I grew up in a suburb of St. Louis, in a town that happens to be just 30 minutes away from Ferguson, Missouri. I remember going into Ferguson a few days after police officer Darren Wilson escaped being indicted for killing a young black man named Michael Brown. The National Guard was set up in a store parking lot, and a gas station on the corner had burned down. I saw firsthand what discrimination could do to a city. I saw what racism looked like.
But I didn’t live in Ferguson. I lived a county away, where there may have been underlying racial tensions, but everyone was definitely coexisting peacefully. The racist claims that people made were about the people in Ferguson, not the people in our neighborhoods. People in the city of O’Fallon complain about trivial issues, like who will be on the front cover of the neighborhood magazine. An old neighbor once threatened to sue us because our dog kept stealing the mulch from his yard. People talked about race, but people didn’t talk about me, as a young black woman. Even at my university three hours away, race wasn’t the first thing on my radar. My other minority friends talked about the unpleasant interactions that they’d had in town, but nothing like that had ever happened to me.
I’m not sure how I managed to skate through nearly 23 years of life without anyone ever making a direct racial attack towards me. Sure, there were the typical moments of "Racism Lite" that often come with being a minority in a predominately white town, like getting asked if I celebrated Kwanzaa, but I brushed them off as people asking dumb questions without the intent of being offensive. Nothing had ever happened to make me question my place in society. I never felt unwelcome.
I can’t say that it’s Trump who suddenly gave people the "empowerment" they needed to blatantly harass others in the street. But I can say that the first hate speech I encountered in my whole life happened a month before Donald Trump became president.
Of course, I was still aware of all of the straight-up racist things that were happening around me. My siblings and my parents can name multiple instances where they’ve been blatantly discriminated against. My father is followed around in stores; my brother has not had the same experience of O'Fallon as I have — I am aware he feels he will be viewed as the first suspect in the neighborhood whenever something goes wrong. I’ve been to festivals that have booths dedicated to selling merchandise adorned with Confederate Flags (“heritage, not hate!”). I’ve driven through Klan territory in the mountains of Tennessee where signs warning drivers "DON’T STOP HERE" are dotted with bullet holes. I once willingly went into downtown St. Louis, despite knowing that there was an actual Neo-Nazi rally taking place that day (I wasn’t going to reschedule my plans because some racist white people thought that a couple of chants would squash my entire race). If I could share a subway car with a literal skinhead without any incident taking place, then I could surely make to at least age 25 unscathed.
So when in early October, while I was at school and walking back to my apartment after a college football game, a random woman in a mini-van rolled down her window as she drove by for the sole purpose of shouting “f*ck you!” — a phrase then followed by a racial slur — I was beyond confused.
The minivan sped off. My blonde-haired, green-eyed roommate who was with me was more distraught than I was. I was just like, “...Well?” I didn’t know what to do. Do I call my parents? Tell the school even though it didn’t happen on campus? No one had hurt me, so was I still a victim? Was this harassment? How was I supposed to feel? Was this even a race thing? Maybe I’d misunderstood them. What if next time I’ll get physically assaulted just for walking down the street?
I don’t know the woman who yelled at me, but I’ve got some questions for her: What reaction are you hoping for? When you order food for delivery, do you specifically type in "white drivers only" in the special request box? Are you allowed to like Beyoncé?
It’s a special kind of anxiety — you sure as hell can’t hide your race, but you can try and hide yourself from racists. Kirksville, Missouri, my small college town, had always been nothing but good to me. What had changed? Why was this happening now?
Many people have been victims of hate crimes following the election of President-elect Donald Trump. I can’t say that it’s Trump who suddenly gave people the "empowerment" they needed to blatantly harass others in the street. But I can say that the first hate speech I encountered in my whole life happened a month before Donald Trump became president. I can also say that his campaign helped hate groups become more mainstream; the KKK is brazenly marching, and white supremacist groups are boldly calling for new members with more confidence than we've seen in decades.
A couple weeks ago, shortly after the election, my mom and my little brother were doing lawn work in our front yard. A car sped by and a teenager shouted out the same word that I’d been called — only this time, it was targeted towards my family. The kid who yelled the word didn’t live in our neighborhood, but he was staying with one of our neighbors, who happened to be in the car with him.
My mom, being A Mom, was not going to let a child get away with harassment, so she marched down to the neighbor’s house to tell them what had happened. The father of the boy who lived there apologized to my mom on behalf of the child, and tried to offer excuses as to why the child behaved the way that he did.
“No one’s ever said that to me before,” my mother, a woman who grew up in a freshly-desegregated 1970s North Carolina and had once skipped school to watch a KKK parade down the street without incident, said. “I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do.”
I guess there’s a first time for everything.
As for me, I don’t know the woman who yelled at me, but I’ve got some questions for her: What reaction are you hoping for? When you order food for delivery, do you specifically type in "white drivers only" in the special request box? Are you allowed to like Beyoncé? How much time do you spend going out of your way to racially harass complete strangers that you pass in the street? Do you ever wonder if you’re being even the slightest bit irrational? When are you going to realize that no matter what you say or do, people of different ethnicities are still going to exist in this country?
My mom told me that I should never be afraid because of my race. I never was. After the woman shouted out her racial slur and sped off to tend to her Nazi memorabilia (or whatever it is that people do after harassing someone), I went home and went about the rest of my day as normal. I’m not afraid.
But, at the same time, I kind of am.
Images: Samaria Johnson/Facebook