Why Is That White Lady Screaming at Me?
Last Sunday, I was about one-quarter of the way through a brisk early morning walk around Kiev, Ukraine, when the strangest interruption interrupted the scariest one. I’d just ascended to the top of a challenging incline when, suddenly, anxiety grabbed me by the chest and started dragging me to the brink of emotional, if not quite physical, collapse.
I’ve been having panic attacks for decades, but every so often I have a particularly brutal bout that I’m certain must be The Big One, i.e., a sure-to-be-fatal heart attack.
If anxiety had fingers, its prints would be all over the body parts where it tends to fester, from my temples to the bottom of my sternum, minus my arms from shoulders to wrists. That morning, my hands were clammier than they’d been during any panic episode since 2006, which surely must have meant danger dead ahead.
Dead. The word lingered in the air over my shaved head, which was covered by beads of dripping sweat. Were they from the physical exertion or from the impending coronary? Just as I was contemplating heading back downhill to Oxford Medical, a burst of shouting further startled me.
I looked over at the bus stop I was walking past and saw that the noise was coming from a woman who was glaring and yelling at me while pointing at my running shoes. She looked like a mad dog that had just spotted the interloper who swiped her bone.
I wondered if she was a Ukrainian PETA activist who was offended by my fur-trimmed trainers. Then I remembered I was wearing regular Nikes that I’d bought last year in Prague, fur not included.
I looked over at the bus stop I was walking past and saw that the noise was coming from a woman who was glaring and yelling at me while pointing at my running shoes.
Wait, I thought, without actually stopping. Did I step in dog poo? I looked down at my feet. Nothing unusual there.
Maybe she could tell I was about to collapse in a heap on the sidewalk from a deadly heart attack and was trying to warn me to stop walking.
No, I knew it couldn’t be that. She seemed angry, not concerned, like the aforementioned mad dog, or a holy roller damning me to hell over some blasphemous rumor. Why did it seem like everything and everyone other than the woman and my heart attack were figments of my imagination?
Or maybe she was the figment of my imagination, and that was why no-one else seemed to notice her.
A case of black and white?
As a black man traveling through predominantly white countries, I’ve grown accustomed to being singled out by people. But aside from the woman, no-one seemed to be looking at me. She might as well have been invisible, too. Not one person at the bus stop even glanced in her direction. No-one walking by turned around to see what was going on.
It was as if a white woman screeching at a black man in the throes of a heart attack was the most normal thing in the world. Pass the salt, please.
As I tried to figure out what I might have done to incur her wrath — every time I turned around for the next 100 or so meters, I still could see her yelling at me, all fire-and-brimstone rage — I felt un-panicked for the first time since I’d reached the top of the challenging incline. If my heart hadn’t stopped beating by now, I couldn’t possibly have been having a heart attack.
I inhaled and exhaled deeply several times while consulting GPS to determine how far I was from Saint Sophia Cathedral. Then it hit me. Maybe the woman was a religious fanatic who had launched her diatribe because in my track pants and hoodie, I was underdressed for a holy pilgrimage. Was she telling me to get my sartorial act together?
But she had no way of knowing where I was headed. It had to be something else. Hmm… Was she a homophobe who was damning me and all gay men to hell? Had I revealed my sexual orientation because I’d stared a little too long at one of the guys waiting at the bus stop? Nah. I was too preoccupied with the “heart attack” to process any of their physical attributes.
Just when I was about to give up trying to figure out what had triggered her hysterical reaction to me, I collided with the elephant on the sidewalk: Was this a black-man-walking-around-a-white-European-city thing?
I’ve always been reluctant to play the race card when it comes to interactions in which race isn’t specifically mentioned. In 1990, when my friend Stephanie and I were apartment hunting before my senior year at the University of Florida in Gainesville, we were turned away by the management at one complex who said there were no two-bedrooms available.
It wasn’t until Stephanie mentioned overhearing the same manager offering a two bedroom to two other potential tenants, both white, and said what I wasn’t even thinking, that I realized the rejection probably had everything to do with race — namely mine. (Stephanie was, and still is, white.)
Unfortunately, I had no Ukrainian translator to confirm what the white woman at the bus stop was shouting at me, or why. Not only could I not understand her, but she was competing with the still-potent vocal power of 69-year-old former Journey singer Steve Perry, whose new solo album Traces was providing my walking soundtrack. But just as sure as I was that Steve was singing about love, I was certain she was screeching about hate.
