“I sent out the invites,” she said, suddenly looking down at her hands. “Wine, champagne, rebujito,” she said before I realized she was creating a meal prep list in her head.
“Oh!” I grabbed her arm, “Can you make that summer wine? What do you call it?”
“Tinto Verano? That’s easy; I’ll make that too.” As she continued to list off party details, I walked alongside her thinking about how glad I was to have a friend from Spain—a friend who could teach me about her culture as I taught her about mine. A friend who could talk to me for hours about my short trip to Granada and who could correct my ever so rusty Spanish language skills, while I corrected her English.
We continued speaking in broken Spanglish as our conversations veered from party planning to family to unrequited love. Immersed in the desire to get to know this new friend of mine, I paid only enough attention to my surroundings to not inadvertently run into a pole or walk out into traffic as we made our way down the street and into the parking lot of the train station.
Normally, I would have been more alert while walking in a seemingly deserted parking lot in West Oakland after dark; however, there is strength in numbers (and perhaps a false sense of strength in the gin and tonic running through my system). A mélange of these factors came into play as I heard myself mutter the word that shaped the rest of my evening.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, quickly glancing over to see a man looking at me expectantly. Sorry. Sorry? Why was I sorry? This was precisely the next question that came out of the man’s mouth.
“Sorry? What are you sorry for?” He wasn’t yelling, but the volume of his voice rose with each word, his tone accusatory.
In that moment, I lost my breath. I lost my voice. I crossed my arms tight over my cardigan as the night pushed a crisp breeze through the space between us. He was young, maybe thirty, and he was sitting at the bus stop with his bike against his lap, paint chipped and tires worn.
It was common knowledge that the best practice when it came to bike ownership in Oakland was to buy an old, used model. To prevent bike theft, it was important to own a bike that no one else would want, and then in the very likely scenario that it ended up stolen anyway, only 30 dollars and a pinch of dignity would be lost.
“I—I—” I managed to force out of my tight lips. I turned to look at my friend who was staring at me wide-eyed. Was she confused? Impatient? Why was I sorry? Had I offended this man? He sure seemed offended, angry even. But usually the word “sorry” works towards healing an offense, not creating it. He had said “excuse me,” and I said sorry.
I said sorry because I didn’t realize he was there until I heard myself respond to him. I said sorry because I was deeply focused on my friend instead of him.
I said sorry because even after I realized he was there, I chose not to engage in a conversation with him.
I said sorry because although I was rejecting his advance, I knew from previous experiences that to do so without a smile, an excuse, or an apology would most likely lead to shouting, name calling, and/or other egregious gestures.
I had learned to say sorry for my own safety. To avoid verbal assault, polite rejection became second nature to me. In my experience, to be a single woman walking through the world meant to carry the word “sorry” in my purse alongside my lipstick and my pepper spray, just in case.
I hadn’t realized that I started walking again. Slowly at first, and then picking up speed, seemingly keeping pace with my racing thoughts. I turned to my friend who was struggling to keep up when I heard him yelling. This time, the chill that ran down my spine was not inspired by the wind. “Hangin’ with all them white girls!” he yelled.
How was he still so loud, even from such a distance? I turned to look at him, slowing my pace dramatically, and I saw him stand up, not seeming to notice his bike crash against the pavement as he stood.
I watched him lift his left arm, pushing up his sleeve, and then proceed to slap it with his right hand, the crack of flesh against flesh causing me to wince. The wind was back, and my eyes began to water, turning him into a strange blurry figure in the distance.
“Hangin’ with all them white girls!” he repeated, still slapping his arm. “They startin’ to rub off on you!”
I came to a full stop.
From that distance, I could no longer see the details of his skin, so I looked down at my own. I used to call it milk chocolate skin. Whenever I would see my aunt’s skin bleaching soap in the bathroom or watch my white friends lather their bodies with tanning oil, I would take pride in my milk chocolate skin.
Soon my skin became more than just my own. It became the skin of my mother and my brothers. It became the skin of the black woman in front of me at church and the elderly black man on the train. My skin became the skin of Renisha McBride and Eric Garner, Rosa Parks and Malcom X.
I began to take pride in not just my milk chocolate skin, but in the caramel, dark chocolate, cocoa, mocha, white chocolate, brown sugar skin of other black individuals in my global community. I have taken pride in the skin of those who have spoken up and lost their lives for it.
Those who have spoken up and generated systemic change. Those who, for a variety of unjust reasons, do not have the opportunity to speak up at all. I even took pride in the skin of the man standing in front of me accusing me of doing the opposite. And it was this very pride that allowed me to believe that this man had a right to say to me, “excuse me.”
This was a truth that I held as I stood next to my friend in that parking lot staring at a man who was yelling at me. I held the truth that people of color are perpetually forced to endure the offense of not being heard, so it made sense for this man to be angry. I feel that anger constantly.
And at the same time, I held another truth—a truth that I never believed to be mutually exclusive, although situations like this one exhibit the extreme complexity of its duality—I am not only black, but I am also a woman.
I am a woman who also has the right to a voice. I have the right to say “no” and not say why. I have the right to say “no” without tying it to a “thank you” or a “sorry.” I have the right to say “no” without fear of harassment—verbal or otherwise—thereafter. That night in the dark parking lot with the taste of gin still on my breath, I had the right to not welcome this man into my space.
Whether he was saying “excuse me” to ask for the time, to ask for my number, or to tell me that I dropped a quarter, I had the right to say no. I had the right in that split second to weigh the risk of having dropped some change against the risk involved in opening myself up to vulnerability with a man I did not know.
I would never advocate for throwing race aside, but I would argue the importance of holding other identities up next to it.
I am black, and I am a woman. I am black, and I believe that this man had the right to use his voice and reach out to me. I am a woman, and I believe that I had the right to exercise caution to protect my body and self, even if that looked like not engaging with this man. I am a black woman, and I believe that this man had the right to be angry, while I too have the right to be angry.
“What are you sorry for?” he had asked. The answer that I couldn’t muster up the confidence to voice was that I said sorry because I am a black woman and because he is a black man.
I said sorry because sometimes my race and my gender are at odds. I said sorry because as I turned to look at this man and noticed his milk chocolate skin, I felt a connection to him that only a shared felt experience could engender; and yet, the conflicting felt experience of being a slightly intoxicated woman in a nearly empty lot standing before an unfamiliar man gave rise to my fight or flight response, and suddenly my safety and womanhood took precedence, immediately driving a wedge between us.
I am sorry.
I’m sorry that sometimes one piece of my identity seems to undermine the other.
I’m sorry that society has put this man in a situation where he is so angry and where I identify deeply with that anger.
I am sorry that society has put me in a situation where I am also angry for a female-specific set of reasons, which resulted in an unwanted distance between myself and an individual who shares my chocolate skin.
For those realities and many others, I am sorry. But that night in that lot and every other night that follows, I am both black and a woman, and I will continue to unapologetically respond to the world as such.