I Naively Thought NYC Was A Safe Space Until A White Man Asked Me If Anyone In My Family Died For This Country
Saturday afternoon my friend and I went to brunch to catch up on life and the conversation, as most conversations do these days, inevitably landed on Donald Trump and the mess he’s made of American people’s lives. Born in the Philippines and raised in the south, my friend told me how she’d applied for citizenship last year and never heard back about her application. When she went to the office to check in, she was told she “missed” the interview appointment she was supposed to show up for in May and when she told the clerk she never received a notice about it she was told that had happened to a lot of people. As a result of this scenario and many other observations, we agreed on a few things: (1) that’s suspicious; (2) it’s smart of her not to travel outside of the country — not even to go on a honeymoon — until she’s a citizen; and (3) thank God we live in a liberal location like New York City under Trump’s leadership.
Fast forward to Saturday night when we popped into a bar for a quick drink before parting ways. The place was relatively empty and, save for delivering orders to the bartender, we kept to ourselves. Nearly two hours later, two white gentlemen grabbed seats at the bar across from us and at one point one of them asked what neighborhood we live in. My friend told him Lenox Hill and he reacted with tangible joy that she used the official name for the area that some are apparently attempting to lump into the lower, Upper East Side. An ironic moment now, considering the conversation that followed and white people’s propensity to rename various parts of New York City as part of their overarching gentrification crusade.
A little while later, the same man asked us “where the boys are?,” referring to our being alone. I let him know my friend’s boy, aka husband, was at home. You could hear the disappointment when he asked “She’s married?” in response and I asked why neither gentlemen, who appeared to be in their 50s, weren’t married. They feigned something about a bachelor lifestyle and I went back to minding my business, until I couldn’t.
“Let me ask you something,” the same inquisitor said, inching closer to our shared corner of the bar. “How do you feel about this whole kneeling thing?” Before I could even formulate a response in my mind, my friend swooped in with a level of intuition I hope to develop as I get older, and shut down the conversation, telling him we were there to have a good time and chat with each other and if he was trying to start something he could keep that sh-t on the other side of the bar. I, on the other hand, wasn’t so quick to dismiss him. In fact, I thought my friend was being a little hasty, so I threw the question back at him, “What do you think about kneeling during the anthem?”
Had I not had on my rose-colored liberal New Yorker glasses, I would’ve expected his response, which was like that of man other white men across this country: It’s disrespectful to the flag. I asked something along the lines of what’s so special about the flag that it’s more important than the message people are trying to send kneeling. He asked me if I knew anybody who fought for this country. I let him know that I did — my grandfather, great great great grandfather and countless uncles. At this point, my friend was irate and asked that he stop speaking to us. Her use of the f-word prompted the bartender, who was Indian, to ask us to stop talking about politics at the bar and to keep it down because there were families in the back. She let him know that he needed to direct that message to the man who’d initiated the conversation in the first place with his divisive line of questioning. Meanwhile the white man dismissed her and said he wasn’t even talking to her, he was asking me these questions. Me, the Black girl who should’ve known he didn’t broach the subject with the goal of being an ally.
The back and forth continued for a moment or two as the white man accused me of making this a “race thing.” I kindly reminded him who started this whole kneeling thing and why. My friend walked out of the bar and I was happy to leave behind her until I heard the white man ask, “Has anyone in your family died for this country?” I stood up, put on my jacket, and proceeded to educate him on how all of my ancestors died for this country, starting with the native Americans Europeans came over here, slaughtered and stole land from, followed up with the Africans that were brought here to build this country and, again, slaughtered. The difference, I told him, is that when these people died, their deaths were for everybody. The white men he’s so proud of didn’t die for this country, they died for other white people so you all could maintain your privilege.
The privilege, I responded, that made you think it was okay to ask a Black woman minding her damn business in a bar how she feels about Black people standing up for their rights on the football field and then take issue with the fact that people of color in this country want to have the same freedom as you. At this point, a white woman in the bar came up to me and attempted to coddle me by telling me I’m better than him. I didn’t acknowledge her presence. I simply turned around, walked out of the bar, and found my friend crying on the sidewalk.
While I thought she was going hard for me, and by extension her Black husband, when she became so irate at the man’s line of questioning, I neglected to realize the can of worms his words had opened. All of her fears about her citizenship status and inability to move freely outside of this country and the obvious struggle of navigating within it it as a brown woman all came to the surface. When the bartender asked us to leave, she thought about the potential of police being called and what might happen if they showed up and attempted to arrest us because, like often happens, in defending ourselves, we became the villains and the white man the victim. “I can’t get arrested,” she cried in my arms. “I’m not a citizen.”
We walked the nine blocks to her house as I attempted to calm her down. “Why did he have to bother us?” she asked. All I could tell her is that’s what white people do. I also told her she should be proud of herself, because she could smell the bullsh-t coming from a mile away, while I naively thought I was going to engage in some sort of life-changing discourse. This, I said to myself, is a reminder of why I don’t readily engage white people who are, ironically, often the first to start conversations about race and then subsequently feel uncomfortable when the complexities of race and racism hit too close to home. I applaud people of color who have made it their mission to educate such people, but I can’t do it.
This is the third time within two months that white (or white passing) men have inserted themselves into my life when I’ve been out with other women of color and I’m tired of allowing them to take up space, both physically and mentally. Several times throughout the course of my interaction with the man at the bar I asked him, “What was your motivation for bringing up this topic with me?” Not once did he provide an answer. Again, I surmised, that’s just what white people do.