I thought of what I would do if he pulled the trigger. In the time it took him, seconds, to raise the plastic, orange gun from his side and point it at my chest, I considered my options.
In nature, matters of survival are dictated by only two choices: fight or flight.
The first year of my PhD officially done with, I decided to clean. There were undoubtedly, more celebratory options: 1) to go out and have a few drinks or, 2) to immediately leave this place and go home to Los Angeles. At thirty-five years old though, both come with costs. Drinking while brown in a red state is not a safe practice. I know this because of my problems with drinking—I can be an angry drunk—and because of who I might encounter at the bar. Over the years I’ve worked to control my drinking, control my anger. What I don’t have control over are racist comments or conversations. If I engage, my patronage as a customer (no matter how much I spend or how much I tip) holds less value than someone else’s unease with my presence. Traveling, the safer option of the two, takes its toll on the wallet. Leaving, as badly as I’ve wanted to throughout my first year, offers only a temporary reprieve. I can’t afford to do either.
Instead, I washed dishes. Cleaned the stove top and wiped the counters. Swept and mopped the floor, vacuumed the apartment, and stepped out to discard the trash. Outside, when I turned around from the trash bins, there he was in front of me. A child with a gun in his hand: a neon orange revolver with a gray handle. The gun loaded.
I’ve had a gun pointed at me before. In this moment, there is a certain sense of familiarity: the first time I hold a gun I am five years old; the first time I have a gun pointed at me I am seventeen.
I’ve rarely felt safe since moving to Nebraska. If I do feel safe, when I do, it’s a fleeting sensation. It comes and goes as easily as the weather; it’s in constant flux.
At a red light, a convertible with four men pulls up beside us: we are four boys on our way home. The men begin yelling; one stands to flash signs. He reaches back down into the seat beside him and stands again. Before we see a gun, before it’s pointed in our direction, my friend runs the red light and loses them up the street.
This is what happened: a seven-year-old white boy pointed a gun at me. A toy, but a gun nonetheless. Here, a white boy in a red state in a white country—where for more years than I have been alive men of color have been killed for less than this, nothing more, nothing other than walking out of their home, down the street, thinking about tomorrow, only to have tomorrow and every day after, taken away from them—deliberately and confidently, he raised a gun to my body.
In his essay, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” Baldwin writes “All safety is an illusion.” Every time I’ve read this, with this point and this point only, I’ve struggled. So much of my experience in Los Angeles by the very nature of living in communities of color, made me feel safe. I felt protected. At home in LA there was a constant presence: hip hop playing loudly on the radio of a passing car, hearing Spanish or Tagalog spoken while walking through grocery aisles, seeing people of color consistently and constantly interacting and living in community.
The comfort of diversity never negated my understanding of both the historical and contemporary manifestations of racism. I’m aware of the ways in which segregation, gerrymandering, exclusionary real estate practices, subpar educational systems, police practices, eminent domain, manifest destiny, urban renewal and gentrification have been wielded against people of color to regulate, manipulate, erase, exile, imprison and execute us. I, we, all of us living in communities of color are under constant scrutiny and surveillance. Communities of color are always being watched: by camera or by clerk, by developer or police officer, by police and news choppers cutting through the night sky, their searchlights flushing people of color out of their communities like prey.
In Los Angeles, where there were more of us to surveil there was in response more surveillance. Despite this reality, I felt less surveilled. Possibly, wherein lies the illusion, the presence of people of color served as a reminder of survival. I was always reminded of the ways in which people of color, and by extension, communities of color have survived and continue to survive.
Here in Nebraska, it’s quite the opposite experience. Because there are fewer of people of color to “surveil” there is less surveillance. This is complicated by the fact that white people are not surveilled in the same ways as people of color. Suspect, a word used as part of the police lexicon is imbued with racist meaning and intention. It justifies profiling and detaining, it justifies interrogation and arrest. Ultimately, it justifies violence against people of color and their deaths.
In a red state, the feeling of being watched is amplified. There is no reprieve or safe space. I am under constant scrutiny and surveillance. I am always under the gaze of others. What that means for me, as a brown man, as a Chicano, is that I am forever suspect, considered criminal, deemed dangerous. There is no going home here. There is no turning the corner and being embraced by those who understand and empathize. Consequently, I am always and forever in danger.
