This morning, after leaving my doctor’s office I call a taxi as I usually do to drive me home. Only, when I get to the cab—Independent Taxi #294—the driver locks the door and rolls up the windows.
“I’m waiting for someone,” he says.
“That would be me,” I say.
“No it’s not,” he says, beginning to pull away.
“How do you know that?” I say.
“Oh,” he says, pretending to check something. “Where are you going?”
I tell him my address.
“That is the wrong address,” he says.
“That’s funny, as I didn’t give the cab company one,” I say.
“Oh.” He sits there for a minute, looking for a way out. He finds none. I hold the handle of the door and pull. Still locked.
I thought it was too good to be true that I would be able to get through a living a day in Los Angeles without someone refusing me service because I am Black.
We stay there, me outside the cab, him inside the cab, waiting.
“So,” I say eventually, “Are you going to open the door or do I have to call LADOT to complain?”
He gives in. “Alright, miss. What is your name?”
I tell him.
He looks down at his list. It matches something, apparently. Grudgingly, he unlocks the door.
I get in.
Immediately, the driver asks how I am paying. I tell him. He demands to see my card, I show him.
He demands payment up front or no service. He will “reimburse and refund” what is left over from whatever arbitrary amount he decides to punch in and run.
I refuse. Pay someone a guesstimate and hope that the refund will come back through to my bank account in a few days?
No way. I’ve never heard something so ridiculous.
“Then get the hell out my cab,” he says.
I refuse. Not being able to drive after an injury I suffered about a year ago, I take cabs 3 times a day and this is the first time this is happening.
“Get the hell out my cab you asshole Black bitch!” he yells this time.
I am in shock. I have already waited 10 minutes. I have deadlines and appointments. My cellphone is on low battery. I don’t have time for this.
And now, the driver is getting out of the front seat and coming around the back. He is an inch away from my face, yelling and screaming that he is going to pull me out of the car, asshole, stupid black bitch and run me over. At this point, he actually touches me. I can 911, terrified. This is assault.
And here is where it gets interesting. Two middle-aged white male officers show up, Officers Batty and Officers Castaldo of the BHPD. They talk to the white male cab driver first. They nod and smile. Then they come over to me and tell me that, and I quote, “The driver has every right to refuse service to me based upon how I look.”
And then, when I protest, Officer Castaldo says he will go ahead and arrest me for being upset and refusing to let the taxi driver be racist towards me.
What, then, I ask, have the past fifty years been for?
For what was the point of the Civil Rights Movement, and Ms. Parks…and Dr. King dying and all those tiny little afro-puffed girls and boys drowned full force under the press of other uncaring white policemen’s fire hoses and truncheons?
They have every right to deny service to you because you are Black.
I have never felt so small and worthless in my life.
I can see how a cab driver has a right to deny service to someone who is—say—waving a gun or not wearing a shoes or shirt. On that day, I had my hair freshly washed and blown out, a Diesel jacket, and a shirt, pants, and shoes bought at Nordstrom’s Department Store. I was wearing my glasses I use while teaching at the University where I have been a professor for the past 6 and a half years. I had bathed and perfumed myself that morning; I had showed the driver, at his request, the funds I would be using to pay him upon completion of service. Nothing about my appearance was in any way threatening. Please see my linkedin Bio below:
“For the past seven years Hope has taught writing at New York University, where, from 2004 to 2007 she earned her M.F.A. as the New York Times Foundation Fellow in fiction. Other awards include a Starworks Teaching Artist Fellowship, a Student Academy Award, the Audience Award at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and a Stage Left New Works New Plays Award. Hope is currently revising her first three novels for publication and about to start production on her latest screenplay. In spring 2010 Hope’s latest piece “feels” had its New York City premiere in a mixed media collaboration at the Joyce Soho Theatre, followed by an encore performance in fall 2011 as part of the WhiteWave Dance Festival.
