After boarding the commuter rail train one evening last week, I had the good fortune to find a seat. Usually there’s only standing room. My bad fortune was sitting next to a guy who wanted to talk race relations. It not always a bad conversation, but often shallow when you’re talking to a stranger.
This stranger, a middle-aged white man, cheerily quipped that we couldn’t be so different since we were both in suits, on smart phones and clutching cups of coffee. He went on and on about his love for coffee and then got serious, introducing himself, asking about my work and family status, and then asking permission to pose a serious question. I shrugged, and he shot: “What’s it really like to be you these days?” In other words, what’s it like to be black and male and grown in 2016?
He wasn’t coming from a bad place, but my seatmate’s question can’t be answered over coffee, on a local train, in passing, etc. Too often, it’s asked in passing, with all the casualness of, “Big plans for the weekend?” Still, I think he really wanted an answer, but just a soundbite, icing without the cake. So I gave him a little story about another cup of coffee.
Two Sundays ago I darted into Whole Foods for a coffee. As I began walking away from the register, I stopped and asked the barista to put a “paid” stickers on my cup. He was black and needed no explanation. He chuckled, then smirked and put the sticker on my cup. Meanwhile, the middle-aged white guy behind me called out lightheartedly, “Ah, you’re fine. You don’t need a sticker. No one’s gonna hassle you over a coffee!”
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I looked back and wanted to say, “No, no one’s gonna hassle you over a coffee!” Instead I bit my tongue and walked out. That was it. That was the story I shared with my seatmate in just over one minute. For a moment he looked puzzled before saying so. So I explained the moral: Since I was about 12 years old, I’ve lived every aspect of my public life either on defense against those stereotypes that get lobbed like grenades or planted like roadside bombs.
For black men, those stereotypes have been the weapon of choice in a form of emotional terrorism in use since Reconstruction. For a guy like Mr. Happy-go-Lucky behind me at the grocery, a missing “paid” sticker is ignored or leads to him telling a cashier on door-watch duty, “Oh, I paid for it! Just didn’t get a sticker,” or on the opposite extreme, “How dare you suggest I stole this coffee?” Either way, the cashier backs off, and the standoff fizzles. It’s possible a guy who looks like me would have the same outcome.
But if you look like me, there’s also a good chance you’ve experienced the opposite more than once or know a host of other guys who’ve lived this scenario: The door-watcher doesn’t believe you paid for a $2 coffee, confronts you and calls a manager to prevent you from leaving. That’s when you have to decide if arguing with them is worth the police being called to “deescalate” the situation, because you know a suburban police officer could assess your size and height and your frustration-fueled scowl and handcuff you for his own “safety.”
Then when you protest the cuffs, the officer decides he has to demonstrate his Alpha status by making an example of you, so he talks slowly and condescendingly to you in front of an audience of other shoppers, while he explains you’re under arrest for disorderly conduct and suspicion of petty theft. You think of what this scene would mean for your career and family, and you shut your mouth and grin and bear it while the teenage cashier on door-watch duty scolds you like your name is Kunta Kinte … but not Toby.
And then you walk out with your heart beating a little faster and your journey to high-blood pressure and hypertension hastened by at least a month. The encounter clouds the rest of your day. It may even wake you in the middle of the night. And the next day at work after you make a perfect presentation to an audience of big shots, a co-worker “jokes” that you shouldn’t look so angry — black men’s equivalent of a “Smile, pretty lady!” catcall — and tells you to stop slouching and lift your head.
But that coworker doesn’t understand that you’re not (just) angry or slouching. You’re stressed out and subconsciously bent from the weight of it, because those “little” coffee encounters are so frequent for many black men that they begin to stick to your ribs like grits. And even though you had a good day at work, you leave the office a little tense because your wife wants you to stop at the grocery and you wonder if this time you won’t bite your tongue. That’s what it’s like to be me today. And that’s just a Tuesday.
My seatmate? He nodded for a moment before cracking a pained grin and hoisting his cup as if to make a toast, saying, “Who knew?”
Sadly, there was no time to answer that question, too. He’d have needed a refill, and I would have had to stay on the train till the end of the line, halfway to Cape Cod.
James Burnett, a former Miami Herald reporter, is director of public relations & social media for The Boston Foundation.