My First Experience with Racism in New York
I grew up in northwest Florida, in a town called Navarre, just outside of Pensacola. There are neighborhoods there with red dirt roads. Some of my peers drove trucks with rebel flags attached to their antennas. If you scan through my senior yearbook, you’ll only see a few black faces sprinkled throughout the hundreds of thumbnail photos. In short, it’s the kind of place you’d expect to encounter racism in some form. But no, in all the years I lived in the Florida panhandle, I never experienced any outright instances of discrimination. Fast forward to present day in New York City, and racism is alive and well.
I live in the Financial District, home to the Stock Exchange and the Deutsche Bank. A 10-minute walk from One World Trade and the 9/11 Memorial. It’s an affluent area but not in the same sense as the Wall Street days. And I live in a nice building. It’s a luxury dwelling with grand golden chandeliers in the lobby, a fitness center and rooftop deck, and continental breakfast served Monday through Friday. There are some great amenities, and until this morning, living here has been mostly pleasant.
After finishing my morning workout, I was walking into the building via the revolving door. I saw another man rushing toward the door, moving at a much faster pace than I was. Once we were both inside the door, it jammed, presumably because he’d either hit his foot or smashed his bag in the door. Neither of those things had happened to me. He straightened himself out, and I walked out of the door, toward the elevator. A few seconds later, he came barreling toward me.
“You should probably apologize if you hit someone’s foot in the door. You fucking asshole!”
Immediately, there’s a lack of respect. For another second, I stood there, dumbfounded. Clearly, this guy was having a bad day and overreacting. I could get in the elevator and go to my apartment; just shake it off. Not be the angry black guy.
“I didn’t hit your foot, man. If I caused anything, I’d totally apologize.”
“Yes you did! The doorman saw everything! Fuck you!”
So no, I’m not going to let this go. I’m standing in the lobby of my building, in front of a couple other tenants that I don’t know. And this guy feels it’s appropriate to speak to me like I just broke his leg and walked away. It all feels a bit dramatic and unnecessary. So, I walk back to the front desk to speak to the doorman and try to find a resolution.
All the while, this guy is blabbing about how rude I am, and how much his foot hurts. “I don’t like this guy. He can’t get away with this.” He takes off his shoe and slides down his sock, for dramatic effect. There isn’t even a red mark. Not that it would matter though, because he hit himself.
When his stunt doesn’t elicit the response he wants from me, he starts to show his true colors. In a matter of a few minutes, he says the following:
“You probably voted for Hillary.”
“I make more than money than you.”
“What? Did you go to Howard or something?”
At this point, I’m resolved not to let this go, because this guy is one sentence away from saying the n-word. I stand up for myself. “This is so fucking unnecessary,” I say. “Don’t fucking talk to me that way. There’s no need to be a racist because you hurt yourself and you can’t take accountability for it. If you’re in such a big fucking hurry, why do you have so much time to stand here and cry like a little pussy?”
He keeps going. I keep going. At this point, though I know I didn’t hit his foot with the revolving door, it’s not even about that for me. References to Hillary (the presidential candidate that got the majority of the black vote), Howard University (a historically black college), and my salary are only things he was saying to me because I’m black. He was trying to imply that I was inferior. I was much taller than he was, and it was clear he wasn’t bold enough to get physical. So, he tried to provoke me in other, less intelligent and more malicious, ways. His tone, the look of disgust in his eyes, his whole demeanor communicated that he wanted to make an example of me; make me feel like I shouldn’t be there.
I called for one of the building managers to come down and insert himself. He came with reinforcement. Once they showed up, I explained to them what happened, and how things could’ve gone differently had this asshole showed at least an inkling of respect from the start. But I wasn’t going to be his punching bag for the day. I could care less how bad his day was going. He doesn’t get to insult my intelligence and make me feel like I don’t belong in my own building.
After he leaves, the building manager gives me a vote of confidence and admits that in a building of over 500 people, some of them are bound to be shitty people. He forgot to say racist.
So, here I am, a private college-educated, black entrepreneur, a husband, a son, living on Wall Street, and this person looked at me once and decided that I wasn’t worthy of respect, simply because I’m black. He didn’t have to use a racial slur. He showed how he felt from the beginning. And he continued to show it in the barrage of racially loaded comments he made throughout the interaction.
The initial issue was petty. In a city like New York, with over 9 million residents, you get bumped, pushed, brushed and God knows what else every day. And if you stopped to yell at every person who did any of those things to you, you’d never get anywhere. This man didn’t stop to yell at me because he was mad about his foot. He stopped because he felt he had an intellectual upper hand and he wanted to make a scene.
Should I have been the bigger person? I don’t think so. I think carefully about how I use my anger, because my temper gets out of control quickly, and I hate to be perceived as the angry black guy, always looking for a reason to be mad. But I decided to speak up.
I spoke up because I wanted this man to know that he can’t walk around insulting black people because he feels he’s superior. I spoke up because I have a right to feel that my building is a safe space. I spoke up because there are so many black people out there who don’t get to speak up when they encounter guys like him. You don’t get to discount me or make me feel less than today, tomorrow, or any other day.
So here I am, a black man who gets outraged about racism, in its small, big, and systemic forms, but that never really encountered the personal fury that a racist encounter can produce. Unfortunately, now I know how it feels. I’m speaking up, and I hope we all continue to speak up when people do the wrong thing. It’s the only way we’ll get anyone to do the right thing.