Friday, April 08, 2011

2 times I didn't say anything, and 1 time I did

Where I grew up, there was this old school mom and pop soda shop called Emmanuel's.  It was run by a mother and her two grown children, and I would spend Saturdays leaning over the counter picking out nickel and dime candy.  In high school we would go there everyday after school, crowding around a table, sharing one plate of fries, sitting for a couple hours and most likely being borderline obnoxious, as one is prone to do when you're young and surrounded by friends that make you laugh and blush.

One afternoon, there were four of us girls and two boys, one who was white and one who was black.  While we were eating, the mother came over and said to the boys, "You can't stay here and not buy anything."

They were confused, as we were all eating off one plate of fries, but one of them said, "OK, can I have a Coke, then?"  But she refused, and kicked both the boys out.  Once they left, she turned back to us.

"You girls are nice girls, you shouldn't be hanging out with boys like that.  They're maggots, those black boys.  Maggots." And then she left us.  We stared at each other, silent, and then gathered up our stuff and left.  We never went back again.


One summer during college I was in Dunkin Donuts and there were a few young black kids in front of me in line.  They got some donuts, and left, and the older white police officer who was standing behind me said, "We've got names for kids like that."  And then he chuckled.


In college I was in a group called Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR).  We went bowling, and I was driving some of the students home in my old Dodge when we got pulled over, because I'm from Boston and a bit of a speed racer.  In the front with me was my friend, an African-American female, and there were two Middle Eastern guys and an African-American girl in the back seat.

The police officer came up to the window and asked who we were and where we were going, as I started to explain, he shone his flashlight into the back seat.  "Show me your hands," he said, shining his flashlight into the  faces of the students in the back.  When they were slow in responding, he shouted, "SHOW ME YOUR HANDS!"

I remember thinking at the time that he actually sounded scared, instead of mean or angry.  Now, I try to imagine this situation from his point of view, not knowing that we were coming from something as innocent as bowling, possibly having had bad experiences with Colby students before, maybe being new on the job (he was quite young).

He called for backup.  With the other police car there, he collected all of our IDs and ended up giving the students in the backseat seatbelt violations, and letting me go without a ticket.  In the morning, I wrote a (pretty mild) letter to the police station that said the officer's actions could have been perceived as racist. I explained that I got off, even though I was endangering my whole vehicle and my friends were only endangering themselves.  The police chief called me a few days later.

"I spoke to the office in question," he said, "he said he's not racist."

We talked for a while longer, but that was as far as he was willing to go investigating the case.  I hung up feeling helpless.  It was my first time (or most significant time thus far) learning that not everything could be fixed.


When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak. 
--Audra Lorde