Racism’s Emotional Bruises

Turning away from the heavy sound of the car door closing on our 1969 moss green Pontiac LeMans, I scanned the full parking lot at Chris-Town Mall. It was a mid-December afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona, on an uncharacteristically warm day. Winter 1977 was underway, yet I still wore my Six Million Dollar Man t-shirt.

“Leave your jacket.” Mama hoisted Bryan onto her hip as she repositioned her purse strap. “You sure you don’t want to take a picture with Santa?”

“Mama,” I sighed. “I’m seven.” We never lived anywhere with a chimney. I didn’t know how to tell her I never believed in Santa.

I walked around the car to help her put Bryan into his stroller. At a year and a half, he felt almost as heavy as me. I fell forward with him into the cloth seat.

I looked up, “Can I push him?”

“Too many cars zooming around here. But you can hold on to the stroller.” Mama smoothed down the front of her dark blue dress. I liked it when she wore make-up and her fluffy afro wig. She looked glamorous.

We walked towards the glass doors frosted with snow. Chris-Town was my favorite mall. They had the best Christmas decorations.

I moved closer to Mama to keep from running into the new powder blue Cadillac Coupe Deville jutting out up ahead. As we walked past the car’s trunk, an attractive woman with shoulder-length blond hair pulled a striped t-shirt over the belly of the baby she was holding.

“Let me help, mom.” Another boy ran around the car, his hair the same color as his mother’s. He looked to be about the same age as my cousin Curtis, nine years older than me.

But the baby, who was around Bryan’s age, looked different. The way she held him let me know he was her son. But his skin tone was a light brown, and he had loosely curled hair, almost like my brother’s.

“I can hold his hand while we’re walking.” The older boy smiled down at his little brother. I saw in his eyes that he really liked him, like me with Bryan. He tossed back his hair and guided them forward. Their mother locked the car door and hurried up beside them.

This is my earliest memory of blacks and whites coexisting. My family lived in different parts of Phoenix, around different ethnic groups. However, we mostly remained an insular unit, keeping to ourselves. The emotion in the older brother’s eyes was palpable. At that age, I had no vocabulary to pinpoint what I was seeing. But I knew that it was uncommon for blacks and whites to commingle.

My next full awareness of race was around the age of 14. We were living in Fresno, California, home to some of my stepfather’s family. It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon. My mother was treating me, Bryan, and our little sister Denete to a matinee. While waiting at an intersection for the light to change, a red sports car roared up to us. As it passed, two teen boys popped their heads out of the narrow back window and shouted, “Go back to where you came from, you fucking niggers!

They may be challenged if they realize you’re just as smart or as ambitious as they are.

My heart thumped coldly in my chest, as if someone had poured ice water over it. I was stunned. Their tone felt so violent. We were just four people, a woman with her three young children.

“What were we doing?” I asked. “Why would they say something like that?”

Mama held Bryan’s and Denete’s hands. “Don’t mind them. Some people have too much time on their hands.” But I heard a shakiness in her voice.

During my formative years, my mother and my stepfather never formally discussed the “ABC’s of Racism.” However, I recall her once saying, “Some people are going to think they know who you are, based on who they believe they see. Don’t make this any of your business. Just be yourself.”

When I was 10, she said, “Some people will think you’re cool if you’re funny or athletic. They may be challenged if they realize you’re just as smart or as ambitious as they are.” I don’t remember what prompted these conversations. To be honest, I didn’t narrow them down to racism until I was in my early 20s, after moving to Los Angeles. Not because the cloud of racism never rains down on the state of Arizona. It was more that the combination of me being shy and us moving around so much kept me somewhat isolated.

Those teen boys awakened in me an acute awareness there are individuals who don’t like black people. For several months I eyed every non-black person with suspicion, wary of a look, a comment, a slight. A scab eventually grew over that verbal assault. And for the next few years, I remained relatively unscathed from overt racism. That is, until I moved to Los Angeles, California in 1992.

Arriving in L.A. brought me face-to-face with law enforcement’s role in racism. I was spared this type of harassment in Arizona. Members of the LAPD made sure I received a crash course in it, pulling me over at least five times within the first few months of living in the city. The first time was almost comical.

“Are you selling drugs?” The young officer asked, the spotlight on his patrol car blasting brightness into my small vehicle. I was dumbfounded. When I responded, I was met with a rushed, “Sorry, sir. We’re looking for someone who fits your description.” This was my experience most of the times they pulled over me. I assume because I didn’t present in an expected manner.

The last time I got stopped by the police was in 2004, on the street I lived on for several years in West Hollywood. It was humiliating. The officer repeatedly pelted me with questions asking why I was in the neighborhood. He never looked at my driver’s license, the address of my apartment across the street printed on it.

When the patrol car sped away, I glanced around. A few neighbors were behind their curtains, peeking out at me. I willed my hot tears to remain in their full ducts. My legs shook as I rushed away from my car to the safety of my apartment. After locking the front door, I raced to the sofa, sat down and I cried. I held my head in my hands and I just cried.

“You must be so angry,” a friend said to me this past May, when we broached the media’s exposure of George Floyd’s murder.

I paused. Anger is the emotion most seem to focus on when it comes to racism. It’s what I may see when I walk into establishments where I’m the only black person. It’s what I hear in songs that call attention to the various forms of racial violence. It’s what I recently felt at a pub in southern England, from a young couple who stared at me throughout my meal with a friend.

The last remaining shards from my rose-colored glasses are gone.

Remaining fixated on a black person’s anger concerns me. Namely, because it’s what seems to be used to deny black citizens a voice or an opportunity. The “angry black woman” and “aggressive black man” tropes are routinely employed in corporate spaces, and are plentiful in films and television.

The emotion that’s overlooked is sadness. This latest round of murders of black Americans leaves me sad. I was born two years after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, five years after the murder of Malcom X, and seven years after the killings of Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy.

The last remaining shards from my rose-colored glasses are gone. The Institution of Racism, and the practices and beliefs surrounding it, are intentional. My generation and the one before continue to spout the phrase, “It’ll all go away once the older generation dies off.” This is incongruous with the hostility I can receive from a young non-black person behind the counter of a local café, whose pleasant demeanor evaporates when I step up to the register.

Most of racism’s bruises are emotional, unseen by most who encounter people who look like me. But they’re there, oftentimes minimized, so we can navigate our daily lives. There’s an armor I put on to shop for groceries, visit a trendy restaurant, or make a desired purchase. Nevertheless, there are days I don’t feel up to pretending I don’t see what is so obvious to many black people. I do remain hopeful. However, I’m no longer okay with lessoning how racism affects me. That it is harmful to those of us who must always be mindful of how a look, a word, or an oversight may negatively impact our emotional well-being.

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Erick Taylor Woodby

Erick Taylor Woodby

Writer and host of “Our Black Gay Diaspora Podcast,” for black LGBTQ+ citizens to inspire and educate on who they are in their countries and professions.