Excellence in Small Things

I love living in a place where my skin colour doesn’t matter and, in fact, is a source of fascination.  People stare at me quite a bit when I’m out and about but they’re almost always respectful.  The rare idiot pops up from time to time but most people are welcoming and are obviously just curious about seeing a type of human being to which they’re unaccustomed.  I also feel proud to be an excellent representative of my race here in a place where my type aren’t particularly common.  I don’t say that to boast; I say that because I know that, once I leave my flat, I conduct myself in a way in which I can stand before God and my fellow Black people (and any other persuasion of person) without feeling shame.

On the other hand, when I’m not out and about on the streets of Yakutsk, I totally forget that I’m Black.  I don’t mean that I think I’m another race; I mean that the colour of my skin just does not matter.  No-one with whom I interact regularly, at work for example, treats me in ways that cause me to think that my race has influenced their attitudes and actions towards me.  Additionally, I grew up in a country of mostly Black people so on a day-to-day basis, race wasn’t an issue for me.  In fact, before I started living in countries where people who look like me are few and far between, I only ever rarely felt my race, and even then it was usually because I wanted long, straight hair (thankfully I’m way past that phase because can you imagine how many more hair products I’d have to travel with??).  Don’t get me wrong, subtle racism exists in Jamaica but it rarely touched me.

“Why are you talking about this, Kris?” you wonder.  It’s because of New York City.  In the thirty-nine hours that I spent there during my summer wanderings, I almost felt ethnic shame for the first time in my life.  Wait, Black people, don’t get your back up.  Hear me out before you judge me.  It took four incidents to bring me to the brink of this shame and, interestingly, each incident included a Black woman.

It started with a bus ride.  For the first few hours that I was in New York, it rained heavily enough that I busted out my cute new pink rain boots that I had bought a few days before in Denver.  I had to catch the bus a couple of times during that day and on one of those trips I was, unfortunately, not surprised to see a fellow passenger aboard the bus wearing one of those hotel-style shower caps, presumably to protect her hair from the rain.  The ironic thing was that her hair was cut pretty short – I easily observed that through the see-through shower cap – so I’m not sure why the shower cap was necessary.

I also had to ride the subway that day and that’s where the other three incidents took place.  There I was, sitting on the semi-crowded train, doing my usual people-watching, when an older Black woman came into the car with a deep frown on her face.  She sat on the seat across the aisle from me.  She was muttering under her breath, clearly annoyed about something.  When she started taking tissue from her cleavage and wiping down her flip-flops and damp feet, I surmised that she was annoyed because of the rain.  I don’t know why she would be since it had literally been raining since an hour after I landed there at 5:40 am.  Whatever circumstance lead her to be wearing flip flops on a rainy day, it seemed like a waste of energy to be annoyed about her inappropriate footwear.  I rolled my mental eyes at her unpleasant countenance while I allowed my actual eyes to continue roaming around the train car; she continued to wipe.  I looked back at her just in time to see her furtively glance around, purposely drop the used tissue onto the floor under her seat, then settle back into her seat with her frown now gone.  I couldn’t believe it.  The woman had to be at least fifty-five years old and should have known better.

A few hours later, back on the subway, I collided with the next incident.  A woman and her young son entered the car I was in and again sat across the aisle from me.  Nothing particularly interesting was happening in that quarter so my eyes kept roaming the car as I tried to stay awake after about forty hours with only short airplane sleep.  It seemed like my eyes were directed away from them for only a few seconds but when I looked back she was wearing a satin sleep cap.  Seriously, I’m not even kidding.  In fact, she was not the first Black woman I had seen that day walking around the city wearing a satin sleep cap.  What the heck is up with this practice?  This woman boarded the subway car with her normal hair (well, it was a weave but you get what I’m saying) and left it wearing a sleep cap.  For goodness sake, why?  It can’t be that putting on a sleep cap takes so much time and effort that she had to get it done on the train because she would be too tired to do it once she got home.  And a thin cloth cap clearly can’t protect from rain – also, it had long stopped raining – so she couldn’t have put it on for that reason.  Help me out: what am I missing here?

The final incident walked into the same subway car just as Sleep Cap and her son exited.  The new arrival looked at the seat on which Sleep Cap had just been sitting, took a tissue from her wristlet, wiped off the seat, sat down and casually dropped the tissue under the seat.  No other litter in the car, only her used tissue that was now lying on the ground.  I couldn’t help but roll my eyes, sigh and shake my head, because why?  If you create trash, why can’t you wait to dump it in an appropriate place, like one of the numerous trash bins provided in New York City subway stations?

I know, I know, these are small things and some people may even say they are insignificant things.  Also, worse happens every day and other races do the same dumb stuff.  Be assured that I sigh, roll my eyes and shake my head when they do dumb stuff too because I’m an equal opportunity eye roller.  No matter who does these kinds of dumb stuff, it’s unacceptable.

The thing is, no matter how little I feel my race in my day-to-day life, I am Black.  And when people from my tribe are the perpetrators of these kinds of dumb stuff, I’m prone to taking it personally.  Excellence in small things is practice for being excellent in big things and it annoys me to see people from my tribe being anything less than excellent.  This is why I almost fell over the edge of shame.  I didn’t actually fall but I easily could have if I didn’t have a strong sense of my own identity.  I almost felt embarrassed by and for these specific people because their behaviour said things about them that were far, far less than flattering.  I definitely felt that I didn’t want to be associated with these specific people.  I mean, come on.  Where’s the sense of pride?  Where’s the excellence of spirit?  Why act down to people’s expectations of you?

On the plus side, I was happy to realise that no incident that I observed that day involved Black men behaving in untoward ways. In fact, a few of the Black men I saw that day inspired spurts of pride in me: the young man who gave a few dollars to the beggar wandering between subway cars; the man who gave a few coins to Sleep Cap’s young son just because; and the older gentleman who offered me his seat on the subway (I didn’t take it, he’s an older gentleman, for goodness sake, but it was sweet of him to offer).

How to end this mini-rant?  I suppose the point is that I don’t like feeling even the vaguest hint of embarrassment at the behaviour of someone who belongs to the same people group as me, be it my race, nationality, gender or workplace people group.  I think I’m susceptible to feeling the race one more, though, because Black people are literally at the bottom of the ethnicity barrel.  I mean, do you know any non-Black person who wishes they were Black?  Because I don’t.  But you can’t throw a stone without hitting a Black person who wishes they were something else.  They may not say it and they may not think it but their actions – like skin lightening and hair straightening – usually give them away.

Meanwhile, I still don’t really understand how we came to be at the bottom of that barrel (slavery doesn’t fully explain it; I mean, how did we come to be considered inhuman enough to be enslaved in the first place?) but I know that we don’t have to act like that’s where we belong and it annoys me in the extreme when we do.

A woman of excellence, who will find?  For her worth [is] far more than precious jewels. Proverbs 31:10 (LEB)

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