I vacationed in London for 5 days, recently. I traveled alone. The trip was an impulsive decision. I was daydreaming about visiting and riding my motorcycle across the Isle of Man. Before I could stop myself I had booked a hotel and a flight to the United Kingdom.
My flight to the UK was pleasant enough. My seat was comfortable, my food edible, and my company pleasant. I sat next to a White woman from the UK who traveled with her husband and 2 children. She attempted to engage me in conversation. I was pleasant, but I didn’t really say much to contribute to the conversation. I was more interested in reading my book and so the conversation died. Instead of talking, we ate sitting next to one another and we even slept next to one another. We occupied a rather intimate space for several hours and yet I don’t even know her name. Long distance flights are funny that way. They’re the epitome of simultaneous intimacy and isolation, like being shoulder to shoulder with thousands of others in a crowd. Together but somehow an immeasurable distance apart.
I spent my first day in London in my hotel. I slept. I ate. I slept some more.
When I finally ventured out I decided to take the tube to the Tower of London. I flew over 4000 miles to be here. I thought I may as well see some of the sights. I arrived at the Tower tube station and began to explore the area. I took photos and watched as all of the other tourists walked about the courtyard outside the Tower gates. I noticed that I was literally one of only a handful of people of color. *It’s a habit of mine to try to find the other people of color whenever I am in an unfamiliar place lest the impending race war break out and we’re forced to band together against the hordes of attacking pale skins. The attack never came so my fight or flight reflex calmed. In fact, everyone I encountered was very gracious and didn’t seem to notice my brown skin. Race relations in the UK may not be perfect but I felt better than I normally do in the US when I’m one of only a handful of brown people.
I decided to get out of my own head and explore the Tower. I paid what I thought was an awful lot of money for a ticket to an old castle and entered the gates. The castle is beautiful and the history there was rich…but it was alien to me because I know that these people, The Monarchs of Europe, did terrible and unspeakable things to my own ancestors for the sake of money, glory, and whim. I appreciated the experience but I was at once present and detached.
Before I knew it hours had passed and I grew hungry. I would make a lunch of fish, chips, and a British Coke. The fish and chips were fine (although I think my southern fried fish is far more tasty) and the British Coke tasted different from an American Coke. There was far less carbonation in the drink than I prefer and the flavor was off, but I was hungry and thirsty so it didn’t matter. I happily ate and drank until I had my hunger under control.
And then it happened. I ran, head first, into my position of privilege in the world.
A Black woman from the UK walked up to me and asked me for money to buy a train ticket. Her accent was thick and her appearance suggested that she was in bad shape. She asked for a pound to get on the train. I lied and told her I didn’t have any cash when I had over 200 British pounds in my pocket. She again explained to me that she needed some money for the train. I told her that all I had was my *Oyster Card. She offered to give me what she had in her pocket so that I could put her funds toward a new Oyster Card, implying that I should either giver her my card or that she could use my card. To this, I simply said no. She looked at me strangely and walked away.
I watched her for awhile after that. She simply walked in and out of the crowd. She may have been looking for someone else with a sympathetic face, although I can’t be sure. She wandered around for a short while before the police took notice of her. They did not chase her away but they did make a point to slowly follow her around the pavilion. I eventually lost interest in the exchange and found a place to sit.
I assumed I was being hustled for money to buy drugs or alcohol. I looked every bit the tourist with my sunglasses and large camera hanging from my neck. When she spoke to me my American accent and the fact that I was at the Tower of London, a rather expensive place, told this woman that I probably had money. She may have needed help and I was in a position to help her, but I didn’t trust her because everything inside me, and my years of city living, told me that she singled me out because we were the same color and because I was obviously a tourist. I felt, and continue to feel, conflicted.
Self preservation and instinct told me not to give anything to this woman while my feelings of racial solidarity told me I should have helped her.
Just hours before she noticed me I actively searched for other people of color, just in case I needed help…and when a person of color needed help from me I denied it…because she wasn’t the right kind. Being Black in America makes you feel like you’re constantly being watched and that at any moment random acts of violence can happen to you. The prospect of fair, just, or equal treatment by America just doesn’t seem realistic so you learn to depend on yourself and on your community to provide the things you need to live a normal life. Your skin color and the skin color of people like you simultaneously become a signal flare and armor, alerting others of your presence and protecting you from attack.
But in the end, at that moment, none of that mattered. What mattered to her, and to me, was that in that instant I was not a fellow person of color, instead I was American, wealthy (to her), a tourist, a man, and separate from her in every way.
I came face to face with my position of privilege and I didn’t really like what I saw. Am I crazy for giving so much thought to an interaction that occurred over a span of a few minutes ? Did common sense prevent me from potentially taking a loss because I wanted to be polite? Do I somehow owe her something because we share a common ancestor ?
I don’t know.