The Rules of Disengagement

It was New Year’s Eve 2007. I had just come from a party at my best friend’s house and I was trying to hail a cab at about 1am on a semi-quiet street on the Lower East Side. I was in a snit. My best friend’s friend had pawned her nine-year old off on me, my husband, and my ten-year old daughter so she could go home with some guy and get laid in peace. She was a single mother so I had some sympathy. However the unexpectedness of her request along with the likelihood that I wouldn’t get laid because a young child we didn’t know well was in the house, pissed me off. My ten-year old was happy about it, she liked her new friend. The other little girl was happy too. It was established long ago that my family unit and our little piece of the world were somewhat unique. You could tell she thought this would be an adventure. She wasn’t wrong.

Full disclosure, even before I decided to catch a cab I was in a snit and had been for a while. See I’d been sick. Scary, life threatening sick. But I’d gotten better. In fact, now that I was well on the road to full recovery you’d think I’d be all peaceful. Nope. I found myself completely different. Somehow the trauma of nearly dying and leaving my family unit forever changed me. Actually it would be more accurate to say it unhinged me.

I had always been the short, dark, silent type. It was in Catholic high school, I first noticed that I could intimidate people with a look, especially white people. Initially it wasn’t at all intentional. Also I could be social if I wanted. Turning on that particular valve was easy if you knew where it was and felt comfortable in your surroundings. But between private schools, after school enrichment classes at the arts center, and where I lived, I was a little black girl who often spent time in uncomfortable surroundings.

My neighborhood was safe – most of the time. There was low-level crime, extortion, number running, and drugs pretty much everywhere. Heroin was the drug of choice when I was a kid. Heroin junkies didn’t scare me much. I figured I could out run them. In the summer there’d be a knock down drag out fight, replete with flailing fists, blood, and lots of swearing on the corner in front of my house nearly every weekend. I could see it all quite safely from my bedroom window. But there was also more than a fair share of alcoholics, lecherous predators, and the mentally ill in the area where my family lived and they all scared the hell out of me.

It was my parents who taught me how to walk down the street (or anywhere else for that matter) unafraid. My mother’s biggest gift to me was confidence. In word and deed there is no one who taught me more about always deeming myself worthy of good things. Confidence can be a very daunting weapon and supremely effective armor for a woman. My father on the other hand taught me to fight. He taught me how to duck, pivot, and swipe. He taught me how and where to kick. He taught me how to karate chop someone on the nose to break it. He also taught me yoga and how to meditate. I was very studious and learned well. Given that he did all this when I was six and shortly before he and my mom separated for good, it’s amazing I even retained a memory of any of it happening.

Those memories came in handy a few years later when I had my first and only physical brawl as a child. I was about eight or nine and the girl was a bucket headed giant with arms like a plumber. Even her name was appropriate: Roxy. I don’t remember what the fight was about. Offending someone isn’t difficult; if you’re confident and even a little book smart it’s twice as easy. What I do remember is Roxy pushing me around in front of mutual acquaintances and friends. She pushed hard enough to make me cry. I suppose that was my trigger when I look back on it. I hate to cry, mostly because I’m so damned likely to do it. Mad, sad, or laughing, tears are as likely to sprout from my eyes as sarcasm to leap from my mouth – sometimes both simultaneously. I don’t remember what I did next, but witnesses later told me that Roxy ducked down to get in my face as I sat weeping on the stoop and I kicked her squarely in the chin. Apparently I high kicked her in the chin at least twice more while holding onto her meaty wrists. What can I say? Those enrichment classes in jazz dancing also paid off.

I was pretty stunned at myself as I watched Roxy weeping on the stoop in very much the same way I had been. It was scary to realize that not only could I be that violently efficient but that I could also sort of black out during it. I’m no pacifist but I am a peacemaker by nature. I decided right then and there that I would adopt a firm ‘find every way you can, not to physically fight without turning yourself into a wimp’ policy.

It started by perfecting my glower. The look I’m talking about has had many names over the years. I knew a guy who called it my dead eye. Nowadays they call it RBF. I don’t approve of that moniker so if you don’t know what it means ask the nearest teenager. I usually refer to it as the evil black child syndrome. Because very generally speaking I suspect black women in particular have grown into this kind of threatening as well as self-protective expression from a very young age for centuries. And with good reason.

