This is another golden nugget of hilarity and profundity that I’ve gathered walking around this lovely state. This is the kind of thing that makes my life fun and interesting (to me anyway). Race and gender rolled themselves into a multicolored ball of insight while I was doing something as simple as taking a walk. It’s not my intention to single out Concord, as this sort of thing could have happened anywhere, and has happened to me all over the place. This nights events just so happened to play out like an SNL skit.
Granted, I was taking a walk in the rather wealthy town of Concord, which is 25 miles away from where I live. I’ve been known to wander much farther than that as people who have run into me while I’m far from home know well. Granted, I was taking a walk in Concord at 11pm but I’ve been known to be out later. Working nights, this is what I’m used to. Truth is, I needed a moment to walk and think in quiet in a place where I’d be out of my normal context. Concord rolls its streets up fairly early. Its downtown sidewalks which are well populated with attractive street-lamps (I have a thing for street-lamps.), are normally busy, crowded and buzzing. However, by the time I got there, the obnoxious daytime crowds would have long since departed, leaving the well-lit, well-paved sidewalks all to myself.
I drove into downtown Concord and parked my car directly beneath one of my beloved street-lamps. It took me about 15 seconds to get out and cross to the other side of the street. About 20 seconds into my walk, a police cruiser already showed up. The officer, a pudgy man with a sparkling bald head pulled up alongside me as I walked, matching my walk-speed and craning his neck around to look at me. He then quickly drove away. Cops do this to me a lot almost everywhere. Being used to this kind of curious but non-committal attention from police, I kept walking.
We can speculate all day at this point in the story as to why this took place. I spent a good bit of my walk from that point pondering just that. In my warehouse work clothes, I was indeed dressed quite shabbily for Concord. I generally don’t intentionally make adjustments for it no matter what the time of day, so taking the time to make a detour toward home to stop and change wouldn’t have crossed my mind anyway. Minus the cardboard dust and being out long past any nearby restaurant’s closing time, I could probably have passed for a waiter. However, in the dark, under street-lamps, from a distance, I’m a lean swarthy figure with a curly brown ponytail, or more to the point—I’m a young, shady looking brown guy.
I know I look like a young, shady looking brown guy. I’m often, but not always taken for one at first. Up close, the shady diminishes or disappears as I start to look more feminine or at least like somebody that someone’s teenage daughter would consider cute and safe, but young, brown and sometimes guy are all still there and intact. Minus the shady, that doesn’t bother me in itself. Despite my being a young, mixie girl with a clean record, my appearance on an average day or night makes it so that if I want to keep hassles from nervous people to a minimum, I had better take the same precautions that many black and brown boys learn in this country. Don’t run with anything in your hands lest people think you stole it. Try to avoid running in public altogether lest people assume you did some other illegal thing. Don’t look into the windows of closed shops for too long……..
Yes, I was aware of the “Don’t stare into shop windows lest people think you’re ‘casing the joint'” rule. I resisted the temptation despite downtown Concord being constructed almost entirely of shops with large window displays and interesting things to look at. But for me, the Massachusetts-nerd, to have to follow that rule in front of a shop with a bunch of Massachusetts-themed items in the window is just cruel, and I REALLY wanted that “I Came, I Saw, I Concord.” t-shirt. Not enough to commit breaking and entering and burglary for it, but I wanted it. My intention for that shirt was to bring money INTO the town, not to take it out through theft and property damage.
…and here’s the cop again, doing the same as before.
This became mildly unnerving but in the toss-up between going home and asserting my right to take a walk on a public street, I chose to stay my course. Shortly thereafter, a different cop pulled up alongside me.
“Are you okay ma’am? Do you need help?” asked the officer almost pleadingly. Another relevant detail to this story (and former and current residents have confirmed this) is that Concord cops have very boring jobs. Certainly it says something positive for the relative safety of a town if its police officers are chronically bored, but it can also make them somewhat excitable when it comes to any possibility of finally having something to do.
