My friend, a white woman, invited me to a luncheon to learn more about Christian youth camps. The luncheon was at a franchise Italian restaurant, and my tummy stays ready for pasta. Anytime I am invited out by a white friend, I immediately scan the space to see if I am going to be “on my own”, meaning that I check if any other black women or women of color would be in attendance.
When I arrived a black woman greeted me and another at the check-in table. OK, not a guest, but at least I’m not the only, per se, I thought. It may seem strange to some people that I do that, but it is a survival tactic passed down by my parents, who probably learned it from their parents. If any ‘ish goes down, you want to know that someone with “black experience” has your back. With me being the only black guest in a room of more than 50 women, I said a short prayer that my white friend could handle the pressure in the event of any ‘ish.
I took my seat and began chatting with women at my table. Once my friend arrived, we did a brief catchup with one another while the appetizers and entrees came around. I made a quick stop at the bathroom between courses. When I came back my appetizer dish and utensils were not picked up by the serving staff, and the entrees were being served. Well, maybe it was overlooked, I thought. Again, I scanned the room. Yup, the only one in the entire room not picked up.
It is in these types of small seemingly incidental moments that I start a stressful inner dialogue. Is this on purpose? Is it an accident? Ok, just be calm. Go with the latter. Oh, that’s our server. The tall, white man who is doing a great job of avoiding eye contact with me. Alrighty then.
Main course of microaggression
I took my seat and started in on the entree. My appetizer dish crowding my space. The presentation began while many of us were still eating lunch. However, I had finished. Others at my table finished along with me. I tried to pay attention to the youth camp information, but at this point, I was trying to prove to myself I was not crazy. The staff began clearing for dessert. Once again, my entree dish and utensils were ignored. So, I did another glance around. Only mine.
My friend leaned over to me and said something about how they had not cleared my place setting. My eyes went narrow, the corners of my lips pulled straight back, and my jaw clenched. “Mhmm, yeah, it is very strange.”
Special treatment dessert
Dessert. A different server was placing the cake. This Latino man could not set mine in front of me because there was no room, so instead he set it off to the side near the edge of the table. I was not facing him, but could see him in my right peripheral view. Seeing that I was not directly looking at him, my friend spoke up. “Excuse me,” she said in a loud whisper. “She is done.” The plates were removed. I turned my neck to face both of them after her whisper. I quietly told her thank you and began to eat the dessert. I wondered if she was picking up on my “special treatment”.
What’s dessert without coffee and tea, especially after a heavy pasta meal. The extra caffeine is a must. The serving staff came back again with the hot water and coffee kettles. The white man was back. He started to my right asking my friend and the guest on her right if they would like coffee. Then, he walked past me to the other side of the table and began asking them. Receiving a request for hot tea, he left to get water. Upon his return, I spoke up and said, “I would like coffee, please.” He barely connected to my face. He came around to my setting and poured in such a way that a few drops spilled on the tablecloth. No one else, at least at my table, experienced a pour like that from him.
Clear the space
At this point, I no longer needed to prove anything to myself. I had experienced this type of racist microaggression throughout my life. Same racism, different day. Now, my inner dialogue was toiling over whether or not to talk about this “special treatment” with my white friend. She had a front seat to the ordeal. The questions are always the same when deciding whether or not to speak up. How would she react? Would she be empathetic? Would she dismiss my feelings? That day I did not have it in me mentally or emotionally for the possibility of another ordeal. This free lunch cost me my sense of safety and my peace of mind. I still had more work hours ahead of me and an evening of momming after that. As much as I needed my friend in that moment, I chose to wait until I could speak with one of my black friends who I knew would just get it.
As women, when it comes to our gender, we have an intuitive ability to hold safe space for each other. Audre Lorde, writer, librarian, and activist said, “For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.”
When choosing to make friends with women of color, personally acknowledge that your nonwhite friend needs you to nurture her. We need to know you are safe space when it comes to issues of race. That you will reciprocate our vulnerability with trust, empathy, and visibility. That you will empower our power.