That New York Bubble

At the time of this post, I can still say that I’ve never had an overtly racist encounter. Strange, isn’t it? I’m a 30-year-old African American woman with about 12 years worth of dreadlocks. I have never once been called a “nigger” to my face or over the internet. I have never had a backhanded compliment such as “Oh she’s blahblahblah, for a Black girl.” I’ve never had trouble landing a job either because of my race. The only questionable situation I had with a recruiter was when she tried to low-key tell me that the positions she recruited for would likely have a problem with my hair (And well, the hair stays). And as far as I know, I’ve never been passed over for anything because of the color of my skin.

I grew up in New York City, which I consider to be the greatest city in America. I may not have an overwhelming “patriotic” pride, but I sure am loyal as hell to New York. And growing up here, there’s a whole different lifestyle and an entirely unique state of mind. There is no physical divide between rich and poor and race here. Sure, certain neighborhoods are more LIKELY to have a certain demographic (South Williamsburg, Sheepshead Bay, Brownsville) but gentrification runs rampant through the city, low-income/lottery housing exists in the most luxurious buildings (my friend was lucky enough to bag one) and you’ll find everyone in Times Square from the businessmen to the tourists to the teenagers to the hood squad.

There is a certain kind of acceptance that comes with being a New York native. If you went to school here, you were exposed to a mixing bowl of race and culture at a very early age. I grew up brushing elbows with project kids, families who had enough money to treat a group of kids to dinner and the movies for their child’s birthday (an impressive feat in the 90s), immigrant children who spoke little English, young girls wearing hijabs and a boy brought up as Jehovah’s Witness who wasn’t allowed to participate in any of the holiday activities. We had class luncheons where everyone would bring in family dishes, Dance Festivals where we’d learn choreography from different origins, and Spanish class was a requirement for 5 years of my public school life.

The fact that a Confederate flag was recently found displayed in the window of an LES apartment was definitely a surprise, considering I grew up in LES. Because in the New York Bubble, racism is something that happens somewhere else. Growing up here did not instill the fear of cops in me and getting pulled over was never a stressful or scary event. In the New York Bubble, a racist establishment will get slammed and shamed on social media or Yelp; a racist incident in the street will be recorded on a camera phone and make the Gothamist for the city to snub; a Good Samaritan will call someone out publicly for displaying prejudice. Growing up in NYC, I was not taught to see race, traipsing through Chinatown, the only Black person in a swarm of Chinese friends, their parents thrilled with my knowledge of Mah-Jongg without the English characters on the pieces. In the New York Bubble, racism is a shocking and disgusting thing we’ve mostly evolved past, while small towns in Middle America remain ignorant without progress. In my mom’s building, our conservative Jewish neighbor, a mother of 2, has offered my two cousins to come wait inside her house when we weren’t home, and they can look like hoodlums sometimes.

I just had a conversation with my boyfriend the other night about how different my high school experience was from the ones you see portrayed in teen movies. No one was ever singled out for being poor, for being overweight, or for struggling in English class. Those with bad grades or bigger pants sizes or suspicious odors weren’t really treated differently than anyone else. What kind of alternate universe did we exist in? Were we just on a different level of maturity?

Even when I leave New York, I find that the Bubble still follows me. As much as I’ve traveled to visit my family in South Carolina, no one has ever tossed a racial comment my way down the dirt roads, surrounded by deep forests and trailer parks. When I moved to Boston for 2 years, I was met with friendliness abounds, as if the whole New York vs Boston rivalry didn’t exist. When I went to D.C. for Otakon a week ago, nada. Likewise, Baltimore, Virginia and down the East Coast, nothing.

One might see this as a strong sign that our country is progressing. Until you look at your Facebook feed and the news stories, the viral videos of police encounters and personal accounts from across the country of cultural headscarves getting snatched and sneers to “go back to your country.” And you dejectedly realize it is very much still there. And sometimes…it comes into our Bubble and it’s here too. And while I hold my NYC upbringing like a talisman, how far can that Bubble extend? The outer membrane is so thin…

~Tael

Mix Hoodies With Black

I tend to have some pretty down-to-earth conversations about racial truths with one of my cousins, who is like a brother to me. They’re never serious, debate-like, haughty, “woke” ones; just some “Damn, shit’s really like this, huh,” ones.

One lovely experience that reinforced the scaffolding of our own invisible prejudice occurred during a trip to Atlantic City for my birthday a few years back that I’ve shared on Facebook before. It was late and dark and the ATM I needed was the drive-thru kind in an empty secluded lot. My cousin instantly put the fear in our party’s hearts by mentioning how one could easily get robbed here. He does this. Like when we went to see “Get Out” on opening night and he said he hoped no white supremacist would come shoot up our theater in protest of the movie. T_T’ Had me looking at white boys with backpacks who couldn’t sit still and the exit routes for half the movie, praying.