I also refer to it that way because the silly obtuse reactions to the look are so common and I confess to some perverse pleasure in mildly ridiculing those who feel endangered by a facial expression. I’ve had everyone from bosses, to teachers, to friends tell me I can look scary and menacing. Strangely or perhaps not strange at all, never — not once in any of those instances was it someone black who told me that. Okay, maybe my daughter once or twice.

I loved that it never scared my pigment challenged husband. In fact he could adopt a pretty fierce look and often said that he was grateful that he didn’t scare me. Once he was in a store and a black woman started yelling and giving him dirty looks because he wouldn’t let her jump him in a very long line. He laughed calmly and said to her “Lady, my wife does that better than you and she doesn’t have to yell doing it. ”

Another way I chose not to fight if I could help it was by learning to fight. It started with a boyfriend who practiced martial arts. His best friend was a Sensei and they both tried to teach me. I learned among other things from them how to punch without breaking my hand and that it only takes ten pounds of pressure to break an elbow. I also learned that a woman should never really hit a man unless she’s fully prepared to kill him or get a major beat down. Speaking of which, none of what I learned led me to believe in any way I couldn’t get my ass kicked very badly but it did help me not to immediately panic and to always think defensively in scary situations.

Back to New Year’s Eve 2007 and my snit. Since my illness I was mad at everything and nearly everybody. It was like a switch went off in my head and all the Zen I had ever practiced left the building. No longer was I willing to be nice when people were rude, mean, or stupid. No longer was I accepting of poor customer service or mouthy disrespectful young people. I didn’t take a lot of crap before my illness but now I was hell-bent on throwing ANY crap I got back to its sender full force.

That was the mood I was in when I hailed a cab coming down Avenue B. My husband had the girls and was looking for a cab at another intersection about forty feet behind me. We knew he had a better chance of catching a cab even though I generally dressed better and looked saner than him, so we’d separate like that often, without even discussing it.

The blonde woman who appeared like an apparition between me and the cab I hailed was rail thin and had on a white party dress. I knew she saw me because she looked back at me hailing the cab before she put her hand out to take it from me. The cabby did what most cabbies in NY would do. He went for the white chick.

My reaction was immediate. I was incensed. “Are you blankety blank blank KIDDING ME?” I roared at top of my lungs. Projection has never been a problem for me. The woman skipped to the cab looking nervously over her shoulder as I stalked towards her. “That is my cab! You are stealing a cab from children. ” I yelled pointing back to my oblivious husband with the kids.

We were on a two lane street and what I didn’t see was on the other side of the street behind me a cop car was coming. My lovely friend in the white dress did though and called, “Police, police!” and started pointing at me. The cop car slowed down to get a better look. AT ME.

I couldn’t believe it. I never wanted to magically morph into a samurai more than at that moment so I could separate the blonde’s head from the rest of her body. But as the cop eyed me suspiciously I stopped, realizing I also didn’t want to be the NY Post headline for New Year’s Day 2008. What do you think the headline would have been? I’ve thought about it often and none of the options amuse me.

I have many bad, attempts to hail a cab, stories. However the humiliation and futility of my situation that night took a long time for me to get over. It was a cloak of anger I wore heavily whenever I thought about it. In the cab home my husband caught moments later, I could barely speak I was so enraged. It seems overwrought to me now but I don’t think I’ve ever been that personally angry at anyone before or since.

I was reminded of that night as I listened to one of the victims of former Officer Daniel Holtzclaw talk about how scared she was the night he forced himself on her. I didn’t sense her anger but I did sense the humiliation and futility of her situation that night. That she was able to channel that into saving her own life and then still manage to get him off the street, into a jail cell, showed indomitable courage.

As I write this I’m also reminded I started teaching my daughter yoga when she was in 1st grade. I taught her how to throw a punch when she was nine and put her in a self-defense class when she was eleven. I also tried to teach my daughter, who is no victim, how to walk the tightrope of balancing her righteous indignation with her mindfulness of the immediate and present circumstances she’s in. As for the look? The one that makes my child seem a little scary or menacing to some? Somehow she learned that all on her own.


