Every day, I interact with men and women who have the economic privilege of spending an average of $45 on a lipstick.
I work at a chain store that retails luxury cosmetics. To be honest, I don’t walk into my job expecting to discuss social justice issues. Frequently I refrain from holding these conversations with my clients. It makes daily life simpler for people like me – women of color who find it difficult to keep from contributing to dialogues surrounding race.
The golden rule? Shut it, and keep moving. Staying out of it means staying out of trouble. Just because the topic you want to talk about involves your own marginalization, doesn’t mean you won’t end up hurting white feelings in the process. And there’s nothing worse than being a person of color with white tears on your hands. Trust me.
It was Black Friday and the mall was packed.
My shift was ending. I couldn’t wait to get out and join some friends at a rally for Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African American male who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The day of the rally was set to Black Friday in an effort to disrupt shoppers and divert their attention to the on going reign of police brutality against young black males in this country.
“HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT! HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT! HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT!”
The protest had already reached the mall of the store I worked in. Protesters swarmed the escalators and ground level of the building, thundering in unison. I couldn’t wait to be able to get out there.
All the while, I had been assisting an older white woman. Her basket was full of gift sets and she was ready to check out. We had been conversing throughout her time in the store in the store. It was small talk, really. She now knew my go-to nude lip and the movie I saw with my friends last week.
I was stunned by the sharp turn our conversation took as the chanting grew louder and louder.
“I don’t – I just don’t know. It’s offensive, really. I – I think these people should just get over it,” she said. “You can’t just decide to make a big deal about one death. You know what I mean? You do know what I mean, right? It’s so offensive.”
At that point she was leaning in and whispering very close to my face. Did she just say offensive? Did she really want to know if I knew what she meant? Really? Really.
It’s moments like these that throw me into one recurring thought that I can never say out loud:
“You’re talking to the wrong freaking person.”
But I obviously didn’t say that.
I’m an Indian American Muslim woman. Race is an interesting theme in my life. I encounter people that carry bizarre assumptions about my values based on how I look. I am a non-black ally with passionate views on racial inequality. Assumptions based on how I look – non-black, brown woman from a ‘model minority’ – these assumptions are almost always wrong.
I still couldn’t believe she said that. I didn’t make eye contact and continued my robotic motions of wrapping her gift sets. I burned beneath my skin, half-shocked she had said what she did, half-angry I couldn’t respond.
Some say there are certain conversations not meant for the workplace. It’s true, talk about religion and politics ruins dinner parties – a particular hobby of mine – and sometimes, the less you know about other people’s politics, the easier it is to work with them.
But in suppressing these conversations, the voices of countless women of color are hushed. These issues are not just close to us, they are undeniably a part of our identity as well as our daily existence. Excluding these conversations from the workplace means excluding how we identify, what we experience, and what we value.
And even if superiors allowed inclusive conversations in the workplace, white privilege people of color to tip-toe around such topics. Listening to white people’s politics while remaining silent about my own out of fear is an absurd reality.
And if the truth about anything is told, suddenly I become responsible for white tears and white feelings. Some magical occurrence undermines my own struggle in the face of someone else’s hypersensitivity. Somehow now the value of a teenage boy’s life is worth little in comparison to the potential hurt feelings I might cause simply by bringing it up.
I am a brown woman tired of apologizing for discussing the marginalization of black and brown people. It’s not my job to handle white feelings after pointing out white privilege. White tears are not my responsibility.