Racism in Aisle 3
My husband could be Trayvon. He grew up in one of only five black families in a predominantly white town and was bullied, chastised and harassed throughout his school years. He was taught early on that he had to behave in a different manner from the white kids because he was subject to more scrutiny. Thankfully he learned those lessons well or a recent incident may have ended very differently.
We were shopping in a Costco store in a predominantly white, blue collar area. My husband was waiting in the extremely long line as I gathered a few last items and overheard a woman telling someone else that the lines weren’t really that long, there was just a bottleneck and that if you could pass it, you could be out of the store quickly.
I entered the line and mentioned the woman’s words to my husband, so he told me to stay with the cart while he checked it out. I watched him weave through the other carts and walk to the left, out of my sight for a moment. He then appeared again motioning with his arm for me to come to him. Just as I began to move, the man in front of me, a short, white man in probably his late 40s or early 50s darted out into the aisle with his cart and zoomed up to where my husband was standing, ending up in a much shorter line, directly behind my husband.
I approached with our cart and as I neared the man asked, “Excuse me, can you move just a little to the left so I can get my cart by you?” The man ignored me. I asked again, but still received no response. My husband then turned around and asked the man, “Excuse me, would you please let my wife through with our cart?”
My husband is 6’4” and at least 265 pounds. He is a proud U.S. Army veteran and has been trained in combat, sharp shooting, etc. He is also a black man and knows that his size coupled with the color of his skin can be “intimidating” to people and because of that, he is known as a gentle giant by all who know him. He makes sure to speak softly to unfamiliar people and tends to move slowly. He has an incredibly calm and patient demeanor, whereas I tend to be quicker to react.
After my husband’s request to let me pass, the other man finally reacted. He said quietly, “If you want the place in line, you’ll have to fight me for it.” My husband had no visual reaction, but I was in total shock, mouth agape, face screwed up, trying to figure out if we were on some crazy hidden camera show. My husband simply stood there, he didn’t move a muscle and said, “Sir, I am in front of you. You can’t check out until I have completed my business and my business includes my wife and the cart, so please step aside.”
Then it happened. The quiet, short, white man yelled at the top of his lungs, “THE BIG BLACK GUY WANTS TO FIGHT ME!!! HE WANTS TO BEAT FOR MY PLACE IN LINE!!!!” My husband still did not react; he simply looked at me as the words, “OH HELLLLL NO!!” must have hovered above my head in a thought blurb. The man continued to shout as people looked on, “THE BIG BLACK MAN WANTS TO BEAT THE LITTLE GUY!! BEAT ME BECAUSE I AM LITTLE! BECAUSE I AM NOTHING!!”
People around us were all looking at us, but no one moved. Did they believe him? Were they afraid of my big, hulking husband and his brown skin? Now I was picturing the police being called and the more-than-likely white officers either tackling, tasing or shooting my husband for doing nothing more than standing in line, simply because some other man said something untrue. My heart was racing! Do we just ditch the cart and leave the store? How do we end this without it escalating any further and my beautiful, God-fearing, volunteer fire brigade member, union steward, former gang-prevention coordinator at the Boys & Girls Club, black man having a run-in with the police?
There was another black man in the store. He was in the line next to us and had observed the entire incident. He left his cart and put his hand inside his jacket. He approached us and showed us his badge. The brother was an off-duty police detective from a nearby town. He held his badge up so that others could see his was an officer and then approached the white man who was no longer screaming, but was still saying things like, “I am a doctor! I help poor people all of the time! I don’t deserve this!” When he saw the badge, he quieted down for a second and then said, “Officer! He wants to fight me! Look how big he is!”
The officer told him to simply stop. He said he had observed the entire exchange and that my husband had neither said nor done anything to threaten or harass him in any way. Now the other people in the line chimed in, saying, “Yeah! He didn’t do anything!” The officer told the man to step aside and my husband and I paid for our groceries in peace. The little man stayed behind us, quietly. The officer also commended my husband for remaining so calm and not reacting in any way at all. “You know,” he said, “if you had even raised your voice, the local police would’ve been in here and you would be face down being handcuffed.” My husband shook his hand and replied, “Yeah, man. I know. It’s not the first time I’ve seen something like this. That’s why I didn’t react.”
We placed our groceries in the car and as my husband arranged them, I went to place the cart in the cart return. On my way back, I saw the man who had caused the scene. He was parked only 2 cars from us and as I passed by, he looked at me with anger and disdain. I turned my heard to avert his gaze and heard, “NIGGER LOVER!!” I wanted to turned around and let him know that despite my freckled, fair skin, reddish hair and green eyes I’m black too. So rather than “Nigger lover,” he should just call me “Nigger.” But I didn’t want to fan the flames so I returned to our car and didn’t tell my husband what was said.
Trayvon is neither the first nor the last black man to be judged or harassed because of his appearance. My husband wears a hoodie throughout the winter months and he often works odd hours, coming home well after midnight. We live in a nice area, but I always ask him to call me from the car and talk to me on his way home, just in case he gets pulled over or if someone questions his reasons for driving a nice car, being out or even in our neighborhood after midnight. It’s funny how often I take it for granted that my neighbor probably doesn’t worry about her white husband driving around or going to 7-11 in the wee hours. I guess I’ve kind of become accustomed to it and just imagined that we all live that way. But Trayvon Martin’s death reminds me that it isn’t so. No one questioned George Zimmerman’s right to be out, driving around with a gun. His father said he was going to the store, but did he really need a gun to go to the store? While Zimmerman slept warm in his bed on February 26th, Trayvon’s body lay cold in the morgue. Every night I thank God that my beautiful black man makes it home safely.