At 16, I learned that growing up meant taking on the duties of my elders, and respecting their right to delegate. It's why, as we sat in our parked car, I accepted $20 and a grocery list from Momma.
"I'll be here," she reassured me, as I closed the passenger door. I had no doubts, but there are some things mommas say out of necessity, even when kids are too sure of themselves to give a damn.
Everything about the list was ordinary: milk, spaghetti, string beans, ground turkey, and cheese. We didn’t need to fully restock our fridge; this trip was only meant to fill a few gaps.
While surveying the endless varieties of cheese, I carefully considered which brand to buy for the best deal. Should I get the two-for-one BI-LO bags or a few of the shredded Sargento? How sharp did my cheddar need to be: extra or extra-extra?
Nothing about me as a person mattered in that moment, and for the first time in my life, I realized there was nothing I could do about it.
Unable to make a decision, I turned to my left. There stood a grandma and her granddaughter who were also perplexed by the dairy section. In a sign of solidarity, I smiled. But as the grandma and I caught eyes, I was caught off guard. She immediately grabbed her granddaughter, pulled her close, and said, “Don’t worry. I’ve got you.”
As the target of racial profiling, you become subdued. In its more lethal manifestations, you feel broken.
In September, police mistook African-American tennis star James Blake for a suspect in a local identity-theft ring. According to his account, Blake was simply standing outside his hotel in New York, waiting for a ride to a U.S. Open event, when a man charged at him.
“Maybe I’m naive, but I just assumed it was someone I went to high school with or someone who was running at me to give me a big hug, so I smiled at the guy,” he told New York Daily News.
The man was actually James Frascatore, a white police officer dressed in plainclothes. He did not smile back. He did not identify himself. Instead, Frascatore reportedly picked Blake up, threw his 6-foot-1 frame onto the concrete sidewalk, and told him to roll over face-down.
He did as he was told. He did not resist. He cooperated fully. Blake said his reaction stemmed from his fear of what “miscommunication can bring.”
Momma could tell something was wrong when I sat back down in the passenger seat.
“What happened?” she asked.
I stared out into the parking lot, and told her. “I think I was racially profiled.”
But I wasn’t sure. The circumstances weren’t what I imagined they would be. I'm black, but I wasn't driving. Neither blood nor police were involved. There was just a grandma in a grocery store who didn’t see me.
I was Victoria, a 16-year-old nerd who reveled in the rigor of her new boarding school and its many course offerings, including "Molecular Genetics" and "Advanced Recording Technology and Music Production." I recited pi to the fifth decimal for our school's fight song during games. I was a top student in North Carolina, who solved mathematical proofs, while trying to manage teen angst.
What happened at the grocery store wasn't personal. Nothing about me as a person mattered in that moment, and for the first time in my life, I realized there was nothing I could do about it.
I used to believe I could get myself right. The formula was simple: Earn the grades, go to the right school, be in the right family, listen to the right music, wear the right clothes, style my hair the right way. I thought I could save myself from the same fate so many other people of color face day in, day out.
But I was wrong.
Despite all my efforts, I was no more than the silhouette of a suspected threat.
To believe that everyone sees who you are is to take a risk—because being black means you're never just your own person.
This post originally appeared on NTRSCTN.com