I remember a time when I was about nine or ten years old. My best friend Quincy was having a birthday party. Though she was a few years older than me, we got along very well. She had recently moved from the apartment across from mine to a house in a more affluent part of Tampa far away from our neck of the woods, so we didn’t see much of each other after she moved away. I was so excited to see my friend again.
We stopped at the mall on the way to Quincy’s house, so mom could do a little recreation shopping and I could buy Quincy a gift. She told me I could go anywhere I liked in the department store to find a birthday present. The only rule was that I could not leave the store and go anywhere else in the mall.
I wanted to get Quincy a shirt with something funny on it, so I went up the escalator to the second floor where the clothes department was while my mom stayed on the first floor and shopped around. After looking around for a few minutes, I found the perfect t-shirt. I don’t remember what it said exactly, but it had some kind of funny saying on it, and I knew that Quincy would love it. I grabbed the t-shirt and made my way to the escalator to go back to the first floor and find my mom. Everything seemed completely normal.
Just before I stepped on the escalator, I met eyes with this white woman who was working at one of the counters on the second floor. I don’t remember what she looked like exactly, but I do remember her reaction to seeing me with the t-shirt in my hand, going down the escalator. I remember her eyes as they glared me down. She was scared, shocked and distrustful. She was angry. I remember freezing, feeling completely scared, anxious, terrified. I couldn’t break eye contact with the woman as I descended further and further down the escalator. She had me in a trance. She had me marked. And I knew it somehow underneath all those layers of fear. I was in trouble for something I didn’t quite understand.
Logically, I knew I had done nothing wrong. I had no intention of stealing the t-shirt. It wasn’t wrong for me to take something I found on the second floor down to the first floor since I was still within the store. I’d seen other shoppers doing the same thing. But even though I knew this, I remember nervously hurrying for the protection of my mom who was, fortunately, shopping in an area right near the escalator I was coming down on. I almost ran to her (but I tried not to because I didn’t want to draw any more attention to myself); and when I reached her, I remember hiding behind her while watching the top of the escalator for the woman to chase after me. My mom, also fortunately, didn’t notice my nervousness.
For as long as I live, I will never forget what happened next. I’ll never forget the pain, the anxiety, the confusion I felt. The woman reached the top of the escalator with a security guard. She pointed down it, and said with such vehemence and fear, “She went down that way. A little black girl.”
It was the emphasis on the word black and the tone of her voice that I’ll always remember. And it makes me sad that over twenty years on, when I think of this memory from my childhood, I still feel like that fearful little girl, hiding from someone for doing nothing wrong. Hiding from someone because deep down I knew that it was acceptable for a white person to assume that any black person they felt wary of must be up to no good.