17th and Shotwell streets in San Francisco's Mission District is where you can find some of the best modern dance classes in the city. There, you can also find some of the saddest, most strung-out prostitutes.
I found this out the hard way one night, when walking back from a late night rehearsal, a man passed me and asked "How much?"
"How much?" I asked back, completely confused. But only for a moment.
He thought my body was for sale. I ran. He didn't pursue me but I felt .... unsafe.
Should I tell you I was wearing a spaghetti strap leotard and ripped pajama pants (my dancer uniform at the time)? Does that matter?
What about the fact that I had a hoodie pulled over my head?
I wore a hoodie most days when I walked to and from dance class or rehearsal, even when it was hot. I had seen plenty of the women he mistook me for and I wanted to distinguish myself from them, though I thought it was pretty clear. They were scantily clad (I tried to cover up.) They often had scabs on their faces and arms (I did not.) They carried nothing in their hands except for maybe their high heeled shoes (I always carried a huge bag full of clothes, towels and snacks.) But I was a young woman, walking alone in a certain part of the city and some men assumed they knew what that meant.
So I often wore a sweatshirt, with the hood pulled up over my head in a narrow cotton cave. Inside that protective hood, I knew who I was and I could shut the rest of the world - and their perceptions of me - out.
"Don't see me," my hoodie said. Or "Fine, see me but don't talk to me."
Sometimes my hoodie just said "I'm cold" or "I didn't wash my hair yet today" or "It's raining and I didn't bring an umbrella."
I was walking with my boyfriend in a fancy neighborhood in Berkeley California. We had left a friend's house party because we fighting, in fact, we should have broken up that night. He was disappointed that I hadn't dressed up for the party. I was sure this was sign of a huge, deal-breaking character flaw. (IT WAS.) I left the party in a huff. He followed and caught up with me. We didn't carry anything with us.
I was crying. Because I cry when I'm sad but also when I'm mad and frustrated and downright disgusted. He had his arm around me and told me I was overreacting, as usual. I wanted him to disappear but couldn't find the strength or the words to make that happen, as usual.
When I noticed the men walking toward us, alarm bells rang in my head. There were three of them,
with heads down, hoodies pulled up. They were young, tall and black.
What part of that description seemed menacing, spelled "danger"? I don't know; it all happened so fast. As soon as they passed us, a little aggressively, not moving an inch in their path, forcing me and my boyfriend to weave off the sidewalk, I exhaled and mentally berated myself for my racism.
They're out for a walk, just like we are.
Then, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
Two of the young men held us while the other pointed a gun at my boyfriend and told us to freeze or they would shoot him. They wanted his wallet, his cell phone. He had neither with him.
They argued about what to do. They let go of me but I stood frozen on the spot where they left me, my head pointed down as if I was deeply studying a tiny ant on the sidewalk.
Even immediately afterward, I couldn't remember a single word they said.
They pushed us away, told us to walk fast and not look back. We walked a few blocks to the brightly lit shopping district and called the police.
We could only tell them that the men who attempted to mug us were young, tall and black. With hoodies on. It wasn't much to go on and the police never found them.
For months after, whenever I saw a black man with a hoodie, my heart would beat faster, my palms would sweat. I willed myself to stay calm but my fear was strong and clear and overwhelming. As a response to trauma, I guess it made sense.
But what about my initial fear of them? Was that intuition, a wise, protective gut-feeling that something bad was about to happen? Or was is racism, pure and simple?
Was it both?
Can it be both?
I, like most of America, have been sifting through the layers of meaning of the George Zimmerman verdict. I keep turning over in my mind my own brushes with profiling and hoodies and violence, examining them from different angles.
I know there are interesting legal questions about the moment of the shooting and the Stand Your Ground Law. I know there are many people who say the verdict is reasonable given what the law allows.
I'm not terribly interested in that part (though I think Stand Your Ground is a poorly constructed, misguided, deeply problematic law.) What I'm interested in is the moment Mr. Zimmerman saw Mr. Martin. What did he see? What did he infer based on what he saw? How did those snap judgments inform every single action he took from there on out?
I realize we cannot try him for his racism. But we can try ourselves, can we not? Isn't that at least one small good thing that can come out of this? Shouldn't we all, especially those of us who are white and privileged, examine ourselves thoroughly?
What happens when you see someone else? What images, ideas, feelings go through your mind? Who do you see them to be? And how does that affect how you treat them?
Did George Zimmerman see a teenager walking home? Or did he see a hooded thug in search of trouble? I think it's pretty clear what he chose to see.
I will never know what it means to mother a young black man. But I am sickened and disappointed by this verdict and I can imagine the fear and frustration and rage that mothers of black boys feel. I make myself imagine it because it is the right thing to do.
I make myself imagine it so that next time I see a young black man with a hood, I will be more likely to see some one's son.