I was on a flight heading home, from New York back to Kauai, Hawaii when the homely flight attendant asked that we fill out a mandatory customs survey. I grabbed the small paper from her; she smiled and continued down the aisle before I could ask her for a utensil to fill it out. I foraged through my purse searching for a pen, to no avail. I turned to my seatmate, an older white woman who too did not have a pen, and see that she was quickly able to get one from the man across the way. When she was done filling hers out, she turned to me and asked if I wanted to use her pen –after she gets permission from the borrowed.
I kindly said yes, and she turned to the man to ask if I could use the pen to which he replied, “It depends, let me get a look at her.”
Before I had time to react, this tall silver-haired man was leaning forward, peering at me. I felt like a slide under his microscope. A fast action of anxiety swept over me as he studied my face. Would he look at me and not like what he saw? Was he looking at my hair –big, curly, and unapologetically frizzy from hours of flying? Was he looking at my tan olive skin trying to decipher what nationality I am as being biracial often leads to ambiguity, and stares? Was he really going to base whether or not I could a pen for a minute off of what I looked like?
Almost 20 seconds went by before he was done sizing me up, and simply gave a nod to the woman who passed me the pen and they both laughed. I looked at her then, realizing that perhaps she neither has nor will ever know what it feels like to be uncomfortable in this situation. That in today’s climate especially, she will not know the pain and discomfort that many people of color feel with interactions like this. That I embarrassingly felt uneasy that this man decided that he needed to ‘look’ at me before deciding to carry out a kind gesture –a look that he did give to the lady.
Between those two passengers, it was a joke –a joke that I felt left out of. Perhaps the man was trying to be funny, teasing me before allowing me to use his pen. Maybe I overreacted by feeling insecure and anxious; but maybe not. The things you hear on today’s news especially about simple interactions like this going array, leading to more complicated outcomes had me feeling apprehensive. In an overwhelming number of events today, many people are feeling empowered and bold to be ugly towards other people of color and to be honest I feared that moment on the plane could have turned in that direction.
This minuscule event in my life, though very brief, made me think about all the times that these moments of judgment happen to people of color. Too many viral videos are released of negativity and hate being spewed from one being to another, with no regard for the progress this country has made in terms of racism and bigotry. People of color are getting yelled at on buses for simply sitting, children are threatened and scolded for running lemonade stands outside their homes, authorities are called on a man for hosting a small barbeque in a public area, a mother and child are questioned while enjoying a community pool. Ignorance is alive and well but it will be addressed.
On an episode of Queer Eye, the new season on Netflix, there was a scene where the black lead on the show, Karamo, was driving with his four cast-mates when he gets pulled over by the police. You could see the panic on his face as he was stopped and the officer came around to speak with him. It turns out that it was a prank –the officer was a friend with a guest on the show, yet the anxiety in Karamo was anything but funny. Little instances like these, especially when the police and Black communities are in a fragile place now was triggering to watch.
I imagined the distress that Karamo faced, how I would feel that for my own brother or mother. I feel these same emotions when watching footage of the latest racial outbursts and can’t help but feel empathy. We should all have the right to feel safe in the place that we make home. America has welcomed a melting pot of people into its land, all created equal, and the citizens should act as such.
I believe that sharing these stories will help everyone understand the gravity that the racial tensions in America have weighed on people of color. I hope that it will keep a conversation going, bring attention to small injustices, and create sensitivity to learning and understanding what different cultures have to face. I hope that it will help create a healing environment where people can speak their truths, share how they feel (their uncomfortableness and anxieties) to keep us working on the same page towards safe surroundings.