What it is like to be a black man walking in a wealthy white neighborhood

To: The three white woman I saw in the park

From: Lee Grigsby (As told to Lauren Brill)

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To the three white women in the park who saw me walking in their neighborhood, 

You don’t know me. We never met. However, last week you might have noticed me walking through your neighborhood in Belle Haven, Virginia, for the very first time.

I didn’t smile or say “good morning” because I didn’t know whether you’d respond or look at me with a blank stare. 

For you, that walk was likely a calm, relaxed stroll on a sunny day. Sadly, that didn’t end up being the case for me. But I am writing to you in the event you want to know how you could help. 

Lee went for a walk in the park while waiting for his car.

That day I was in the area because I needed to get my catalytic converter replaced at a nearby car dealership. Sure enough, once the mechanics took a look, they found other issues with my car. The dealership told me they needed another 90 minutes to fix the car.

So, I decided to make the most of the time and go for a walk. As I ventured across the freeway into your neighborhood, a mostly white, wealthy suburb of Washington, DC, my breathing became shallow and my chest started to tighten.  I know it wasn’t from my mask or the uphill walk. It was a very familiar feeling.  I experienced it when I went to college with very few faces of color and when I went jogging after Ahmad Arbery, a black man in Georgia, was killed while going for a run. 

For you, that walk was likely a calm, relaxed stroll on a sunny day. Sadly, that didn’t end up being the case for me.

The stress I felt walking through what was presumably your neighborhood is normal for men like me, for black men in America. 

It stems from the fear that despite the innocence of a situation, at any moment, there is a chance something terrible could happen to me. And at no fault of my own, my wife could be left without a husband and my young daughter could be forced to grow up without a father. 

On the day you saw me, I was wearing sweatpants, a hat, headphones  and a mask. In my pockets, I had hand sanitizer, my wallet and my phone. Also, I was carrying my tablet and my battery. 

I was about to throw my battery in my pocket because it was getting heavy, but then I thought to myself, “Oh Shit, I can’t do that. What if the police stop me and someone says, ‘I saw him put a large dark object in his pants?’ Or, what if someone sees that my pockets are full and uses force on me based on the assumption that I must have a weapon?”

As a black man walking through your neighborhood, I am doing everything I can so neither you, nor anyone else, thinks I look suspicious. 

When I saw the three of you walking together, we initially passed each other – no words or strange looks were exchanged. But a little later, I noticed the three of you turn around and walk in the same direction as me.  Then, a few minutes later, I heard sirens. It was a fire truck. When the fire truck got close to us, the emergency responder suddenly turned off the sirens, pulled into a side street and parked. 

I thought it was strange and while I doubt you could tell, internally, so much anxiety was brewing. 

I started to wonder, “Am I the next statistic?”

Some may say I am paranoid. But from what we have all seen in videos to my personal experiences, my need to be alert of my surroundings results from the inequality and daily abuse that black people face in this country.  In high school, I was pulled over and cuffed for a broken headlight. Today, I turn on the news and I am hit with one story after another about a black man or woman getting shot and killed while driving, jogging, sleeping, eating ice cream or playing video games. 

Right now, people of all colors are fighting for equality, but some people are also revealing the hate living in their hearts. With racism being so overt, it makes it harder to walk into environments where there are so few people that look like me.

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Thankfully, on the day that I saw you three women, no one stopped me. No one called the police on me and no one hurt me. And as soon as I started walking downhill back to the dealership, that awful feeling that just moments prior overwhelmed me, began to go away. It was as though a weight was lifted, knowing that today I would likely make it home safely. 

I know my fears are not personally your fault and as far as I know, you did nothing wrong that day that our paths crossed. But that day, like many other days, I felt paralyzed with fear because of how you might perceive me and what could happen to me as a result. 

So, next time you see me or someone who looks like me in your neighborhood, if you want to help, all you have to do is say “hello.”

A small gesture that lets me know I’m welcomed can go a long way. 

Until next time my car needs repairs,

Lee Grigsby
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