“I’m not trying to be racist…”
Last night, a stranger started a “conversation” with me using those exact words. There was nothing positive that could have come out of this exchange.
“I’m not trying to be racist, but do you know where I can score some coke?”
I heard him. It was a pretty noisy bar, but I heard him loud and clear. Still, I wanted him to say it again.
“What?” He repeated himself. My gut reaction? Punch in the face. I didn’t.
“So, what you’re saying is, because I’m black, you picked me to come ask to help you find cocaine?”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying. I’m not trying to be offensive…”
No need to try. He succeeded without it.
“OK, I’ve lived in New York for five months…”
“I don’t give a fuck where you’re from, I’m just trying to get some coke.” He cut me off before I could finish telling him that in my five months, this was one of most racist things that had happened to me, but still didn’t rank that high on a lifetime scale. He wasn’t worth my time. He could get the fuck out of my face.
After my friends told him to leave, repeatedly, he did so while saying over and over again, “I wasn’t trying to be offensive, I’m sorry if I offended you.” Hollow, drunken apologies. He came back to the table with a friend. Immediately, we told them both to leave. They offered us drinks. We didn’t want them. I didn’t want them. The friend said, “He’s just an asshole, he was trying to be funny.” No, he wasn’t. He was trying to be racist. He made that abundantly clear.
I could have punched him in the face. I wanted to punch him in the face. I would have felt completely justified had I punched him in the face.
At 19, I definitely would have punched him in the face.
I didn’t punch him because I was attempting to “rise above” or “be the bigger person.” In that moment, I simply decided that the inevitable night in jail and subsequent assault charges wouldn’t be worth it. At 19, I had a completely different calculus.
At 19, I wasn’t just angry, I felt I was living on borrowed time. At 19, I thought I was supposed to have been dead by 18, and knew 21 wasn’t an option. At 19, I was living ready to die.
I’m a little older, no less angry, but of a different state of mind. I’m not totally opposed to (physically) fighting back. It has its limitations, and violence begets more violence, etc., etc. However, I’m pro self-defense. Given the context of our history, where racist language and violent acts often go hand-in-hand, I see racist language as violent language and violent language as violence. I see no issue with defending one’s self against violence. (That would seem to contradict my opposition to Stand Your Ground laws, but those provide a justification for the use of deadly force even where there is no actual threat of violence, and that is a gross distortion of self-defense.)
But I made my choice last night on the basis of feeling that I had something to lose. I haven’t always felt that way. Being black in America feels like having nothing. But at 27, there’s something I try to live for. I use my anger in a way that feels productive. I write, I speak, I teach, I shout, I learn, I grow. Last night, I decided to keep doing that. I decided that’s how I fight back.
Imagine having to make that decision when every muscle in your body tells you to do otherwise. Imagine having to make that decision when you don’t know how to operate on anything but anger. Imagine having to make that decision on an almost daily basis. Imagine having to make the decision when you’re sure there isn’t a future for you in this world. Imagine having to make the decision knowing it could be your last.
Are we still thugs now?
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on the effects of ignoring systemic racism