“Nope, just taking a walk.” ,I replied still using the girly voice I use with cops to diminish the threat factor. My normal voice would likely not succeed at this.
“You haven’t seen any suspicious activity around, have you? This past hour we’ve been getting reports of a suspicious looking guy walking around peering into store windows.”, the officer said.
“Nope, haven’t seen anything.”
“Well, if you’re still out and you see anything, don’t hesitate to let us know. And be careful, okay?”
Mind you, the only other human beings I saw were one or two people closing up shops post-after-hours cleaning. The chorus of this song humorously comes to mind as I was probably just told by a cop to watch out for myself.
The issue seemed settled at that point, and I figured that maybe this officer would radio his pudgy bald coworker to let him know that he didn’t find anything dangerous, just some chick taking a walk. But on my final lap around Downtown Concord, the first cop showed up again, this time actually talking to me.
“Good evening. What are you doing out here?” he asked.
“Taking a walk. It’s quiet out here.” I replied, in the most femmy voice I could muster.
He went silent and stared for a bit. Lord only knows what was going on in his head at that moment but I imagine it included a few instant re-plays of everything that went on since I got out of the car and started walking.
“Okay, uh, be safe.” he mumbled as he drove off. This had to be the most anti-climactic and hilarious encounters with an officer I’ve ever been involved in. Satisfied with the night’s annoyances and amusements, I departed for Worcester, somewhat excited to share the comedic gold I’d stumbled upon.
All amusement aside, some of the lessons contained herein are:
1. Even simple and innocent activities are often different for people of color.
Remember that this whole thing started with me simply walking down the street. When people of color are singled out by police, it’s a common thought process for people to comb the details of the situation for that supposed other factor, you know, the REAL reason why that person looked suspicious enough to be stopped and questioned. Surely they must have done something wrong. People who know me tend to take for granted that their view of me as not suspicious will be shared by others, so when they hear me tell stories like this, they are befuddled. There’s no other factor here! Why did they stop YOU???
2. Being a girl helps sometimes.
Popular belief has it that as a black girl, I might shoplift during store hours, but I probably won’t burglarize the store after dark. I might be rude and obnoxious to the shop staff, but I probably won’t bust out the shop window with a brick or vandalize all the pretty buildings. Throw perfectly spoken standard English into the mix and sometimes all imagined potential slights are forgiven no matter what the time of day. The point here is, there’s not a lot for me to do at night that looks suspicious, so long as I come across as female to whoever is watching. Women are the ones suspicious things are supposed to happen to at night. The huge difference in treatment that I received from Cop1 and Cop2 and watching the pudgy bald cop re-calculate everything he had seen that night in an entirely new context and drive away probably embarrassed and confused illustrate this best.
3. Despite any precautions or guidelines we may take, whether or not someone sees us as suspicious is largely out of our control.
We can follow the law to the letter, build a fence around it to make sure we don’t break it by accident, and do everything in our power to do all the right things to make ourselves look non-threatening, but for some people, dark skin is all that is needed for us to look suspicious to them. Some people can’t seem to accept that this is true. This is why some people saw fit to make Trayvon Martin’s murder earlier this year, an issue of him looking suspicious by wearing clothing nearly every American teenager has in their wardrobe and wears regularly without issue. If I couldn’t even fully guarantee that I’d be perceived as male or female by everyone I encountered through the course of this one night, how much more so are my character and my intentions open to interpretation by each individual I come across? As much as I take a somewhat sick and risky pleasure in the absurdity of it all, the ways people choose to extrapolate on my simply walking down the street are completely out of my hands.The truth is that no matter how hard we work to counter stereotypes ourselves, there are still people who won’t be satisfied by our efforts. There are people who we will scare no matter what we do. There are people who we will never be well-behaved enough for and who we can never prove our innocence to. If we wanted to make ourselves 100% safe from prejudice, our only option would be to disappear.