My Brothers’ Burden
I’m Egyptian. Over the years, people, places, and organizations have issued opinions and decrees on my race. Some, like the US Census, and most job applications, say I’m White. Others, Black. My fellow Brown people consider me one of their own. I identify as Arab-American, and Brown….and African, but I typically don’t mind what I’m labeled because it’s kind of a gray area and race/ethnicity is kind of fluid. What is not fluid though, is that I am a person of color, and I am not White.
Yesterday, someone identified me as Black.
I had just hopped on the New York City Subway with my wife after a long day frolicking about the city (in a socially-distanced fashion) and getting some sun. One-stop into our sojourn home, the doors parted for a visibly intoxicated, belligerent man. We had just said goodbye to my sister after having a few to-go drinks, and when he got on, I was in the middle of leaving her a voice note telling her how much fun we had. He was intimidating, and he muttered something while making eye contact with us as he bumbled by. My antennae kind of went up but I decided to continue with my voice note. As I spoke, I heard his voice rising with anger, concocting a bizarre slew of racial slurs that seemed to describe passengers on the car.
I ignored him, until I heard,
You better shut your mouth, I see you talking on the phone!
I abruptly ended the voice note and he almost instantly walked over to where my wife and I were sitting. He yelled at the top of his lungs and told me I better shut the fuck up, while calling me boy several times. He stopped talking, and stared me down. I held his gaze, one hand on my knee and the other gently holding my wife’s. He lunged forward, as if to assault us. He paused, and then lunged forward again. The second time he did it, I gently raised my hand, and with a tonality about as measured as Barack Obama’s, said, “hey, take it easy man.” He stalked off, calling me boy again, reminding me to keep my mouth shut, and legitimating the pain he could surely inflict on me with his membership in Hell’s Angels and time spent in prison. He got off at the next stop, and my wife gushed with emotion. I tried to play it cool, and wrote it off by describing the man as crazy; I told her I had been called all kinds of things by all kinds of people in my life.
But something felt different about this experience, particularly that I had been seen as a Black man at a moment when our nation is fervently stirring to a 400-year old system of legalized racism.
Later that night, I struggled to fall asleep. It was completely irrational but I kept imagining that man busting into our apartment at 4am, yelling the same things, beating me to death, and sexually assaulting my wife before killing her too. I anguished over those two moments of terror after both times he lunged at me, moments of eternal silence, where my heart raged like a caged beast from within, while I calmly continued to hold my wife’s hand, and steel myself without. I had felt a fearful willingness to resign myself in that split second of eternity to whatever was to happen next. It was a moment of purgatory that I had found myself in on account of leaving a voice note to my sister to tell her how much fun we had just had with her, within listening range of a drunk, belligerent, psychotic racist. It struck me the way I had concealed that sense of terror that I had never felt before by being completely motionlesss, by meeting this uncivilized, deranged being with fearless, yet nonchalant eyes. I was certainly being sized up for a fight but I also wanted my wife to feel like I had things under control. I had to appear strong, yet unaggressive, defiant, yet calm. The goal was to disengage.
But this was nothing. I thought of racially charged moments of terror throughout history and considered those eternal silences. The endless fear that Ahmaud Arbery felt in the seconds he spent on the other end of Travis McMichael’s gun before he shot and killed him. Or the endless pit of terror Breonna Taylor felt in the split second when police officers executed a no-knock warrant with a battering ram that smashed her door open. Or George Floyd somewhere during 5th or 6th minute, when he realized he may actually be in the process of being murdered by a police officer, and called to his mother. Or Emmett Till in those few seconds between Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam showing up at his great uncle’s house, and abducting him, only to beat him to death and throw him into a river later. My little incident was nothing.
But now I also realized something. That this little terror, and subsequent sense of danger I felt just one time the other night, is likely felt by all of my Black friends and colleagues regularly. And worse, that I had never really heard their stories, meaning that I’d never come close to sensitization to the emotional burdens they carry day after day. I thought of them, steeling themselves from without during teleconferences, parties, bad jokes, and insensitive/racist questions posed under the guise of curiosity.
That is a burden no human should have to carry. It is the unseen part of this moment and movement; and we should fiercely support our Black brothers and sisters in unveiling it.