Monday, July 15, 2013

As others see us...and Skittles...

Flickr: Ellie Strikes Weird
If only we could see ourselves as others see us!

With the benefit of hindsight, after I returned from living in England for two years, I had appearance.

Living in a country without much of a summer or a winter most years had given me a kind of haunted, Gothic pallor and a perpetual shiver, since I had lost all tolerance for extreme cold. I was thinner than I am now, with zero muscle tone given that my only exercise came from running and walking (I couldn't afford a gym).  I never found a place that I trusted to cut my hair when I was in the UK, so I had long, cascading, frizzy, Mary Pickford-style curls.

Most of my clothes came from thrift stores (cheap) or Top Shop (sometimes cheaper). I unfortunately don't have a photograph, but one of my typical ensembles consisted of a pair of purple bell bottoms, bright red sneakers, a t-shirt with a plunging neckline with a picture of Felix the Cat on it, a fuzzy, multicolored belly-bearing sweater, a toggle coat, a ginormous brown scarf, mittens--all topped off with an argyle knit beanie.  I guess this isn't very politically correct, but since I don't have a photograph, I have to say that the beanie looked like a crazy homeless person's hat.

To be honest--I looked like the love child of Tom Baker as Dr. Who and Rainbow Brite.

Flickr: Sterin

I had spent most of my time around 'creative' types, so the way I dressed seemed perfectly normal to me, even conservative, since I had no facial piercings, tattoos, or areas of exposed skull.

I also had a slight British accent which, to New Jersey ears, sounded extreme.

I worked at several jobs upon my return to the States, one of which involved tutoring students door-to-door and helping them write their college essays.  I quickly learned that teenagers are completely incapable of giving directions to people other than their friends, and got lost every. single. time I went to a new house.

I particularly dreaded one area: it was full of new developments, long and winding streets, had no street signs and or street lamps.  The concept behind the layout spoke very clearly: outsiders not wanted here.  Unless you know exactly where you were going, you would get lost.

But I was poor and quite in demand, so I toughed it out.  I still remember one terrifying, cold night when I was so lost I didn't think I would be able to get home, much less find my destination.  The kid on the phone was no help (of course) so I pulled into a development (no strip malls or gas stations anywhere, either) and knocked on a door for assistance.

The door opened a crack, revealing a terrified, baggy eyelid.  I explained to the elderly eyeball that I was lost and did she know where x, y, and z was?  Suddenly, the door clicked shut.  I heard screaming as she apparently was calling for her husband and also saying something about the police.

I wasn't sure if I should stand there or leave, what would be worse. Eventually, she produced her elderly husband.  He scolded her for being overly paranoid.  "You can't be too careful," she kept saying as he gave me directions, sometimes sounding apologetic other times sounding as if I had provoked her.

Anyway, the man pointed me in the right way and I found my way to my job.  Fortunately, he was sensible.

Even without the dynamic of race, any one of us can seem a threat, if perceived under the wrong circumstances.  Too big, too male, too eccentric, too young, too punk, too northern, too much of an outsider.  Too much of simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Add race, and of course, the ability to judge another person realistically as a threat becomes even more difficult.

It's very easy to stumble into someone's fantasy or nightmare and to find yourself an unwitting pawn or player in their drama: suddenly you realize you are no longer 'you,' instead you are 'the thug' or the 'crazy girl on drugs' and the person you are speaking to sees herself, as in my case, as 'the terrorized homeowner' or 'the avenger.'

Sometimes when I go running early in the morning through a nice neighborhood I am acutely aware of the fact that my whiteness, my femaleness, my middle-ageness, and my dorky florescent shoes and running gear shield me and protect me from a call to the police--or something worse.  Because at least the police receive some training in how to separate their gut instincts from reality, when evaluating a threat.

When I was a pale teen in a black t-shirt and wandered to get food late at night and sat on the swings of a local playground to drink my Diet Coke and eat my Hostess cupcakes, sometimes people would stop and they'd ask if I was supposed to be there...not in a nice way...but it never went any further...

I discarded the hat and the coat into a charity bin soon after that night and as much as I hate to bend to the whims of society, I try to at least look somewhat professional, respectable, and 'New Jersey' nowadays.   But even if Trayvon Martin had lived, he could never feel 100 percent safe going out to get Skittles and ice tea late at night, even if he threw away his hoodie in the garbage and never looked back.  He'd always have to be watching his back.


  1. I think of "dressing professionally" as "cloaking" - like wearing a mask or costume to avoid undue notice. But there is not much one can do to cloak the color of one's skin.

  2. @bittenbyknittin--when I dress professionally, it is very much a disguise! And yes, very true about 'the color of one's skin.'

  3. I've been "othered" based on race (by both Asians and whites), not in the sense that I was considered a threat nor so much that I ever felt like I was in physical danger, but enough to know that alienation leads to anger. I've heard people say the Trayvon Martin case at least is getting people to talk about race honestly, but so far I'm still waiting for that to begin. I believe Zimmerman is a dangerous man whose actions were almost entirely predicated on race and who should not be free, much less free with a gun, but I also think the issues raised by the case are more complicated than people are comfortable discussing. So instead, people will just continue to take sides and scream at each other. Post-racial America: same as it ever was.

  4. @flurrious--agreed on both counts :(