It is never clear to me when I am going to lose another piece of myself. Sometimes, it catches me off-guard. Like a swift jab straight to the abdomen. Other times, it resembles the slow decay of a tooth with a lingering cavity. For the latter, I rarely realize that my enamel is melting until I feel the sharp sting of contact and it is too cold to bare.
It is summer in Flatbush. I step out of my apartment building and immediately start to contemplate what the MTA has in store for me today. Will it be an emergency brake that is pulled? A last-minute service change that causes multiple delays?
With these thoughts in mind, I quickly begin my New York City walking pace to prepare for the potentially daunting travel ahead. In front of me, just blocks away from my apartment, is a white couple walking in the same direction. Although I cannot recall the last time I saw a white couple in my neighborhood, I am not focused on this. My only worry is how will I skillfully maneuver my way past them to continue my journey to my subway station.
Before I can do so, an older black woman starts making her way down the street in the opposite direction. I am trapped. Without an option, I slow my speed to continue walking behind the couple. I wish sidewalks had passing lanes like highways that lead everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
As the older black woman passes the couple, she looks directly at them with a smile and says “now this is becoming a good neighborhood.”
If she had a grandson, I’d look like him. But when she locks eyes with my being she sees nothing but decay. Black plaque on white enamel teeth.
She dismisses all I’ve ever done to be a good person and a caring neighbor with a glance that lasts no longer than a second. The same glance she uses to put the white couple on a pedestal is used to take a piece of me. To her, I am a cavity that needs to be excavated.
She knew nothing about these people besides the fact that they were white. And to her, their whiteness was all she needed to know. The thing about losing a piece of yourself is, it feels random. Like something you wish with all your might that you could’ve prepared for but know at the same time the impossibility of this. And you usually do not know that you’ve lost something until you call on its efforts to no avail, like a phantom limb that leaves you feeling helpless.
I did not feel whole that morning. But I still had to go to work.
I had no PTO category for experiences that solely minorities have.
How do I explain why I walked around in a haze that morning? How do I explain that I do not want to be here today? There are moments, outside of the office as well as inside, where I’ve been made to feel different. Whether through an instance like this, or through microaggressions at a meeting, from a manager, or from colleagues, it is difficult to feel anything but pain.
Do not wait for a job or a manager to validate that pain and inform you when you’re ready for a break. We must work to recognize when we are running on empty. Listen to the internal voice that says time-off or a change is needed. Even if just for a day. Remember, that not everyone will understand what losing a piece of yourself feels like. And that’s okay. We must also remember, it is important for us all to choose wisely the words we evict from our mouths. Unkind words never find welcome ears to call home.
I never found the piece of myself that I lost on that day. However, when I allowed myself the time to heal, was kind to myself, and spoke up when I needed a break, I found new ways to be whole.