Even in diversity-rich San Francisco, we have a long way to go to realize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. The following incident actually happened to me yesterday – on the day we honor the extraordinary work and transformation created by Dr. King.
I stopped for gas on my way home from a meeting. While my gas was pumping, I went into the food mart to grab a drink and use the restroom. The only other customer in the place was a stunning-looking young man, paying for a soda at the counter. I gave him a friendly smile as I asked for the restroom key.
“How are you this evening?” he said.
“Very well, thank you. And you?”
“I’m good. Trying to get home before the rain starts again.”
“Me too.” The cashier interrupted to hand me the key. I took it and said, “Well, good luck, and enjoy your evening.”
After this brief conversation, I went to the restroom. When I came back, he was still standing by the counter.
He gave an awkward, kind of shy wave, smiled at me and said, “You have a good night.” Then he left.
I selected a drink and returned to the counter to pay. The cashier said to me, “Do you know that black man?”
A conversation that begins by identifying the color of someone’s skin usually doesn’t hold much promise, and though I was taken aback by her question, I answered her.
“Well, he was really eyeing you.”
“Really?” I felt like a school girl who was just told that my crush likes me.
“Yes. He waited for you to come out of the bathroom.”
“He did?” I was quite pleased.
“You better be careful going to your car. Do you want me to have someone escort you for extra security?”
“You need to be more careful about who you flirt with, you know. He might be waiting for you out there. My husband’s in the back. Do you want me to get him to walk out with you? ”
Now, why would I trust her husband, also a stranger to me, any more than I would trust the young man who was ‘eyeing’ me? I couldn’t believe this was actually happening in San Francisco, California, arguably the most liberal and open-minded city in the nation.
“Uh, no ma’am. Thank you anyway.”
I paid for my drink and walked to the door, still dumb-founded. Just before leaving, I turned around to the cashier and said, “Actually, you might want to send your husband out to protect the young gentleman from me because if this cougar decides to pounce on his fine bod, he may never be heard from again.”
When I got outside, the man was still in the parking lot standing with his car door open. Instead of getting in the car, he closed the car door and walked over to me. The cashier peered out the window with an “I told you so, but not even God can save you now,” look.
He stopped just a couple of feet away from me and said, “I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re beautiful.”
“Thank you so much. I think you are too.”
Then, I’m sad to say, he said good night, got in his car and left. He simply wanted to offer a kind word, and what if I’d been too paranoid to receive it? Misjudging his intentions would have been my loss, because he obviously wanted nothing in return.
There are so many problems with this series of events that I don’t know how to separate them all. It’s not just that the cashier instinctively feared this man because of the color of his skin. There was also implied audacity in me finding him attractive…or him finding me attractive for that matter, which is why I said what I did to the cashier before exiting the store. In addition, there were gender issues at play. My friend Dr. Hugo Schwyzer writes extensively about the ‘myth of male weakness.’ The myth is that men can only be expected to exercise so much restraint or control in the face of sexual temptation before they have to give in to their biological desires, and therefore, men cannot be trusted and are treated as a threat. Black men are the extreme representation of this myth. The cashier’s fear wasn’t just about the color of this man’s skin, it was his skin color combined with his gender that posed such a danger. And I was chastised for ‘asking for it,’ because if men cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, that responsibility obviously falls on women. There also seems to be a myth that people of color cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. I believe this myth is the seed lurking behind current immigration policies, withholding monies owed to Native American tribes, slow diplomatic engagement with Africa, inaction after Hurricane Katrina and shocking statements questioning the value of rebuilding Haiti in the wake of the recent earthquake. This myth of male and color weakness is what prompted the cashier to offer her husband, a white man, as a viable protector for me from a black man.
Forgive me for not quoting Dr. King directly, but I’ll paraphrase one of his speeches: Nobody can do this for us. No document, no emancipation proclamation, no civil rights deal can do this for us. If we are to be free, we must reach down into the inner resources of our own soul and sign our own emancipation proclamation.
We must not become complacent just because there are signs of progress. Yes, we have our first black President and that was a day many thought they would never see (though undoubtedly Dr. King saw it from the Mountaintop). At the same time, we are passing laws that explicitly separate groups of citizens and deny them the equal rights and protections afforded by legal marriage. There is still so much to be done to reach the Promised Land, and we all have to look into the depths of our souls and sign our own emancipation proclamations because the truth is none of us are free until all of us are free.
This is my emancipation proclamation: I free myself from letting someone else design or impede my present or my future. I free myself from fear of others. I free myself from telling anyone else who or how to love. I free myself from idling in the presence of fear, bigotry and hate. Because (now paraphrasing Dante and Dr. King) the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence is betrayal.
Dr. King’s dream does not work without each of us finding that place where we are not free or cannot allow others to be free and ripping that dark place out for good. Emancipate yourself.