Soft words. Soft words. I could have kneeled in front of him. Could have told him that it was dangerous to point a gun at a stranger. Used soft words to make him understand.
Cars slow when they pass. Heads turn behind glass. When I’ve dropped off rent at my landlord’s home, on more than one occasion a car has slowed or stopped to watch me. I look back. I stare. These are the few moments I make eye contact. I want them to know I see them staring. I want to implicate them in their suspicion. I want them to know that I know they stare because I am a brown man in a white neighborhood.
Luckily, my apartment faces east and west because north of my apartment, across the street, in front of yellow craftsman home there flies a confederate flag from the front porch. Every morning, when I leave for campus, pulling out the stretch of my driveway, I see it as I leave home. It flies, every day, across the street from me: a constant reminder. I try not to look because I take notice of the small ways my body reacts. As a man of color in a red state, there is not enough room for my anger. Instead I try to forget, ignore, avoid—the strategies of powerlessness. Most often, I fail. I look right at it. Stare right at the stars and stripes, notice the way it undulates in the constant breeze of a Nebraska spring because by ignoring the racism, I ignore myself. My own body.
At the stop sign, the car in front of me doesn’t move. I honk. Slowly, it moves forward. I circle the block to find parking. The car pulls up beside me. We exchange words. The driver tells me, I’m lucky. If he had had his gun he’d blast me. Before driving away, he threatens he’ll catch me later.
It sits with me. I swallow and swallow each moment, like stones. They weigh. In Los Angeles, it was easier to respond. To lash out, to speak up, to yell and curse, to demonstrate my anger and then turn the corner and forget what had just happened. I could let go. But here, my anger lingers. I can feel my jaw clench and my teeth grind. I can feel my grip on the wheel grow a little tighter. My anger is like cud I chew again and again. It tastes of bile.
I imagine crossing the street late at night: I walk directly across the front lawn, past the home-made memorial to someone who has passed, climb the few stairs to their porch and pull the flag from its pole. Or, I burn it where it hangs. I watch it flame and slowly turn to white ash.
I figure someone will come out the house asking in the dark of the night, who’s out there? A weapon cradled in their arms. This is not about courage. That it is not about how brave or not brave I am as a person. Something tells me the consequences are not worth it. I could easily, and justifiably be a dead brown man bleeding on someone’s well-manicured lawn and no one would be the wiser. The flag still flying above my already-cooling body.
Even if the act of violence never occurs, the potential for or possibility of it happening is a constant reality. It is a survival mechanism.
I could have snatched the gun from his hand. Ripped it from his grip and maybe smacked him. Watched him as he waddled home, his face red. Crying.
I came to Nebraska to study. To study, I am required to teach. However, as a graduate teaching assistant of color, the costs of studying and teaching in Nebraska are inevitably greater. In the classroom, I am expected to teach about race and racism and examine the ways in which, using critical pedagogy, students can explore both the theories and praxis of antiracism. But on a mostly white campus, my body is put on the line. Not all, but many of my students are resistant and reject these ideas, as does much of the country. White people want to believe racism doesn’t exist: rather than teaching about antiracism, I must first prove to a class of mostly middle-class white students–who have little to no personal experience with race or of racism–that racism exists. But their denial of racism is also the erasure of my experience in the world. Unintentionally and unconsciously as I seek to deliver “proof,” I am also erasing my body and my experience from the classroom because my experience as a person of color, as an instructor of color is not enough. It is never enough. I am not an authority. I am not a professional. I am not a middle class, heterosexual, white man whose very word is evidence enough to be deemed true. My experience, my voice, my body, my word is suspect to them. Unlike on the street where I must prove my innocence, in the classroom I must consistently prove my worth as an instructor and intellectual, beyond and outside of my body which serves as a constant disqualifier.
I walk back to campus, groceries in both my hands. I see four young boys running after another boy. One extends his arm. Gunshots echo up the boulevard. I watch them turn back, the gun now pointed in my direction. Shots pop off behind me as I run off through a side street. Their footsteps behind me, giving chase.