The ATM wasn’t constructed in a way where the car could get close; we rolled down the window and I slung half my body out, engaging my core to access the screen and withdraw as quickly as I could. OF COURSE, at that very moment, a black guy with a hoodie enters the lot and seems to make a beeline for our car. Stuck hanging out the window, waiting for the machine to process the withdrawal, while everyone else is giving commentary, “He’s coming closer!” “Did he just pull out a ski-mask?” “LOCK THE DOORS!!” I panic, terrified and fully believing I’m about to get buck-fiftied for my meager checking account balance. I’m not sure if I made it to the part where I actually got the money. I may have just jettisoned myself back into the car and screamed “DRIVE, JUST DRIVE,” without completing the transaction.

Dude walked right past us.

Was our fear justified?

If you were walking down a block at night and saw a group of Black teenagers clustered outside of the projects, would you cross the street to avoid…”something?”

I don’t. Not anymore. I don’t because what am I afraid of? Why should I be afraid to walk past a group of my own race at night? At most, as a woman, to avoid catcalling, but I’d rather show solidarity. When I confidently pass them, they either quiet down or throw out a greeting. I acknowledge them back as fellow humans and keep it moving and the “big, scary moment” is over. I don’t want to fear my own people. If it was a group of White men in suits, there wouldn’t even be a situation up for discussion, my cousin says. Or if it was a group of Asian men.
What if they were wearing hoodies?

“What about Spanish men?” I ask.
“Probably not. A bunch of light-skinned guys don’t look as threatening.”
What if they’re wearing hoodies?
“But your skin is the darkest of all; would you be afraid to walk past a group of you?”

There is not a clear cut answer.

“What if it were Black men in suits?”

Then it probably wouldn’t be an issue either. Everyone loved Men In Black.

What if they were Black but wearing glasses, skater gear, a Nintendo shirt…blahblahblahblahnothoodies, why do what they’re wearing hold so much weight? Why do we trust clothes before people?

I don’t want that ingrained fear that was instilled in me growing up. I’m Black and I wear hoodies. To fear another Black-in-a-hoodie seems silly. I want to break that fear. And so I walk past them, fearless and without judgment. Because we are all people, and we deserve that much. Most especially from our own.

~Tael

The Vilification of Shyness

I come from a family of acceptance and varied personalities across the spectrum. The outgoing, the charismatic, the loud and boisterous, the low-toned pipe-ups, the never-smile-for-photos, the Let’s-Take-40-Photos-at-the-Same-Angle-and-Only-Slightly-Mix-Up-The-People, the ones who avoid the center of attention like the plague. We’ve got it all. Maybe I was raised in a bubble. The New York one, I’ll get to in a later post, but the acceptance bubble. Because the real world is not as graciously accepting of the unfamiliar.

Assimilating into the world from beneath the comforting blanket of your family, one constant mind-boggler has been that there are many who treat shyness and introverted natures with disdain. Perhaps they don’t understand them; perhaps it doesn’t exist in their own families; perhaps it seems very Columbine-esque to them and they fear we’ll murder them in their sleep. Growing up, we brought many friends and lovers into the family, and half of them were introverts. They were shy, spoke quietly (and duh, why shouldn’t they be, they were just meeting us) and we respected this and surrounded them with our raucous laughter and love and never made them feel a certain way if they didn’t speak enough or remained on the sidelines.

Leaving my own family though, I’ve encountered the opposite throughout life. I’ve had people tell me my shyness and habit of keeping to myself has come off as rude, intimidating, and arrogant. When in the world did this happen? When did a lower voice and less speech and more social observation make you a villain? Sure, in grade school, it was more likely to make you a pariah, until you matured and realized not everyone is a social butterfly with a big mouth.

At family gatherings and events, you might have found me huddled in a quiet corner with a book on the outskirts. An only child until the age of 15, I learned early to be comfortable with silence and isolation. My comfort zone was in solitary. My mom constantly answered questions toward me for me, might have realized that wasn’t the best move, and once took me to a church function where she plopped me in a group of kids I didn’t know and demanded I make friends before walking away. I immediately burst into tears from the pressure. Middle school I was pretty friendless. I clung to what little social interaction was offered to me, played Gameboy in the yard, tried not to hide out in bathroom stalls at lunch, and dreaded when the teachers gave us the opportunity to choose our own groups for projects. High school I developed sweaty palms from the social anxiety, frequently wore gloves to hide this fact, and prayed I wouldn’t be questioned when I went to shake someone’s hand or I left damp palm-prints on the science tabletops.

Eventually, you encounter people in this world that don’t care if you veer away from social situations and probably even understand it (I would think it to be fairly easily relatable). But you also continue to encounter ones that still look down on it, as I did recently. And I’ll likely continue to encounter it the older I get, because not everyone is accepting to your personality, whether you’re in their face with it or not, and not everyone is willing to see the deeper you past your reserved layer. In our society, where partying and raucous antics are considered the epitome of a good time, if you deviate from this, you must be ready to defend yourself. Because if you hide on the outskirts and don’t drink as much, your motives will be questioned. Because if your anxiety gets the best of you at the wrong time, and you seek solace in isolation to recover, you lose worth in their eyes.

Thoughts

The ninja lifestyle can be misunderstood by most. But I am not lonely to continue its path. If you’ve ever been judged by your shyness, find me.

~Tael