All You Need To Know About Race In America Happened To Me In 90 Seconds Today


It was 10:00am.

The Wife Person surprised me with tickets to the Cavs/Heat game yesterday, so we made the two hour drive to Cleveland, stayed overnight, and drove back early this morning. I took her directly to work, and drove back home.


"Home" for us is an old high school building that had been closed for a couple decades until it was purchased and redeveloped into lofts a few years ago. It's located in one of Pittsburgh's most awkward areas; a stretch of relatively underdeveloped area called "Uptown" that sits between downtown, Oakland (where the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are located), the Hill District (Pittsburgh's most storied traditionally Black neighborhood), and the South Side. The Consol Energy Center (home to the Pittsburgh Penguins) and Duquesne University are a mile or so down the street. The building itself sits on a block surrounded by boarded up properties. It's also surrounded by gates; a key fob and a sensor are needed to get into the parking lot and the glass doors in the lobby.

At first glance, the layers of building security seem practical. The area does seem sketchy. But the space surrounding the building is so underdeveloped that the only consistent traffic besides the people living in the building are cars driving past it.

Anyway, it was 10:00am. I drove up to the gate, pressed the button on the key fob that opens it, and drove into the parking lot. As I entered the lot, I noticed a person on foot following me in. They had obviously been waiting by the gate for someone to let them in. I parked and got out of the car…and now this person — a 20-something White woman — was walking in my direction. She was wearing black sweats, a parka, and some black sneakers. She smiled.

Her: "Hey, I left my phone in my boyfriend's apartment. Would you mind letting me in?"

Me: "Sure. No problem."

She waited as I grabbed the bags out of my trunk. We walked into the building together, making small talk about the cold. After we made it inside, she said "Thanks again" and presumably went to her boyfriend's place. I walked down the hall to my place.


The entire situation took less than 90 seconds. But there were so many levels of racial, cultural, and even sexual context packed into that minute and a half that, instead of continuing to write in paragraphs, I'm just going to list them.

1. If she were me and I were her, I could not have done what she did. Actually, let me rephrase that. I could have done it. I could have stood by a gate surrounding a building in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood, waited for a car to drive up, followed that car — a car driven by a young White woman — into the parking lot, and then approached the woman as she got out of her car. But it would not have been smart for me to do it.


2. As I just stated, unless it was a dire emergency, I would not have done what she did. Which makes me think about all the things we (Black people, Black men specifically) choose not to do because we're aware of how it might be perceived.

3. It also made me think of perhaps the most underrated and pervasive part of White privilege: freedom. Being a cute, 20-something White girl allows her a freedom from being considered a physical threat. Which gives you the freedom to do certain things that, if other people did them, might be considered threatening.


4. We (Black people) are also not immune to certain racially-tinged feelings about other Black people. As I write this, I'm asking myself if I would have reacted differently if, instead of some 20-something White woman I'd never seen before following and approaching me, it was a 20-something Black man dressed the same way (black sweats, a parka, and black sneakers) and needing to get into his girlfriend's place. I want to say no. But, I'm not sure.

Admittedly, if a change in behavior occurred, it would probably be more due to that person's maleness than his Blackness. Generally speaking, men are bigger immediate physical threats than women are. It's unwise for anyone — other men included — to pretend we're not. But still, I don't know how America's perception of Black people has influenced my own perception of Black people, and that ambiguity drives me nuts.


5. As we entered the building together, I made sure to keep a safe distance from her. No accidental contact that could be misconstrued as inappropriate, no joking/flirting, and no opening for her to joke/flirt with me. Now, there are some very obvious reasons for this behavior. I have a wife, I don't know this woman, and the only thing I know about this woman is that she has a boyfriend.

But also…she's a White woman and I'm a Black man. Since it's late morning, there's no one else in the lobby, and probably not that many people in the entire building. The safe distance is due to me knowing that if anything were to happen — accidental contact misconstrued as inappropriate, an innocent joke or comment or even look that made her feel threatened, etc — and it was her word against mine, I'd lose. Which is fucking crazy. She's the one who approached and followed me. She's the one who could be making up some story about some pretend boyfriend. And I'm the one who actually lives there. But I'd still be considered more of a threat to her safety than she is to mine.


The irony of specifically choosing to move to this place a few months ago because it's so secure and I feel comfortable with my wife here…and knowing that my Blackness and maleness can make people here consider me a threat hasn't been lost on me. I guess this is what being Black and aware in America is; recognizing ironies, staying mindful of distances, and talking about it all with your wife and 50,000 closest friends later.

Oh, and finding it all both annoying and fucking hilarious. Can't forget that.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)


Damon Young

I might be wrong here, but I think most men would have given her (and most other women) the benefit of the doubt with the bf story, while women might be a bit more skeptical.

basically, y'all are better at being assholes