Posted on August 7, 2019
The first time that I remember being told “go back to where you came from,” I was 18. Although not the first time I was targeted because of my race, it was the first time I remember those words. I had just finished my freshman year at Yale and I travelled with three African-American friends from Connecticut to Laconia, New Hampshire for a karate tournament. We were staying in a cabin in an easily forgettable location. In the morning as we loaded the car to leave for the event, we noticed several bunnies grazing in the grass. As kids from an industrialized, urban area, we watched with excitement and nervous laughter as the bunnies did their business and then hopped away. The spell was broken by an angry older white man, who hobbled out of a nearby building, yelling at us to get out of there, to go back to where we came from. We were stunned. The young men in the group responded in protest: we weren’t doing anything and we weren’t going anywhere. Of course, we were leaving but we would not leave until he went back in his cabin. Despite the bravado, we were all shaken and a little on edge when we returned to sleep for the night.
The next time, I was about 23. It was a quiet Sunday morning and I was walking down a major street in my hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut. I was in law school and had escaped for the weekend; I was on my way to the bus station to return to New York. The morning calm was broken by a car screeching around the corner, loud music blaring out the windows, carrying a rowdy bunch of white boys. One of them leaned out the window and yelled, “Hey, Ni*ger,” and some version of “get out of here or go back where you belong.” It was the first time I can remember having the N-word slapped upside my head in such a hostile and aggressive way.
The next time, I was about 25. I was walking through the North End of Boston with my white Jewish boyfriend, now husband, Mark. Mark had been staying with friends and we were picking up his things. As we passed a group sitting on a stoop, someone yelled, “Get out of here,” followed by, “There was a time they would have been killed for just walking down this street.”
Fast forward about 10 years for the last example I will share. More typical of recent encounters, the specific words were not used, but the message of not belonging or being suspect was clear. I’m in my mid-30s, a partner in a fancy law firm, living in an upper-class neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland. I am working a reduced schedule to have more time with my child and am at home on a Friday. The doorbell rings and I answer it holding my two-year-old. The woman standing on my porch, seeming a little annoyed, says, “Hi, do you know how long they’ve lived here?” Seriously not understanding, I ask “who?” She says, “the owners.” With the expressive eyes of my father, I say, “I’m the owner.”
My personal experiences are not unlike those of many African-Americans and other people of color—and much less traumatic than many. Yet, the memories sting and they stay with me. I have always viewed my experiences as evidence of isolated pockets of intolerance, with the mainstream arc of justice and equality bending in the right direction. My message to myself was just keep striving for excellence in the spaces you occupy and, one interaction at a time, my success will help overcome stereotypes and calm fears, leading to a better world for others.
At a time when hateful and divisive rhetoric is growing and spewing from our highest political leaders, it is clear that the journey to our more perfect union and the best ideals for this nation will take more concerted efforts, vigilance, and focus. And so, I was pleased to join my former Obama Administration colleagues in issuing the Washington Post Op Ed, We are African Americans, we are patriots, and we refuse to sit idly by, committing to invest in the hard work to make this a great country, for all. As the Op Ed concludes, “We plan to leave this country better than we found it. This is our home.”
Brenda Mallory is the Director and Senior Counsel for the Conservation Litigation Project, a project created to protect the environmental and conservation values on public lands. During the Obama Administration, Brenda served as the General Counsel for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Before then, Brenda held various senior positions at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including as the Acting General Counsel and the Principal Deputy General Counsel. She also led the legal office supporting EPA’s pesticide and toxics programs. Brenda spent 15 years in private practice, chairing her firm’s Natural Resources Practice Group. She has been a Fellow in the American College of Environmental Lawyers since 2016.