I never expected to see the hat in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Imperial red flashed in my peripheral view and I caught my breath. Time slowed as my mind raced. How do I react? Do I confront? Is a middle finger enough to express my rage? Am I in the mood to cause a scene? Too many times have I had this experience, only to be fooled by an imposter: a red Cardinals hat, a red Nike hat. But this was no imposter.
My gaze adjusted to the white teenage girl wearing the hat, cackling with her friend as they enter a sound booth. I don’t remember the purpose of the installation. Maybe it was a space to reflect on the images of black men hanging from trees and of black families treated as lifeless commodities. They walked by the untold stories of lives stolen in the transatlantic slave trade, stories only acknowledged by the fractions representing those who arrived and the greater number of individuals who never finished the journey.
Their laughter inside the booth was more than out of place. I thought about the things they could be saying; the “jokes” and insults becoming part of the museum’s history. I thought about how many people had walked into this museum and done the same thing. I had to confront them.
I hovered outside the booth, waiting for them to get out. I tried to come up with the right words to put them in their place. But then I felt a curious guilt. What would adult berating two white girls look like? Why did I feel like a predator? What would it mean to confront them in this space? I thought about disrupting the somber atmosphere, one that was already punctured by an act of hate. What would it accomplish?
That guilt was enough to discourage me from confronting them. I made my way towards a segregated train car, perched above the heads of museum-goers. I remember reading the museum label over and over, the words suddenly foreign and unintelligible. Again, I felt guilt, but of a different sort. This was a guilt rooted in disappointment. Maybe I didn’t have what it took to challenge any type of aggression, regardless of how consequential it was. It’s not like I was faced with standing in front of a police officer carrying a fire hose, or kneeling in front of tens of thousands of people. All I had to do was confront a couple of teenage girls about their racist hat. Why couldn’t I even manage that?
It wasn’t long before I had another opportunity. Weaving through the crowd, I saw a white teenage boy wearing the same hat. Again, I thought about avoiding a confrontation. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’s just a kid. He doesn’t get it. But none of that is true. He knows what he’s doing. He’s old enough to understand, and he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt that wasn’t gifted to Tamir Rice. He wears the hat because he does get it—the racism, the misogyny, the subjugation of the other.
The image of black and brown children in schoolyards taunted with chants of that man’s name propelled me towards that teenager. I leaned in behind him and in a stage whisper said, “This is not the place for that hat.”
He turned towards me and looked stunned. I’m certain he thought that hat protected him from being confronted. Sheepishly he removed his hat. His friend was silent. I walked away.
I ran into him two more times—once in the exhibition on music, with the hat conspicuously dangling from his side, and again as I exited the museum. Apparently he mustered up the courage to put the hat back on. The second time he caught my glare and abruptly turned away. He knew what he was doing all along.
Surafel Tsega is a practicing physician in New York City. He was born and raised in Compton, California. He has lived in New York City for the last ten years, where he has studied, trained, and now practices in medicine.