New York University
M.F.A, Creative Writing 2004 – 2007
Activities and Societies: New York Times Foundation Fellow, StarWorks Teaching Artist Fellow at Coalition for the Homeless, Fiction Editor, Washington Square Magazine, Adjunct Faculty, Creative and Expository Writing
B.S., Film and Media Studies and Creative Writing 1998 – 2002
Awards earned for projects while at Northwestern University included the Audience Award, South By Southwest Film Festival, Red Bull Filmmaking Grant, Student Academy Award (twice), Creative Writing for the Media, Honors, Outstanding English Department Scholar, Departmental Honors in Filmmaking, National Merit Scholar, Honor Society, publication in Helicon and Bomb Literary Magazines,
Activities and Societies: WNUR FM, Chicago, IL,: Disc Jockey and Producer of Continental Drift: I prepared and hosted weekly international music segment for award-winning independent radio station and trained new audio technicians. Freelance work included managing bands and shooting over thirty independent short films as cinematographer and/or camera operator. Technical work included two years as a film/lighting/grip/studio technician, providing training and use as well as maintaining film equipment.”
They have every right to discriminate against you based upon how you looked; he was perfectly within his rights.
It isn’t about the fact that I am educated and a “certain kind of Black.” It’s about the fact that no one should be made to be treated this way.
I, unlike the taxi driver and the police officers, have had the whole rest of my work day destroyed. I cannot focus. I cannot stop shaking six hours later. Deadlines are now missed, clients will be angered. Because I—as a young 100 pound woman, was terrified at this sweaty, cursing, odoriferous man threatening to “drag you out of my cab asshole!” Because I, as a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda still am reeling from horrors of police brutality and violence. And, just like then, the law chose to protect the aggressor, not the victim. No mention of the fear I am experiencing because of the PST triggered by being assaulted and attacked by men before. And the fact that the reason I was seeing the doctor in the first place was because of being dragged, half in, half out of a cab for two city blocks in New York City by another taxi driver who took off as soon as I got in because he didn’t want to drive a Black in his car.
I feel like it is 1960 all over again.
And I remember, now that I am back in Los Angeles, that this is not the first time.
You see, that driver in New York City was anomaly; since living in LA I have been made aware again, in a way that I never was in NYC, that racism exists. Here in Los Angeles, I am constantly being watched.…At the bank. At the dentist. In stores. Now cab. Not to mention all the comments from white men about what they would like to do to me and my behind as I walk down the street–these men who still think it is 1864, who still seem to think that the black female body still exists solely for their use and pleasure, with or without my permission or consent.
When I was in NYC, I never experienced any of this…and I got too used, it seems, to being seen as a person instead of a “Black” person. It seems in New York City you can look however you want and not be judged. You are judged on manners—how you act—that intangible layer of manners and class. Perhaps this is the old money, the city, the close proximity and lack of space.. In Los Angeles, isolated behind manicured lawns and gated estates, there is so much new money and so much space—everyone is terrified of everyone else. So people, it seems, go back to the primal unenlightened judgment based on looks, otherwise known as stereotyping. People are only seen and judged by the color of their skin and the labels they are wearing. And always, by how attractive they are. That goes for New York City, too, only in Los Angeles the standard of beauty is much more rigid and much more closely linked to race.
And the fact that this occurs in 2012, is terrifying.
My first memory of race is 2nd grade, in Minnesota, when Georgia, the new girl called me a nigger and kicked my off the monkey bars. I think she may have made a comment about my being a monkey as well.
My first memory of race in Los Angeles is being with my father, in a store, in Beverly Hills. He was buying me a dress for my junior high graduation. He was proud because I had finished junior high in one year. We went into a store. They told us to leave. They did not want Blacks there.
I had missed my father’s experience because my focus was on the fifty year old white man who was attempting to grope my 12 year old post-puberty Black behind while my father was being detained by security. Then, I was more scared for myself and my sisters—with me, as with all Black women, there was an element of fundamental attraction to our bodies that makes the racism we experience a different kind of ugliness—there is a sense of sexual entitlement to our bodies based on white privilege and the history of slavery…the eroticization of us on a physical level, for the animalistic raw thrill of sex—the darker the berry the sweeter the juice, once you go black you don’t go back, etc… expendability. The use, for sex and pleasure, but never commitment.
