My date and I were pulled over, and before we knew it, the police had guns to our heads. The cop on my side was screaming at me for my driver’s license and keys, and my date had a look of terror on her face, as she knew that at any sudden movement – with so much as a sneeze – our brains could be splattered across the dashboard.
I handed over my driver’s license and keys to the officer. No, actually, I placed them on the dashboard. When you’re driving while black, you learn to place your keys, wallet, and insurance on the dashboard before the officer reaches your car so that you never need to move your hands out of view. When he walked back to his vehicle, another officer replaced him and put his gun to my head.
Several minutes later, the first officer returned, tossed my keys and wallet onto my lap, and told me that my car description matched the one they were interested in, and that we were free to go. Trust me when I say I’ve heard those lines before.
I’m the son of a black father and a white mother, now a full-grown man with skin color that’s a shade of brown not too far from natural umber. Growing up, I looked at race as if it was a bunch of crayons – people just came in different colors.
Color matters, though. Even in San Francisco. Not many San Franciscans can tell stories about the police putting guns to their heads, but my story isn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last. That summer I had been pulled over every other week, so I was used to the way the police were treating me. I shudder to think of how I would have reacted were I not used to the police pointing guns at me.
It matters in other ways too. Race matters when you’re looking to rent an apartment, or even a room in an apartment. I was offered a room in an apartment last year, only later to find out that the landlord didn’t want “those people” in her building. So I had to move on.
When going for interviews, either housing or job related, you often have to deal with “the Look.” The Look is when someone you’ve communicated with solely online sees you in person and is caught off-guard by your skin color; and that smile on their face goes from genuine to fake.
Some know how to spot fake smiles – it’s in the eyes. But “the Look” is different because the smile starts as genuine and sinks when they recognize that the person they’re seeing doesn’t fit the mental image they’ve constructed. They find themselves uncomfortable with the color of your skin. They realize they’re uncomfortable, they question why, and they know that they’re passing unconscious judgment, even if they don’t mean to.
This moment kicks off an internal dialogue inside them, whereby they try to reconcile how they should feel with how they actually feel. Their eyes drop, and the smile becomes fake; but we still have to do this little dance anyway. By then, I know that they’ll never offer me the room, the apartment, or the job because my skin color has challenged them in a way that makes them uncomfortable, and it’s simply easier to go to the next candidate.
I’ve lived here for a long time, and I love this city. I feel that, out of any place in this country, I have the greatest potential to make myself into what I want to be in San Francisco. But I also recognize that there is a struggle, even in a city as progressive and open minded as this, to free myself from negative stereotypes. From the Tenderloin to the Western Addition to Bayview to Hunters Point, even this city offers up images of the black criminal, the black crackhead or the young black teen terrorizing people on Muni. When I walk home at night and women pull in their purses closer, and businessmen with briefcases cross the street, the message is clear: outside of the context of their knowing me, I am that potential black criminal.
When observed by others, I am Schrödinger’s Black Man, existing in a constant state of potential criminality. Am I committing a crime at this moment or merely capable of it? Is my walk suspicious because I lack the gait that neighbors expect while I am walking? Or do I look suspicious because I “look” suspicious and because other characteristics serve merely to reinforce that impression?
I believe that San Francisco is a beautiful city to live in, a place where you can succeed based on your talents. But this city, like everywhere else, still has its share of racial problems. I still have to contend with stories from privileged youngsters about visiting black neighborhoods as if they’re going on safari. I still see articles about Oakland as a “happening city,” but in which not a single black person is mentioned. I will still be judged by the color of my skin by many; I will still have difficulty finding jobs and apartments; and I will most likely have the police pointing guns at me again. But I still have the potential to do great in spite of that, and that’s why I’m here.