They’re not used to seeing people like us here.
It seems that, from the moment we came in, they were made uncomfortable by our presence. No one came up to us and verbally told us we didn’t belong, but as we stood there waiting to be seated, I got the message.
The pair of us – me, tall, androgynous, light-skinned, wearing a sweatshirt and camo jeans, and she, unapologetically brown-skinned, tall, with long locs – did not belong.
And, if I’d thought about it, I wouldn’t have chosen to eat in that “part of town” any way.
I hadn’t thought about how it was the first site for the #BlackBrunch actions, or how its trendy shops and loft apartments are the perfect breeding ground for gentrification, or how white folks would cross the street to get away from me and my friends, or how I could count on one hand the number of Black folks I’d seen around…
I just hadn’t thought about it. Because I just wanted to enjoy myself with my date.
We were in a hurry. It was a Saturday evening, and we decided to eat at the restaurant closest to where we found parking.
I regretted that decision the moment we approached the outside entrance with its fancy heated lamps and “well-dressed” clientele. I tried to swallow my anxiety enough to at least make it inside to the waiting area.
We entered. And it was like the air got sucked out of the room.
I became more and more anxious the longer we stood there, exchanging glances, desperately scanning the room for a Black or Brown face. We saw none.
As we waited four, five, six minutes to be seated or even acknowledged, I had a flashback to that time I was seven years old at the pizza parlor – my family waited almost twenty minutes before my dad angrily left. I didn’t get it then.
But on this occasion – as we waited for however long amidst people who refused to look at us or welcome us into the restaurant – the feeling of being both invisible and sticking out like a sore thumb felt all too familiar.
Just as I began raising my eyebrows and getting ready to leave, the staff person finally approached us:
The hostess looked at us with a strained, forced smile.
I recognized that smile, that expression. She wore the face of someone who was trying to dismiss every stereotype she’d ever heard about Black people in her life. It felt like we inconvenienced her simply with our presence; simply by daring to enter a space that was clearly not designed for us.
I felt the feeling that society seems hell-bent on reinforcing – that we do not matter, that it would be easier if we would just disappear.
I did not return her strained smile because I didn’t know which to address first – the long wait or her mis-gendering me. So I said nothing. (Because expressing any sort of frustration is reason number 1 to be perceived as the “angry Black person.”)
We reluctantly followed her to the back of the restaurant, where the common folk without reservations sat. I attempted to dismiss my racing thoughts while trying to ignore surrounding conversations about “immigrants who are taking away jobs” and how “gentrification is necessary for safe neighborhoods.”
It’s okay. We just wanna have fun. Have fun, have fun. I tried to zone in on just her and how much I wanted to enjoy my time with her.
But I couldn’t. Because I’d almost forgotten – We don’t live in a context where Black people can just “enjoy ourselves.”
We live in the context where a traffic stop can be fatal; where stepping out of our houses is a daily risk; where we are followed around in stores; where we are refused service in restaurants and businesses… We just don’t get a break from America’s white supremacist construct of Blackness.
And as the evening progressed with mediocre and overpriced food, they continued saying it: “Ladies, ladies, ladies.”
Even as I was clearly not responding to them, even as I was giving every sign that I was not feeling it… I still dismissed my own feelings and tried to keep calm: they’re just doing what they were probably trained to do.
When it came time to order dessert, our new waiter wanted to be helpful by pointing out the “more economical” options on the menu.
He proceeded to run down the list of options and explains what each one is – since they were more – in his words “complicated” – desserts.
After he left, giving us time to soak in this new information, my sweetie looked at me and laughed bitterly, “I speak French and know what all of those desserts are, but thank you!”
Not wanting to be microaggressed further, we decided not to order dessert. As we were escorted out, our same wait staff said, “goodnight, ladies!”
I had reached my final point of frustration. I turned and firmly informed them, “no one here is a lady!” (Reason #2 to be perceived as an “angry Black person – confrontations of any kind.)
And as we left into the night, I found myself having an internal conversation I’ve had many, many times. Frustrated with the whole situation, and frustrated that I’ve made myself into a stereotype, I thought: They will say we’re bad tippers, have an attitude problem, can’t afford to eat there. Don’t understand the menu items…
I imagine this is the point in the story where the reader of whatever privileged identity will say, “but I’m white and those things happen to me all the time!” or, “I get called a lady all the time and I’m not offended!”
And that’s interesting, but it also doesn’t mean anything to me. Because our contexts aren’t the same.
I’m often surviving in a context of heaviness. Black people are constantly being sent the message that our lives are worth less, that the extrajudicial killings of our people are acceptable, that we don’t deserve to hold onto our homes and communities – yet that we should be silent and peaceful.
The daily inundation of this heaviness is felt even deeper by this everyday bullshit and the many faces of white supremacy and other forms of oppression, such as:
The white waitress who hesitates and appears terrified to approach my girlfriend and take her order because she is Black and daring to speak and laugh loudly.
The probably well-intentioned waiter who sends the message that we’re less cultured and intelligent by explaining what different foods mean. Does he do that for all customers?
The white man who threatens to have my girlfriend thrown out of a movie theater.
We are tired of waiting longer than everyone else around us to be acknowledged. We are tired of having any behavior that doesn’t fit into white, cookie-cutter utopia silenced or policed. And we are tired of having our one fun night out turn into a reinforcement that we are less than.
I am Black and queer and non-binary.
And I just want to have some fun in a society where it’s a daily struggle to be any one of those things. I just want space to breathe.
Michal “MJ” Jones is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and is an awkward, Black, non-binary queer educator, activist, and musician writing to you from Oakland, CA. They earned their BA in Sociology from Sonoma State University, and went on to earn an MA in Student Development Administration from Seattle University and remain committed to improving access and retention to higher education. Listen to their music or read more of their work. Follow them on Twitter @JustSayMJ and read their Everyday Feminism articles here.