Automatic Affronts(?): Brown & Black Bodies & (a Lack of) Compassion

The few times that I’ve walked into the Big Y in Longmeadow, MA, the supermarket closest to the university, at which I teach, I steel myself against the barbed gazes. This is a predominantly white market situated in a predominantly white, affluent suburb. I am less than a stranger. I am a walking abomination, a contamination, no matter my basic black business attire and my signature flowing scarf. My brown skin is an automatic affront. Some of their white gazes skirt around me. Eyes trace around the outline of my body without engaging my personhood. Other whites just stare, mouths agape. A white store clerk moves closer to where I stand. He pretends to adjust the bread loaves already neatly stacked. He adjusts an already filled napkin dispenser by the soup bar. Once, I kept getting bumped by a white middle-aged woman’s cart behind me in the checkout aisle. Back up, bump. Back up, bump. Finally, I turned around. “With all due respect, stop bumping me with your cart.” No apologies offered. No more bumping.

If any of the undergraduate students I teach were to observe me in this supermarket, they’d be shocked. They wouldn’t recognize me. As a warm and engaging Puerto Rican professor of their English composition courses, I wake them up in their AM classes with creative writing. They write creatively in response to a work of art by Faith Ringgold that resonates with them. They marvel at the Yemayá quilt by Dindga McCannon that I unfold on the table. Then write. They write about a work of art on the National Museum of Women in the Arts website.

They wouldn’t recognize my unsmiling silence.

And yet, I am still aware of my privileges. I have a car to drive me to the Big Y over the bridge in West Springfield. There, I can shop in peace. The customers and store staff, diverse. Or I can drive home – seven minutes door to door from university to home – to pick up my forgotten lunch box. Or I can drive to Springfield with its plethora of restaurants with welcoming atmospheres because green is a universal color there. I have a steady income that affords me the privilege to gas my car or to eat in the dining hall. I can afford to drive to more welcoming markets, more welcoming restaurants, or simply home because I don’t want my joy of teaching to become contaminated.

And yet, I am still aware of my privileges. When I was pulled over by an undercover cop in Springfield one Veterans’ Day, yes, my hands and my son’s hands trembled. When I pulled to let the unmarked car with the sudden glaring white light pass, it parked behind me instead. On busy Boston Road, the cop trained the white beam on us. I rolled down my window, asked my son to pull my registration from the glove box, put my red wallet on the dashboard and told him to follow my lead. My six-foot, white-skinned son, who self-identifies as Puerto Rican Iranian, blanched. Hands on dash. Calm demeanor. Speak when spoken to. 

“License and registration.” The bearded white cop in jeans and flannel shirt commanded as he leaned near my window. I handed both to him as he scanned my car. Inwardly, I was grateful that I had cleared the back seat, usually cluttered with books and recyclable bags and bins with markers and a folding cart. They made it into the trunk this time.

This undercover cop showed me compassion. He saw me, a brown-skinned Latina middle-aged woman, evident on my license, with her son as people. 

“Ma’am, did you know that your registration expired? The sticker on your rear license plate is the wrong year. Normally, I’d ask you to step out of your vehicle and have your car towed. Then you’d have to find a different means to get home. However, because your record is clean, you have no driving violations and today is Veterans’ Day when the RMV is closed anyway, I’d advise you to drive home now and not drive your car until you get a new sticker. Is that clear?”

Shaheen and I became deeply relieved as we recounted our blessing and our fears on our drive home.

That same weekend, in West Springfield on Riverdale Road, not in West Springfield heading toward the Big E, where I sometimes shop at the Big Y, I learned via the news about a routine traffic stop that ended in inexcusable police violence. A police officer pulled over a Black mother with her Black son. Same infraction as I had. This police officer allegedly escalated the situation by demanding that the mother step out of her car. When she requested that she park in a safer part of Riverdale Road with its zipping two lanes of traffic, he received her request as resistance. He forced her physically out of the car as her son watched horrified, slammed her to the ground and cuffed her. According to the woman, she and her son waited for her car to be towed. Then the police officer uncuffed her. Gave her a ticket. Errands interrupted, they had to find a way home.

When I shared this with Shaheen, he became puzzled and angry because the inexcusable approach didn’t make sense to him. I raised him to be aware of his privileges. In public spaces, perceptions of him are as a white male, the accepted mainstream standard. This before anyone asks him his name or his origins. Sometimes something shifts in the asker, sometimes, not.

What I asked of him then is what I will ask the open-minded whites of action in my spheres of influence in 2020: What are YOU doing on a regular basis to call out, interrupt and change racist behaviors in your spheres of influence? What are YOU doing on a regular basis when I’m not around or when Blacks, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC) are not around?

Born in Manatí, Puerto Rico, raised in Springfield (MA), and educated at Colby (BA), Tufts (MA) and Harvard (ABD) in German, her third language, María Luisa Arroyo Cruzado is a multilingual poet and intersectional feminist educator. Her latest chapbook, Destierro Means More than Exile, is a tribute to thirty-two women poets who inspire her as a poet and educator. A Solstice MFA graduate in poetry and Assistant Professor of Writing and First-Year Studies at Bay Path University, María Luisa enjoys teaching students to harness the power of their writing.

Comments
  1. Robert Lorsch on

    Thank you for this essay about how you experience your presence in these different situations. Congratulations on it being accepted for publication in Solstice. I appreciate being able to learn through your eyes. I strive to do what I can against racism each day. Your conversations with your son about his experiences are also important and revealing due his varied appearance. Peace.

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