Why I don’t wear red to Target

Everyday racism: It’s hard to know how to respond.

I’m black and I’m wearing red. Obviously, I work there.

People want to know how much the Michael Graves’ Finger Style Salad Hands cost. They want to know if we have the new auto jumper. And they want to stand in front of me, like I’m that machine at the end of the aisle, playing Seascapes and Smooth Jazz — they want me to respond.

Any second now, I’m about to bust a Target Team Lift. And all I want is a tank top with a shelf bra.

When you’re black, lots of people want you to be at work, no matter where you are. I knew a man, at a writers’ conference, who said, “Where’s your broom?” and “Why aren’t you in the kitchen?” every time he saw me. Every time, I did what he wanted: I went into that kitchen. Then I cried.

If I have to work while I’m shopping at Target, please give me a specialty. If we’re going to keep perpetuating stereotypes, ask me about the difference between Miss Jessie’s Original and Uncle Funky’s Daughter in the ethnic hair section. Ask me if Vaseline Intensive Care is good enough to get that ashy skin between your thumb and finger that you never notice until you’re far, far away from lotion.

This is what I call everyday racism. Here’s how it works: someone insults me; I don’t say anything back; I end up the one who makes me feel bad; I insult myself with jokes. A crime against the civil rights movement? Yes. A sin against my grandparents who fought to work in an office, like I do. Absolutely.

Joking about it, where the joke is on me, is funny — self-inflicted funny, almost slapstick: a targeted farce. It’s the kind of funny where you don’t have to think about anything except the fact that you’re the one pointing and the one laughing.

During BET-only-airs-Roots month, aka February, when I shopped for costume jewelry and a saleswoman followed me the entire time, even then I didn’t want to think about it. And I didn’t have pockets.

Deciding how to respond is the hardest part. I’d pay good money for a book explaining when I should say something and when I shouldn’t say something — like Stuff White People Like, but Stuff Black People Should Say.

Man slaps another passenger’s baby on an airplane while calling the child the n-word: say something, right? Man offers to show you the ties marked 50 percent off because you picked up Hugo Boss: forget him and walk away?

If only it were black and white. A year ago, I cut off my chemically-relaxed hair to go back to natural curls. This Christmas I go back to straight hair and burn my scalp. Got to love good old-fashioned lye. A black woman at the prescription counter at Walgreen’s, who sees me all the time, says, “You just couldn’t do it.”

Lady. It’s hair.

I wish I’d said that.

What am I supposed to do: simmer up a boil in my blood, get heated enough to blush through my face, keep Jesse Jackson on speed-dial?

I teach all day at my actual job. Some people don’t want to learn. Sometimes I don’t want to teach them.

And sometimes I don’t want to learn, either. We underestimate the satisfaction of silence — the absence of sound, like black’s absence of color. There’s nothing to see or hear. It’s just you. Unavoidable you.

Next time I go to Target, I’ll wear the khaki pants and see what happens. Red really isn’t my color.

Erica Dawson is a poet and assistant professor of English and Writing at University of Tampa. Her second collection of poems, The Small Blades Hurt, is forthcoming from Measure Press. Her first book, Big-Eyed Afraid (Waywiser Press, 2007) won the 2006 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Born and raised outside of Baltimore, MD, she lives with her Shih Tzu, Stella.

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