Thembi Ford, a writer on BET’s First Wives Club, for “Too Black to Blush: The intersection of politics, pop culture, and Black Girl Magic.”
What good are reparations when the weapon of whiteness is wielded against us on a regular basis? At any moment the institutionalized racism that the Trans Atlantic slave trade begat could lead to our worst nightmares, and we constantly live on guard against that.
I’ve been going to the same nail salon in West Hollywood for almost 10 years and my favorite technician is the sweetest little woman named Anna. Her English skills are limited to nail salon words and basic pleasantries. This section of town is historically home to a large Russian community, so much of the salon clientele is older Russian ladies.
Everything was normal that Saturday until a Russian lady bursts through the back door shouting, “My wallet! my wallet where is my wallet?” Way to disrupt everyone’s afternoon of beauty rituals, Lady. Inconsiderate. But I’ve lost important things before, so I tried to have sympathy for her. It just so happens I was sitting at the same nail station where this lady had been, so Anna and the other nail techs start looking around, at the floor underneath my chair, lifting up magazines, and the like. I sincerely hoped this wallet appeared. I even stood up and ran my hand through the folds of my chair. Nothing.
It was then that I observed the Russian lady eyeballing me and my handbag. I felt my anxiety rising as though I were actually guilty of something and put the brakes on my simultaneously rising anger as the lady started speaking in Russian to another patron as both gestured towards me. I decided to busy myself by searching for this wallet in places I’d already looked because I really wanted to tell that lady, “No, I don’t have your stinky little wallet nor do I want anything you have,” but I’m working on being less confrontational.
As the Russian language is flying, Anna and the manager, Peter, start going back and forth in Vietnamese, all looking at me. For once I’m in the nail salon and I know for a fact these people are talking about me in two languages in which I understand exactly one phrase of each (that phrase being ‘Thank you’ — noticeably absent).
Then the lady switches back to English and changes her plea from “I lost my wallet” to “Who has my wallet, somebody took it!” I thought I was galled until she went to Anna’s station and started opening and rifling through her drawers and threatening to call the police, which I found completely galling. Had my nails not been wet, I would’ve stormed out right then. Peter, who is a little sassy, told her to go ahead and call, to which the lady narrowed her eyes and replied, “Are you sure you want the police in here?”
I’m confident the implication was that perhaps not everyone working there has her citizenship in order. Peter looked her in the eye and said: “Do it.” I, the only black person there, was silently praying she not summon the LAPD. I’m sitting there afraid like I did something wrong because I know that any interaction with the LAPD could mean the end for me. I’m not generally a fearful person but I do not trust the LAPD for good reason. They might decide that my phone looks like a gun and fill me full of holes because they feel threatened. The lady eventually gave up and left without fanfare. When it was time for me to pay Anna, I went in my bag and said, “Where is my wallet?” and we turned it into a whole bit had a big laugh. That’s how my Vietnamese nail tech and I bonded over the shared experience of weaponized whiteness.
I tell this story because the wallet lady was more than just some mockworthy meanie. As a white person, she knew her privilege – she has an entire police force on her side to intimidate or harm her chosen non-white suspects – and that whiteness was her strongest weapon. She probably found her wallet in her car between the seat and console, shrugged, and gave little thought to how she is a tool of the white supremacist terror regime shrouding our daily lives .
So yes, please, give us Black folks what we are owed, but most of all acknowledge and end the racial terror we live under each day. The psychic load-off in knowing the police and legal system will help you, not harm you, and that we’re actually being treated fairly in society, would be the greatest reparation.