But as, grown up, I return to Los Angeles…now, as a woman, thining of my future sons and daughters, my thoughts drift away from the continued exploitation of the black female body and back again to thinking more about what my father’s experience must have been like. What my brother’s experience must have been like. And I realize what I had blocked out all those years of living in my NYC ivory-towered post-race oasis: my fear that for my father and brother racism does not mean humiliation and attempted rape, it means wrongful arrest and violent death.
My fear that my brother would become just another statistic of racial profiling and hate crime violence swept under the rug.
My fear that this would be the way discrimination in this land destroyed him.
And now, again in Los Angeles, echoing so loudly is that message, again.
Try to imagine that on an hourly, daily, basis every year there are only traumatic painful experiences with people who have no reason to hate you, as they find a way to treat you with the utmost derision, contempt, condescension, violence, and hate.
To be told you do not matter.
To have to fight to be seen as a person.
To have to fight to be treated like a person.
The unendurable pressure, the psychological weight. The physical exhaustion.
The destruction of the spirit, to wither and die.
How difficult this was when a child, here, to withstand this pressure when I did not yet know to see what was actually going on. That I did not need to believe the authority figures and these voices to internalize self-hate and lack of self-worth. That I could believe myself. Believe in myself–that freedom and space that living in NYC gave me as an African American woman because of the simple fact that I did not have to fight to defend my existence every second of every day that I was outside of my house.
People did not see Black first. They saw a woman, a writer, a professor, a student, a friend. Sometimes simply Hope. I could breathe. I could simple be. I could truly find myself, outside preconceived notions of who I should be/act like and how awfully I was treated. I could create.
And now I am back in this place, where, when they see me. They think Nigger. I am treated accordingly.
And when I do not accept this, there is shock, there is anger. As if I am supposed to accept abuse lying down and say yes, please, thank you.
As if, like Little Oliver,* I am supposed to hold out my hand gratefully, beg for some more.
“It’s all in your head,” the Beverly Hills cop named Castaldo said over and over condescendingly.
Is he a Black woman?
Did he just have a scary cab driver threaten to “drag you out and run you over you asshole Black bitch?”
And so I will use my head to try to understand this logic problem now presented to me:
If, as the officers say, an individual or business is entitled to refuse service to someone based upon how she looks, and the only concern the individual or business owner presents about the customer’s looks is the customer’s race, then the service is being refused based upon race.
And no, I do not think this is fair or right. It is not okay to treat someone worse than you would because they are a different color. This is such an elemental idea even my 5 year old students could grasp this in five seconds. Yet, people like Officers Batty and Castaldo–so secure in the privileges accorded to them because they are white–never stop to think about the rights being taken away from someone because they are Black. If you are so used to being treated better than everyone else you that you think this is normal, to treat other people equally seems unfair to you. This is what the white cops couldn’t understand, so secure in their white privilege. This is what the Republicans frowning behind Obama’s state of the union address couldn’t understand either. This is the point Obama was making in his speech when he said that “it’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom” and “we can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore” a country “where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”
Whether economy of civil rights, equal does not mean one person has a right to be discriminated against based upon what he or she looks like.
But in 2012, in this country, there are still people who think that this is okay.
There are still people, especially people in positions of authority, who derive pleasure from abusing and humiliating people of a different race. Who still feel justified in disrespecting the central essence of what binds us all as humans, for, whether you believe in Jesus or meditative being or nothing at all—it is that we all share…that innate human spirit recognized in the meeting of one being with another—you are a person, so am I…let us co-exist in mutual respect and harmony and balance. Let us respect each other. Because we are all connected. Because we are all equal. Because we are all human beings.
Just not according to the BHPD.
*Oliver is the titular hero of Dicken’s novel; Dicken’s, of course, being one of the most-well known socially activist artists of the Victorian era, using his pen to speak out for the rights of the poor, children, women–and any other instances of discrimination and injustice of his time. Not to mention his pro-peace anti-war work. Knowledge is power. Go get some.