It’s 2011-ish, and it’s my last day working part-time at a tanning salon in Kenilworth, NJ (I know, I was so cute and naive) and I have about an hour or so before the owners are to come in, take the keys, say farewell, and close up.
A woman probably in her forties comes in and is looking around the lobby. She’s just come in to ask about the machines and the services. I offer to bring her around to the different rooms and discuss the whole shebang. Whatever.
She’s complaining about the many other ways she’s tried to tan before and I’m pretending to be empathetic and care about what she’s talking about.
I’m standing in the doorway of one of the rooms with a horizontal tanning bed as she inspects the machine and continues to blah blah blah…
“I tried using one of those sprays from the drug store… and look at my foot!”
As she slips off her shoe for proof she says, “It’s like i got a nigger foot!” Points to her foot. “It’s like I’m from Africa!” Just in case I wasn’t sure what she meant, I guess.
I’m unsure of the rest of the conversation. I know I finished the ‘tour’, she didn’t buy anything, and I called my mom.
An hour later the owners came in, I told them the story, they were very upset for me and apologetic. I didn’t accept their apologies in a nice, ‘you don’t have to feel bad for other people’s actions’ kinda way.
I handed them the keys. They felt bad. I went home.
My hair was straightened back then and I DID work in a tanning salon, did she think I wasn’t Black?
I didn’t say anything back. Should I have? It was just us.
How could that just come out of her mouth so easily?
She didn’t even pause afterward to get a reaction. I don’t think she for one moment considered the possibility I would be offended. WHY?
It’s been about a decade, and as I write the details of this encounter for the first time, I have been experiencing a physical trauma response. This was initially surprising to me, because I’ve told the story colloquially a few times before and had no issue - or so I thought…