Being stared at by strangers is something I have become very accustomed to. Not because I am a beautiful, ethereal being that catches everyone's attention (but I will take it if that's what you're thinking), but in the way that I am a Black woman, a Black person, and people tend to notice my presence. I don't think there is a Black person out there that can deny knowing what it's like to be stared at by a random person.
My boyfriend and I are very aware of how white people react to our Black bodies being in certain places. We are two college kids living in New York City and are lucky enough to have parents that can support us. This support has allowed us to thoroughly enjoy our time in the city, beyond the means of a typical college kid or most millennials living on this overpriced island.
Prior to our current apartment, CJ lived in a building in the Financial District with tenants that ranged from rich college kids (CJ), Wall Street stockbrokers, young successful couples, and older people that had been living in NYC since Nixon was booted from the White House. I work at an upscale sushi restaurant as a hostess where CJ and I dine frequently (with the help of my employee discount).
CJ's old apartment building and the restaurant I work at are just two of the many places we have been in New York where we don't feel incredibly welcomed.
Most of the time we get a kick out of it, not letting the ignorance of others bring us down.
"Haha that white woman looked at us like 'What are you people doing here?'"
"Hahahahah right! She literally did a double take. I think I could hear her thoughts saying 'Black people? Here?'"
The constant awareness that we are not welcome as we try to talk, laugh, and enjoy our time.
We tell a few more jokes, talk about how ignorant this country and the world are, but then we just get back to doing what we were doing. Wasting time worrying about why they are looking and what we may be doing never seems worth the effort. We're aware of the social construct we live in, even if the people looking at us remain completely oblivious.
However there are always certain moments that stand out from the rest; moments that make me question my efforts to study and write about Black culture and history are worth it, if I'm speaking to an audience that isn't listening or doesn't want to hear what I have to say.
It's Saturday afternoon in New York City. Spring has just begun, which means millions of New Yorkers who just spent the past four or five months hibernating are now desperate to soak in nature (or whatever is it that we have in this city). CJ and I are amongst this group and made plans to go to SoHo and shop for our college graduation the following month. And to take full advantage of the weather, we decide to eat at our favorite restaurant, located just a few blocks away from the stores on Broadway we planned to shop at.
We sat immediately, next to a table of three white women who, noticeably, drift into an uncomfortable silence for a few seconds as they process the bodies being sat at the table next to theirs. I glance over at CJ, who is already looking my way, and roll my eyes. He gives me one of his "you already know" smiles as he shakes his head and begins to study the menu, even though he always orders the exact same pasta dish.
As usual, we brush it off. We're hungry, happy to be at the restaurant, and excited to shop for graduation. And I have already done a quick scan of the women's table and know that they'll be leaving within the next 10 to 15 minutes.
The restaurant we are eating at has been my favorite place since I moved to the city four years ago and was a place that CJ and I visited so frequently that the general manager knew us. It was a small, one room french cafe in Nolita that's tends to attract a mixture of European tourists, Instagram influencers and residential New Yorkers.
By the time our food arrives, we are on our second glass of wine from our bottle and the three women are gathering their belongings to leave. However, now that my favorite sandwich is in front of me (I too order the same thing every time here) I am more focused on the plate in front of me, rather than who is sitting next to us.
"Look" CJ whispers while motioning his head towards the table next to us. I attempt to nonchalantly look over and see what it was that demanded more attention than my sandwich.
AhhhhI see why he is trying to get my attention. At the table next to us the waitress is laying down menus for a family: an old couple, a young woman and her daughter. All white.
I turn back to CJ and we share a look we share in just about every situation or location we find ourselves in. A look that represents our mutual understanding of what is about to come. The awkward uncomfortable glances from the people besides us, clearly uncomfortable with our presence. The constant awareness that we are not welcome as we try to talk, laugh, and enjoy our time.
I feel the little girl's eyes on me and try not to stare back, but I can't stop myself. Every-time I look up, she is looking back at me.
She sat with her feet tucked underneath her, her back hunched over and her body angled towards our table. She keeps fidgeting, and I can see she is struggling to be discreet as she attempts to figure out what we are.
"She won't stop staring CJ."
"Just try to ignore it baby," He says, taking my hand from across the table, "You know this always happens."
I nod in agreement, thinking about all those other times this has happened to us. Like I said previously, as a Black person, you grow used to the way people look at you in public spaces. However CJ and I it sometimes feels as if we receive this unwanted attention more.
We often discuss why this may be. One consideration is our hair. CJ's sticks out from his head in long and curly strands that gain volume throughout the day. And my hair, typically in braids, tends to draw comments from amazement to confusion. In addition, I like to add color like bleach blonde or gray. I have grown very used to random strangers gawking at my head, especially young (white) children. At this time, my hair is in 18 cornrows braids that lead to a ponytail at the top of my head with long blue braids coming down near my waist line. I do it to be bold, because that is who I am, and I have long ago accepted the eyes that follow me because of it.