11 thoughts on “The Rules of Disengagement

  1. I don’t know why, but all I could envision was stomping my stiletto into her foot and elbowing her to the ground, then taking the cab. Cab drivers are notorious for picking the white chick if there are two people hailing at the same time. I’ve had some drive right past me to get to “her”. It never angered me, certainly not to violence. But your chick, she was just foul when she flagged the cop

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    1. It was the cop flagging that really got to me honestly. I was mad before and prepared to argue her out of taking the cab but when she did that I could have easily throttled her. Sigh, it was as blatant an example of white privilege as I’ve ever experienced first hand.

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  2. Love this, Lily. I can SO relate to this entire post. From the life altering illness and it’s consequences, to the palpable anger that you won the fight to harness, to the RBF and the power it wields to the person that cultivates and develops it (intentional or not) in a way that is useful. Thank you for this. Sometimes, you need to see that life is an exercise in change and adaptation and entirely necessary to your survival. I remember experiencing a medical set back when I was about 30. Being confronted with mortality, especially at an early age is a game changer. It makes how you view yourself and others and how to prioritize.

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    1. Thanks Sabrina. I like thinking that I actually “won the fight to harness” my anger. It reminds me that it was indeed the most positive outcome. And yes, it’s interesting how life forces us to be flexible and adapt to change even when we’re resistant to it. Makes me hopeful. Positive change is possible even from the most dire circumstances.

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  3. I’m late to this post, Lily, but as you know, I’m as white and as male as it’s possible to be, and while I doubt I’ll ever fully understand this on a visceral level, the power of writing—your writing, in this case—gives me a glimpse into the helplessness and injustice of being on the other end of white privilege. Sadly, it’s still something many don’t “get.”

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    1. Thanks for reading David. I appreciate your interest, visceral or otherwise. I’m no longer surprised at those who don’t “get” it. My late husband was white and male as could be too. He had many such glimpses while we were together and the blatantness of it rarely ceased to astonish him. The ironic thing is that it occasionally still astonishes me. It certainly did that night. Articulation is always a helpful bridge to understanding I think, but strong emotions can take time to share with any clarity. I’m just glad I came to a point where I could do it.

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      1. Yes, it must take great strength, and strength of character, to move beyond those moments. I was going to say something along the lines of: If I ever saw such a thing happening in front of me, I’d step in. And I would mean that as reassurance, but of course, even that is fraught with “white knightism,” isn’t it? Such a minefield. But I admire your grace. Oh hey, I watched a movie recently: Dear White People. You might have seen it. It’s good, and it was the first thing I thought of while lamenting how so many don’t get it. Watch that damn movie and you might! (Not you, “them,” lol.)

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      2. You flatter me, which is very knightly. I’m a girl who has always shown favor to knights, what ever their colors. However you couldn’t be more correct — it is “such a minefield”. I did see the movie by the way. I had been excited about it because my girls (who were avid participants in NYC black lives matter protests) had just gotten into college. I remember it was funny and interesting but didn’t quite live up to my excitement about it. Unfortunately I don’t remember why. Now I’ll have to see it again so I can tell you. See what you’ve done? Hahahahaha

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      3. Ha, I come by some of that honestly, having worked as a youth street outreach worker. We weren’t supposed to intervene in violent confrontations, but how do you just walk by when a lone girl is being attacked by twenty other angry teens?

        That was pretty much my reaction to that movie. I enjoyed it, especially the performances by Tessa Thompson and Tyler James Williams, but it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. Sadly, though, many white people didn’t even watch it, expecting a diatribe or a polemic, and it wasn’t either of those things, and was quite gentle.

        I think BLM is changing America, and we’ll see the benefits a ways down the road yet. But it will happen. Police accountability is going to improve. Everyone but the most vicious racist has a tipping point, and whether it was Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner or Sandra Bland, a few holdouts and police apologists trickle over to the good side each time something like this happens. Of course that’s no comfort to the families, but history moves slowly.

        Anyway, let me wish you all the best for the season, Lily. (I don’t want to take over your blog! lol)

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