Through various events, mostly my fault, I was in imminent threat of losing my electricity if I didn't pay in person at one of the many centeres which accepted those payments. Like any good, middle class, privileged white person, I googled the locations and identified one that was near my home. I didn't really know the area, so I and my map and my car drove there and parked on the street after only getting lost eight or nine times.
As I get out of the car, I'm preoccupied by wondering if I'll be able to pay the bill without actually having the bill because I forgot to grab it that morning. it's with only part of my attention that I notice the clumps of people along the street. Male people, in groups, with what I saw as cold, unfriendly eyes. Male, Latino people.
I feel my body tighten and my face take on the expressionless mask of "I'm above this all" which is my fear response. Behind he mask, my mind is moving at a thousand miles a moment. I know I'm on a street in broad daylight. I know cross-race violence is more unusual, that I'd be more at risk in a group of white men. I try to convince my liberal, leftist mind that it's not really race, it's gender, which somehow seems more justifiable. I walk diagonally across the parkinglot, not willing to let my fear force me into a longer route, and step in between the unmoving group of men. My heart is echoing in my ears.
I saw the store form the street, but I can't find it now. I walk a block down, past more clumps of Latino men, feeling my back knot up and feeling increasingly unsafe and vulnerable. I just recovered from a back injury; any sharp, physical movements are likely to render me unable to move from the pain. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch the Latino men watch me. I can't deny anymore that as much as it is gender based fear, ti is also racial, and I feel shame. I'm a disgrace to progressives everywhere, and yet I still feel fear - fear that I know is irrational and prejudiced.
I turn back, moving further toward the road to see the signs of the stores. My desination is in the back of a barber shop. A young girl, also Latina, is hanging around the door, and I feel the mask crack as she catches my eye and I smile at her. She smiles back. I walk past, into a room filled with Latino men, who watch me with what I perceive to be hostile eyes. I walk to the back, caught between not wanting ot meet eyes of anyone as a form of self-protection and knowing I need to catch somoene's eye to try to pay this damn electric bill. I'm beginning to wish I was anywhere else but here, and consider tyring to find another, whiter, area to pay my bill in.
I need to come back with the actual bill.
I begin to make my stiff-backed, hard-faced way back to my car, shame and fear both swirling inside of me.
And I'm angry, now. Angry at myself, and at the world, and at my own cowardice. My own fear which keeps me from treating these clumps of men as people, not as threats. Angry at my impulse to find another, more white, place to do something basic.
And I think about my role in the drama, the single, well dressed, white woman invading a Latin@ neighborhood with her stiff, proud face. And i try to put myself in their place, watching this obvious outsider invade out of necessity.
I drive home, thinking. I get my bill, thinking. I refuse to find another spot; cowardice and racism will not win. I drive back to the same place an dpark around the corner.
A pair of latina women are speaking to each other. I see them glance at me, see a hardness, feel my own mask and fear and shame rise, then remind myself - here I am the interloper. Here I am the outsider. I feel my face soften a little.
I walk back to the store. I feel the fear rise again, and I remind myself of the reality - I have the privilege here. I am of the dominant culture. I cannot know what they are thinking, but I should not assume the worst.
The group of Latino men are still on the corner, but somehow they look different to me now. I can't quantify it, but my fear is less. I smile again at the girl; she has two brothers with her now. They are acting as children do, all boredom and energy.
I walk through the barber shop. I pay my bill. My cashier communicates with me in gestures. I smile and try to speak clearly as well as use gestures to communicate. I pay my bill.
I leave the store, still an outsider, still privileged, now awareness of my own internalized, insidious, and horrible racism.
Pay It Forward, Driving Backwards
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