The look of hate
Something about the way she was glaring at me while violently delivering her monologue took me back to the playgrounds of my youth where white kids sometimes taunted me because of my blackness and black kids often bullied me because of my Caribbean accent.
It also took me back to the plantations that I never toiled on, in centuries well before my birth. I imagined that the look of pure, unbridled hatred in her eyes was what many slaves saw in the eyes of their masters.
The last time I’d seen that look directed at me was in 2007 in Buenos Aires. Marcelo was calling me the N-word in front of two BAPD officers while throwing a similar tantrum outside of the nightclub were he’d just been sexually harassing me. Apparently, Marcelo thought it was OK to grab me and try to kiss me and knock my drink out of my hand when I resisted, but damn me for responding by kicking him.
That look in his eyes, though. There it was again, 11 years later, in the eyes of an anonymous Ukrainian woman. What else could it possibly have been about, if not my race?
The last time I’d seen that look was in 2007 in Buenos Aires, when Marcelo was calling me the N-word in front of two BAPD officers while throwing a similar tantrum outside of the nightclub were he’d just been sexually harassing me.
To all my white readers who are right now giving me side-eye through their computer and LCD screens, hold up. When you spend much of your life being treated differently and encountering difficulties because of the color of your skin, you become more inclined to blame random acts of hatred on racism.
But this was not America. Even in New York City, a white woman screaming at a black man passing by would be worth a stare or several. And unlike in the United States, where many whites are allies to minorities, at least one wouldn’t silently stand through a vehement and unprovoked white-on-black attack on a sidewalk, especially in a city as big as Kiev. The Ukrainian bystanders probably didn’t react because they probably didn’t care.
“Maybe she once had a bad experience with a black man, and she was taking it out on you,” Misha, a new Ukrainian acquaintance suggested when I told him the story later that afternoon.
That thought had crossed my mind, but it made me angry. When I ran into Marcelo weeks after the N-word incident in Buenos Aires, he apologized and explained that a black guy he was dating had recently assaulted him, and he had taken out his frustration on me that night.
“Why is it that white people so often assign the actions of one person in a minority group to those of the everyone in the minority group?” I asked Misha rhetorically. “If she had been raped by five different white men, would she spend the rest of her life yelling at every white man who passed by?”
Misha nodded. “Maybe she thought you were African. There are a lot of Africans coming here to study and a lot of Arabs coming here, too. Some people are upset because they are taking many of the jobs.”
That actually made a lot of sense. Some people in the U.S. have the same attitude toward Mexicans, so the concept of hatred inspired by economics was less foreign than the Ukrainian language. But as in the U.S., it was basically merely a justification for racism.
“Not every black person is from Africa,” I said. “And to assume that we are is just another form of racism. It’s just making us all interchangeable and immediately putting us all into a box.”
Fear and loathing in Odessa revisited
The altercation also shook me because it took me back to my six days in Odessa and all the rudeness I’d encountered there. Although racism had crossed my mind initially when people, usually women, treated me with disdain, I eventually stopped taking it personally. By the time I left, I suspected it was just an Odessa thing.
When I made it to Kiev, where most of the people I’ve encountered have been lovely to me, I upgraded it to definitely an Odessa thing, which more than one Kiev local confirmed.
Misha, to his credit, didn’t make any apologies for the woman at the bus stop. But he did suggest that she might have been a crazy homeless person letting off steam.
“You’d think,” I said. “Except she didn’t look homeless or crazy. She looked like she was dressed to go to work or to the market. She was about 35, and with a bit of make-up, she might even have been kind of pretty.”
Her rage wasn’t against the machine. It was all about me. Even though I couldn’t understand anything she had said, I knew her words and her wailing had been too focused and specific to be merely the random ramblings of some bag lady. And she was carrying a purse, not bags. Presumably there was money, or at least a bus card, inside.
Whatever she was screeching, it was clear she was in her right mind, and she was convinced she was right. I will never know for sure why she interrupted my Sunday morning panic attack already in progress, but I hope she learns how to manage her anger, whatever its cause.
Rage is even more unflattering than fur-trimmed running shoes would be on my feet. It’s one thing no-one ever wears well.