What started as an unpleasant and humiliating experience, turned out to be a phenomenal learning moment…
It was 5:20 pm on a Monday afternoon in May when I decided to go for a walk. Negative experiences in the past have taught me that it’s better for me to take walks around my neighbourhood during the daytime.
I am a black male and I live in a safe neighbourhood. But even in my neighbourhood, some races are seen as more vulnerable, aggressive, or dangerous. that leads to people having certain perceptions of people from different races such as Chinese and BIPOC groups. But during the day I feel very safe walking in my neighbourhood and getting to enjoy the scenes, the new buildings coming up, the new park being built, the community, the few black people I get to see on my way and give a nod of acknowledgment feels so good. I just like the experience, something to make men feel like I am not alone in this world even though it feels like that when I spend the whole day alone in my house working from home. After working all day this is one way I like to care for myself and get some time in nature exercising.
As I was walking on the sidewalk today, I saw a group of kids on the lawn of one house having their interactions. They seemed to be age 4yrs to about 15years. White and Brown kids, boys and girls. I thought nothing of it as they just seemed to be in similar situation as me: out in the open trying to get some human interaction with their neighbours as a result of the isolation this pandemic has put us all into with the present lockdown and stay at home situation we are experiencing. But as I walked closer to where they were gathered on the sidewalk, two of the boys broke out of the group and started walking towards me. These were the two tallest boys. One of them appeared to be as tall as me. They said something to each-other, then as they got closer to me, the shorter one made a sign with both his hands like subzero and fired an imaginary fireball directly at me. Then they both laughed at me as they walked past me on the sidewalk. I was humiliated, so many thoughts were going on in my mind at the same time. Am I that irrelevant that they think they can just threaten me and make joke of me? Are they making me feel unsafe in my neighbourhood? Would I ignore their gesture as a joke if instead of a subzero fireball they actually made a fist gun and pretend-fired at me? Would that mean anything different? What have they been watching on TV that makes them think this is okay to do to a stranger they have never met? Is there any meaning behind their actions? Is it okay to interact with a black man in their community like this despite all we have experienced in the last one year about marginalization of minority groups and attacks on elderly Asians in the western world? Should I address this with the kids or just ignore them? Will I be viewed as making a big deal out of nothing? Is it safe to talk to them, and won't the parents jump out and attack me for speaking to their kids without the parents permission? I suddenly decided to stop and asked the boy: "what was that for?" "Is it funny?" Then he started saying he din't do anything to me, he claimed he made the gesture to his friend and not me (gaslighting me). I didn't see it necessary to argue with this young man on the sidewalk so I asked if his parents were home and if he lived nearby so I can talk with them. I felt maybe because I'm black he has no regard for me. Probably if I explained things to his parents they can recognize the danger in his behaviour and correct him appropriately. Then he lied that he doesn't live nearby, while his friend said he did. One of the girls jumped in to my rescue and told him just answer the man's questions and don't deny it. I told him to be a man and own up to what he did, or I would take things further with his parents. Then he confessed saying he's sorry. He was just goofing around. I wasn't ready for any trouble either but I just couldn't let it go of ho I was treated or else the next time I walk by it could become worse, and these kids start throwing stones at me thinking that is okay.
On my way back home from my walk I contemplated walking back the same way I came because I was already feeling scared of seeing these kids again (micro aggression effects). I didn't want to feel how I was feeling when the boys did that to me earlier. But as a mental health advocate understand how trauma works and how things build up in our minds when we shy away from resolving them. And if I don't find safe ways to confront this issue and deescalate things I could suddenly feel unsafe walking in my neighbourhood during the day as well. So I decided to confront my fears, I walked back the same way I came. The kids were there as usual, as I got closer the same boy was making hand gestures as if he wanted to make another fireball against me. I'm was not sure if he was trying to impress the girls by "harassing me". Then I stopped on the sidewalk again when I got to their house, to further our discussion and explain the way I experienced the gesture. This time I decided to be vulnerable and tell them all how their actions made me feel unsafe, how I saw that gesture as threatening as if he made a fist gun and pointed it at me, how I was scared to walk back that route because of their actions. I was surprised with the reaction I got as these kids were very understanding and they saw how the playful actions could be threatening to someone else especially a strange black man in their community. And the girls were very matured, they apologized for their friend's actions again saying they didn't know it could mean that bad to me. The also shared their own experiences of how they often feel similar way when boys in the neighbourhood stare at them, or make certain comments about their body when they walk around the neighbourhood park.
So the girls were able to resonate with what I was experiencing. Because the boys who make those gestures towards them did it casually, but to the girls it really made them feel unsafe at the neighbourhood park and often they would run home once the boys got nearby. I went further by validating their experiences and discussing how that is not acceptable that the boys would make them feel that way. The park is for the community and everyone should feel safe using it especially during difficult times like this where we all need a break. The whole experience ended up being a very good learning and bonding moment for the kids and I, as we all expressed how the experience impacted us and the new insights we now have about how a small joke could mean something terrible to a another person, especially someone we do not know at all. They sort of realized how much privilege and power they had even as kids, and what damage that power could do to a grown man. They also learnt about responsibility and our collective goal of keeping the community safe and friendly for all. I explained to them that I understand they were just goofing around and that was why I did not take it too serious to report to their parents or the authorities. But despite knowing they were kids and playing, their actions still caused me serious and tangible stress. And it was building up as a traumatic experience with the way I was treated like a nobody, and my feelings were made irrelevant, especially when the small boy was gaslighting me... In the end we all ended the conversation amicably and one of the kids even said if not for the pandemic they would have loved to give me a hug. This all happened in the open, some neighbours were out on their porch watching to see what was going on. But because we were talking calmly without raising our voices they probably saw no need to intervene or jump in (to save the kids from this weird black man as some might have thought).
By the time I got home after walking for 58 minutes, the negative emotions I was feeling, the fear and effects of micro-aggression I was experiencing earlier, were all transformed into a feelings of excitement. I was so happy we were able to resolve the minor issue amicably and both the kids and I were able to gain an understanding of one another's experiences, feelings, and above all we were able to have meaningful face to face interaction in a time when this is scarce to come by. It also makes me feel like I now know some of my community members better as a result of this interaction because I just recently moved into the neighbourhood. A major lesson I learnt from this experience is something I also learnt from my clinical director Jennifer this week that: "we need to recognize, label, accept, and normalize our feelings and appreciate that they are all part of protecting, promoting and living with good mental health... It is okay to un-bottle the overwhelming and persistent emotions that interfere with our day-to-day lives." There is help available to all of us. And through non-threatening, understanding dialogue we can accomplish a lot of good for ourselves as well as the people we interact with any day.
What started as an unpleasant, threatening and humiliating experience, turned out to be a phenomenal learning and bonding moment educating kids about safety, race, emotions and community building strategies.
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