It was broad daylight. I was headed from a meeting at a local coffee shop and decided to take the alleyway behind my office back to work. I had walked that road a million times without incident, but today my gut was telling me something different. I tell women all the time that they should listen to their instincts. I don't always take my own advice. As I approached the alleyway, I saw two men walking towards me. They happened to be African-American. At that precise moment an epic internal battle erupted in my head. You are NOT turning around and walking the other way. You are NOT perpetuating every stereotype about black men in dark alleyways. You are NOT going to let on to these men that you are approaching them with unfounded, media-induced fear. You are NOT going to clutch on to your handbag. But, you are going to subtly take your cell phone out of it and hold it in your hands.....just in case. The funny thing is, if these men were white, and hadn't been subjected to centuries of racial profiling and stigmatizing, I would've turned the other way, guilt-free, within seconds.
And so, with a confident smile, I began walking towards my office, and towards the two men. I smile and say hello. You know, the kind of hello that we, as women have been trained to say, so that we don't get ourselves in "trouble". The kind of hello that is devoid of any hint of flirtation, sexuality, but exudes matter-of-fact professionalism, and has that huge unspoken, invisible, wall of protection built all around it. You know, the kind of hello that someone conducting a job interview would say. And that's when it started. 60 seconds of pure, non-stop racial epithets.
Ching, chong, chang.
Me love you long time.
Show me your ninja moves.
They seemed to like those last three a lot.
So for some reason, at that moment, I wasn't scared. I actually paused, wanting more than ever to have a conversation with these men, who were probably just misinformed, lacking experience being around "my kind". I played it all out in my head. I would say, "Gentlemen, my name is Mae and I work right over here in this community, in this neighborhood. Do you live around here? You know, I'm not really Hawaiian, or Japanese, or Chinese and those words can be pretty hurtful." I wanted to use this opportunity to perhaps, break down racial and cultural divides, maybe even foster community relationships with the residents who surround my office. And just as I was about to extend my hand with a conciliatory handshake, this French video popped into my head. The piece is a brilliant depiction of a world where gender roles are reversed and women hold all the power. I had just watched it two days earlier. The one scene in particular that I just couldn't get out of my mind was a scene when the oppressed male spoke up to his street harassers, and was violently sexual assaulted in a dark alleyway.
And so I remained silent. And walked on by them, even as the racial taunting continued the entire time, until the two men were clear down the street. I knew in my heart that I was missing a rare opportunity to dialog, to repair and reconnect with people outside my race. But my desire to break down racial barriers was silenced, reluctantly quelled, because my vulnerability as a lone woman, in a quiet alleyway, in the presence of aggressive men, trumped everything. I had to choose not to provoke. I had to choose not to "ask for it". Like so many of the women that I work with every single day, I had to choose silence, so that I could walk away with only a bruised soul.