Vulcan. I lived in Mexico for ten years, and walked by plenty of brown men.

But I realized that I had a problem walking by black men in sweatshirts, sneakers and jeans in my East Oakland neighborhood. Alone or in groups, it didn’t matter. I became those white women, unconsciously clutching my purse, shifting my posture.

Because I don’t have a car, I take the bus regularly. My first week of taking the bus and walking home in East Oakland, that was when I realized what I was doing. The clutching. The shifting.

I was horrified. Furious with myself. I initially tried to overcompensate by using a ridiculous jive talk when talking to the black men in my neighborhood in the sweatshirts, sneakers and jeans. I desperately wanted to signal to them that I wasn’t going to clutch my purse, to shift my posture any more.

I think about those moments today and wince, rubbing my hand on my forehead

Almost two years later, I am grateful for a big gift that East Oakland gives me every day – to continue to work through my own noise and move past the clutching. The shifting. The jive talking.

Now, I’m not saying that all my inappropriateness is gone. But the more that I work on it, the better of an ally I become. The better of a neighbor I become. The better of a friend I hope to be.

If I want to do social justice work for the long haul, I must face my own blind spots and continue to change my narratives.

Because I know that I don’t have a problem walking past a group of brown men in sweatshirts, sneakers and jeans.

But maybe you do.

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