I no longer enjoy going out in public.
When I do go out, I prefer to be alone or with a single trusted companion - but for clarity: I’m not agoraphobic, but every time I go out, I am painfully hyper-aware of my skin color, appearance, and demeanor.
Chin up, back straight, tuck your tailbone in. Instructions learned from ballet class translate almost perfectly into a lesson on appearances for survival. Thank you, Ms. Stephanie. “Merci, m’dame.” I would curtsy and hold my hand out for my stamp/sticker. Conditioning for my behavior. Wait for approval. Gather your things. Leave quickly.
So, as I walked into the grocery store with my partner (a tall, skinny, white man), I looked at the patrons with passing curiosity. No one looked like me, but that was to be expected. No reason to exhale deeply. The pink list inside my purse appeared in my hands, and we began our trek through the store to find the ingredients for shrimp scampi and linguine.
“I have no idea where to look for this stuff…” He admitted, his mask doing very little to hide the fact that he felt almost as out of place as I did. We started in the produce, as everyone should, and worked our way to the chocolate aisle.
As I peered past my little list of items, I caught the first confirmation of my “out-of-place” feeling: a woman (no need to describe her as her looks mean very little to my purpose) looked dead at my face with an unkind stare, her brows furrowed as she walked past us. Was I in her way? Impossible; there was more than enough space for all of us in the aisle, with my back against the waffle mix. Her eyes slowly moved away after I caught her staring, and she didn’t utter a single syllable as she passed me. The stare mirrored one I’ve seen before; one that whispers, “Turn around and don’t ever come back.”
Fear clutched onto my ribcage. Chin up, back straight, tuck your damn tailbone in, girl.
But what about my insecurity? What did I do with that? My hand reached for the edge of the basket in an effort to ground myself. My partner rambled on with questions about the differences between pasta (Fettuccine? Linguine? What about Angel Hair?) while I took in the split-second interaction that anyone would’ve dismissed as a passing annoyance.
Conditioning from years of walking into stores like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, even Bloomingdale’s rushed back at me. Store associates ignored my presence or even dared to give me dirty looks until I would walk out with a bag of purchased items, holding my hand out with my items as if to say, “See? I can afford the items in here. No need to look down your nose at a little black woman walking into your store.” Wait for approval. Gather your things. Leave quickly. Rinse and repeat.
A swift movement brought me back to reality. “Wait,” my partner grabbed my hand, looking closer at the types of chocolate. “Semi-sweet versus milk chocolate…?” He mused aloud, but I stood there, lightning bolts shooting through his fingertips, going straight through my hand to the pit of my stomach. Like smoke out of a window, my insecurity vanished, leaving nothing but a brightly lit, warm space. He never mentioned if he noticed the withering look from the lady, nor did he seem to notice the bolt of strength his touch gave me.
In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter if he noticed.