Claiming My Dignity On A San Fernando Valley Street
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By Sybil M. Azur
I'm a Black, biracial married mom in my 40s. I am not a threat. But a couple of weeks ago, somebody made me feel like one.
I was two blocks away from my home in an upper-middle-class Sherman Oaks neighborhood passing out flyers, raising awareness about an upcoming election.
I had paused on one side of the street to post on social media, standing adjacent to an unassuming house in front of a wall of hedges. Just then, a white, blonde, middle-aged woman pushing a questionably small, pink stroller caught my attention as she came near.
I smiled behind my mask and asked, "Is there a baby or a dog in there?"
"A dog," she answered cautiously, as she disappeared down her driveway.
A few seconds later, she appeared again.
"Are you waiting for someone?" she probed.
And before I could stop myself, a river of qualifiers rushed out of my mouth.
"No." I should have stopped there. But I didn't.
"I'm passing out flyers to spread the word about a local election to elect delegates to the California Democratic Party, and I'm dropping flyers at houses with Biden signs," I explained. " It's a small election that not a lot of people know about. So I'm just spreading the word."
Just then, her pint-sized Maltese pup popped its head out of the stroller.
"Oh! I used to have a Maltese," I said, brightly. "They're great dogs." What I really meant was, "I'm just like you. There's nothing to see here."
The woman sized me up one final time, apparently determining that I wasn't much of a threat after all.
"Well, good luck," she replied, her lips tight with judgement.
"Thanks." I smiled again from behind my mask, watching her retreat behind her property line.
I published my social media post, put my phone in my fanny pack, and continued on my way.
Armed with only a stack of glossy flyers and a pink marker, I started to feel like I'd been assaulted. That unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach began to grow. Was I overreacting? Or were my Spidey senses, honed by a lifetime of microaggressions, right on target?
So I asked myself the question, the litmus test that never fails to reveal reality: Would she have left me alone if I were white?
What is most disturbing to me is that I answered so swiftly, so masterfully, code-switching to the whitest version of myself to prove that I had a right to be there, revealing just how colonized even the most enlightened of us are.
As I canvassed the neighborhood, I penned a kindly note on the back of each flyer, and placed them under doormats, careful to appear as benign as possible. "Happy New Year! Please request a ballot and vote. Your neighbor, Sybil."
But as I walked, the gnawing seed of discomfort in my belly blossomed into a flowering rage. Birkenstocks outta gas, my feet started to ache, as I rehashed the conversation in my head. Why did I feel the need to respond to her, so quickly, so completely, so gently?
"Are you waiting for someone?" What I should have said was just "No." Plain and simple. I was on city property, wearing a boho shirt, a mask and a sensible sweater. No. I'm not here to threaten you. No. I'm not here to swindle you.
And no, I don't need to answer your loaded question.
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The following day, I watched as the privilege of whiteness was on full display in the form of protestors, turned rioters, turned terrorists, forcing their way into the U.S. Capitol, most escaping with barely a scratch among them.
And the phrase came alive again. It began in my head, was affirmed by social media, and then trickled out of the mouths of journalists and pundits. "If those had been Black people ..." (Insert your own they-wouldn't-have-made-it-out-of-there-alive conclusion.).
In the months after the 2016 election, the neighborhood that was once my comfort zone suddenly felt less safe. I looked over my shoulder a little more, counted which of my friends would climb in the foxhole with me, and feared that the progress we had made had been erased overnight.
As a person of color who inhabits mostly white spaces most of the time, I'm adept at the type of understated vigilance it takes to occupy the double-consciousness necessary to be Black in this nation.
And just as W. E. B. DuBois wrote in 1897, the same remains true today: "...the Negro is ... born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world — a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others ..."
Ain't that the truth.
And no matter how evolved I am, how self-assured I am, there's always a moment, every day, sometimes every minute, that tries to put me back in my place.
In this case, an encounter with a woman pushing a dog in a pink stroller.
Since my interaction with the dog lady, I've pledged to prioritize my dignity. I don't owe it to anyone to make them feel safe, to perform my college degree, or display my in-group membership card.
I understand that this will take time, and that I must de-program a deeply embedded impulse to survive. But I also understand that rejecting this impulse won't always be possible.
Because ... America.
In the meantime, as this country grapples for ownership of its collective identity, may we all check our biases, mind our business, and let a Black Valley Girl go about her day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sybil Azur is a mother of two, writer and activist. She is a former professional dancer and actress, and produced and co-directed Pushing Motherhood, a documentary about later-in-life motherhood. Sybil is a volunteer for Climate Reality LA and co-led the team that succeeded in getting LAUSD to commit to transitioning to 100% clean, renewable energy. She is proud to be on the Board of Directors of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, a non-profit organization focused on the goal of racial equality.
She is currently earning a Screenwriting M.F.A. from Cal State Northridge.