Other than hair, CJ and I have also considered our individualistic sense of style and the fact that we are a couple. We have walked into many places (events, restaurants, hotels, etc.) and can sense that people are confused about what we are supposed to be. We both grew up being "different" from Black people and us being together has done nothing but emphasize this.
I glance over at the little girl to see if she is still staring and I notice her mom leaning down to whisper in her ear, rubbing her petite shoulders, things moms do to comfort their kids.
I wonder what she is saying to her? I think as I take another sip from my wine and try to not let the situation bother me so much. It still did.
If she told her to stop staring, that could be okay. But what if she is just trying to comfort her and tell her that it's okay. That would allow the little girl to believe that there is a problem, something to fear. And that problem, that fear, would be CJ and I. No wait, it would be Black people, or any person of color really.
I look over again and the girl was now sitting in her mom's lap, I guess having become too scared to sit that close to CJ and I. I was now enraged. Not only were we mysterious creatures, we were now scary mysterious creatures. So scary the girl had to crawl into the safety of her mom's arms.
"We should probably just try to finish and go." CJ says to me, "The grandparents keep eyeing me awkwardly as well."
"We still have a whole bottle to finish up, and I am not doing anything to make them feel better." I respond back.
CJ and I continue to eat and drink while the little girl continues to giggle and play in her mom's lap.
"Do you wanna sit down?" I heard the mom ask. She pats the spot the little girl was just sitting in (the seat next to CJ) and gives her daughter a warm smile. The little girl quickly shakes her head and continues to sit in her mom's lap, head tucked down as she plays with something in her hand.
"CJ she's actually scared to sit near us. Do we look intimidating or something?" I ask him. I can feel my emotions starting to stir.
"We're Black. Of course we look intimidating." CJ replies. I chuckle at his response and we give each other a half-ass cheers. Taking a sip of the familiar Merlot, letting it swirl around my taste buds, wondering.
"You okay?" CJ asks as he studies my face.
"Literally all I do is study, read, write, talk about, and tweet all the utter crap that Black people have been through, and still go through, and yet when I find myself in moments like this, no amount of knowledge and understanding can stop the emotions of being judged and discriminated against just for being."
"Well they need to educate that little girl." CJ says. I can hear in his tone of voice that he, too, is growing agitated with the situation. Especially since when we look back over at the table, the mother has switched spots with the little girl and is now closer to CJ. The little girl is now sitting happily laughing and talking to her mother, making jokes, happy to be away from the "bad people."
My eyes slant into daggers and I look back at CJ, "All that did was teach that girl that discrimination and prejudice is okay. How is she going to go through life being scared of any brown person who crosses her path. Even the fact that she was scared in the first place notions towards something she previously learned in her home life."
I am ranting and chugging my glass of wine, readying myself to get the fuck out of this restaurant before I start screaming or balling my eyes out.
Throughout our whole conversation, CJ and I were aware that the table next to us, the little girl, the mom, the grandparents, could hear us. Like I said, it's a small, one room, restaurant. It sounds petty, to talk about people knowing they can hear you, but in a situation like this, pettiness becomes our only source of power. The only outlet we have to channel our emotions without becoming exceedingly angry or utterly depressed.
What else could we do? Tell the little girl she was being racist? Tell the mom to teach her daughter some respect? Tell the grandparents to stop eyeing CJ like he was going to take the tip they left off the table? A lot easier than it sounds, and as a Black person, you never know how this type of confrontation could be taken in a setting like this. Would people see where our anger was coming from? Or would they be upset for causing "a scene" and making everyone else uncomfortable.
We get out of there as soon as we can, ready to leave the whole situation behind. On the walk to Broadway I call my mom, explaining what happened. She is, of course, shocked and angry as well; I have another rant with her about how children grow to have racist thoughts and the role of the parents.
The rest of the day progressed as planned: I find a dress for graduation, CJ finds a suit, and we both find shoes. When we get home that evening I look at the notes I typed in my phone at the restaurant earlier that day, the first draft of this piece.
Don't let it continue to bother you, I tell myself, but it's not possible. The little girl, practically still a toddler, had looked at me as if I was an alien. Someone who didn't belong in the restaurant, in New York City, or anywhere at all. How could someone who barely knows the world be so uncomfortable with my existence in it already?
Like I said previously, as a Black person, you grow used to the way people look at you in public spaces.
New York may present itself as a diverse melting pot of all types of people, but it can also be just as divided as anywhere else in the country. Black people live in boroughs that gentrifiers are desperate to buy up and make room for people with more money. Homeless people on 5th Avenue beg Upper East Siders for spare change while they are passed by on the walk from Tiffany's to Louis Vuitton. How could a city that has such a large amount of upper class citizens, almost every race you can imagine, one of the highest African American populations in the country, and a steadily growing homeless population not be divided? This is America we're talking about.
This article was originally published June 25, 2019.
WRITTEN BYChelsea Young