Not long ago, my wife Helms and I were having one of those mornings where nothing is going quite right. We were late for everything, we weren’t getting things done, and to top it off, we had forgotten to grab our lunches from home in our haste to get out the door. As lunchtime approached, Helms expressed that on this particular day, food was not optional. There would be no unexpected fasting. So I ran out quickly to the nearby sandwich and coffee shop to grab a sandwich for her and a cup of coffee for myself. In keeping with the trend of the day, I ran out with the sandwich and left the full cup of coffee on the counter by mistake.
I did not figure this out for some time. Hungry and irritated, I stopped back in the shop on the way out to a meeting an hour or so later. I briefly explained to the greeter what had happened.
“I believe you,” she said. “Go ahead and get another cup.”
I believe you? Her words struck me as odd. See, I didn’t know that there was a choice. Of course she believed me. Who wouldn’t? I was not expecting a judgment on the truthfulness of my statement. I just wanted to know whether my mistake was correctable. When I entered, the best case scenario for me was to grab a fresh cup and run right back out. I was prepared for a statement about a store policy, or for being asked to produce the receipt, which I could not do. I would have accepted those responses and left without making a fuss. But the young lady caught me by surprise. She named the unspoken assumption that I had about myself, and that I assumed she had about me as well. She said she believed me, which forced me to think about the other side of the equation: she could have not believed me. From my social location, this never really struck me as a possibility.
My neighbor Joe came in the house later that day, and he was a little upset. Earlier in the day, he and his roommate had been in the nearby grocery store. It is one of those clearance-item, dented-can, low-cost stores in a run-down strip mall. But even a bare bones, no-frills store in our neighborhood hires a security guard who mostly stands at the door counting the hours go by. Not on this day, though. On this day, the security guard followed Joe and his roommate through the store, always re-appearing a few steps away, keeping an eye on them suspiciously. Joe began to feel very uncomfortable, and then he grew angry and felt the urge to get out and never return. Joe recognized those feelings because he had felt them before. He had felt them before because this happens to Joe with some regularity. This happens to Joe with some regularity because Joe is black. If asked, every single youth and adult in Enderly Park who stops in our houses of hospitality could recall an experience similar to Joe’s.
To be white in America, especially to be a middle-class white person in America, in part means that you can live, like me, with the illusion that everyone is always supposed to believe you. White parents – like me – do not have to teach their kids to be prepared for a suspicious merchant or to give a lesson on how to deal with a police officer or security guard. That is not the case for the moms and dads of Enderly Park. Joe’s grandma taught him that he is always to get a receipt from a store, and to keep it on him just in case there are questions. Joe’s mom had to help him deal with the shame and embarrassment of those suspicious eyes the first times he recognized them in a grocery store. Joe’s dad had to coach Joe through how to act when being questioned by police – what to answer, how to answer, and how not to talk oneself into trouble. These talks are a regular part of growing up in Enderly Park, and in other neighborhoods like it. The lessons they pass on have been learned the hard way.
We’ve learned in Charlotte again this week that the assumed guilt of neighbors whose skin tone is like Joe’s is not merely a matter of inconvenience – it can be a matter of life and death. A shattered illusion for me may or may not result in a second cup of coffee. Joe has no such illusions, and he knows that one wrong step could mean a shattered life.