To greet is a must in my family. Saludar. Walking through the door it’s expected that we greet everyone in the room with a kiss and a hug, or a handshake, depending on the company. It’s a sign of respect. As a young boy, the youngest of four, my world of make believe was relegated to battle, figurines made into forces of good versus evil and what determined the victor was not strategy, not size, but which side could inflict the most harm against the other. Weaponry determined who won. The person with the smallest arsenal lost. What was also true, always, was that GI Joe had no children. Hans Solo wasn’t interested in Princess Leia. Love and care and family were not part of the imaginative narrative.
Often, when I would go to my brothers’ homes, before greeting me, my nephews would point a weapon at me: a toy knife, a sword, a mini revolver with the quintessential red tip to distinguish it from a real gun. It became common practice to brandish or wield a weapon. And it bothered me.
This is nothing new. This is what boys do with the weapons they are given. What particularly worries me about my nephews brandishing weapons is that already, at such a young age, they have succumbed to violence as a way to solve problems. However, the larger problem is that for little boys of color, even play poses potential danger. In their front lawns or backyards, at the park or on the street, brandishing a weapon, plastic or otherwise, is one of the first ways in which boys of color will be criminalized and seen as harbingers of violence.
I sit my nephews down. Ask them to hug and kiss me. I tell them that I love them and that I expect them to put their weapons away. As important as this is—a small intervention—I know this won’t save them.
I should have walked the boy to his house. I should have spoken to his parents. I should have told them what he had done.
Though I don’t know and don’t care to prove it, I suspect the boy lives across the street. I suspect it’s his parents who proudly fly the confederate flag outside their home.
In elementary school, after being chastised, after being picked to read, after being given detention Anthony would quip, It’s cause I’m Mexican, huh? All of us would laugh. It became a moment of humor in an otherwise often boring day doing lesson after lesson when all I wanted to do was go outside and play or read alone in a corner of the classroom.
As the year progressed, it became less and less funny. As much as I was familiar with the idea of racism, as much as one can be in the fifth grade, I “knew” that not everything was associated with race. Yes, certain things were. No, other things were not. I was certain then of my certainty. The police officers who would often stop us and harass us about our bikes or scooters and curse at us, a group of young children, were racist. Ms. Matsu, who struggled to get control of the classroom and who often cried in class because she was frustrated was not racist.
But what Anthony articulated, even in the fifth grade, would become a reality. A pelon, chubby, with cholo shorts and black hooded zip-up sweaters, Anthony was making sense of his reality, despite how I, a chubby Chicano who lived across the street from his family, differed in opinion. But this would later become a reality for me, a man of color. I find myself now, in conversation, after a microaggression, questioning whether what has just happened results from the color of my skin. It’s an infuriating process because it lends to a perpetual denial of my own experience. The fact that I don’t have the credibility and authority to determine the answer lends itself to a lack of surety. It drives me crazy. Being here alone, with few other students of color, it’s difficult to articulate how these occurrences drain me and often, despite my best efforts, cannot be explained to my white colleagues.
Powerlessness feels like a perpetual shoulda, woulda, coulda. I make up all the narratives of what I should have said, would have done, could have done to remedy the situation I find myself in.
I rarely, when walking on campus or on the street, if ever, make eye contact with white folks. Women especially. This is how I maintain the façade of safety. If I ignore and don’t acknowledge their presence, there is less likelihood I can be accused of something, anything. If I don’t acknowledge their gaze I cannot be considered a predator, a suspect.
It’s simple to dismiss acts of violence against men of color as them having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But this is always the case. The potential for violence exists always in a singular moment. Often what people don’t understand is that for people of color, men of color especially, this singular moments exists in perpetuity. It exists, as the oldie would suggest, forever and always. It’s said that the average American is just one paycheck away from being homeless. The average man of color, similarly, is just one moment, one incident, one conversation away from either being the victim of violence or accused of inflicting violence. This reality, though it may never take place, always and forever dictates and dominates my behavior and my mental landscape. It is the way I exist in and maneuver through the world. My students here often remark during conversations about race and racism that things are better. Better for who? I ask myself. Better how? As much as I’d like to believe it, I don’t.