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