Andes Mint #2: In the Wake
一. The Journalism Awards. A long time ago, I was one of eight judges for a yearly journalism award series. All the judges had to read hundreds of newspaper articles published in Minnesota in the previous year, select their favorites in a variety of categories, then meet for a full day in order to confer about our choices and arrive at a clear winner in each category.
This was a volunteer position and it was far, far more work than I had bargained for at a time when I was desperately short on time and energy. Nevertheless, I read all the articles and reported for duty early in the morning, sitting around a large conference table in a sterile room with the other judges.
The other judges were from varied backgrounds, a mix of men and women. I sat next to another woman who was closer to my age than the other judges. She was the only black person in the room; the rest of us, as far as I could tell, were white.
One of the articles the panel was of divided opinion on was a series about a housing project in a primarily black neighborhood. The series was not one of my top choices, nor was it my neighbor’s. Others argued passionately in favor of this series as winner. My neighbor was an articulate woman, deft and agile in her responses to the others. But gradually, instead of a give and take among all of us, questions and commentary were directed solely at her.
Why? Because the series was about a black neighborhood, and she was black.
This had to have been my thousandth encounter with that particular kind of simplistic equation, but for reasons I still don’t understand it hit me that day like a gut punch. I felt sick to my stomach. I sat next to her, not saying a word, listening as the discussion grew more and more heated: the other judges urging her to change her vote to Yes.
“I’m confused,” I remember one judge saying, toward the end of the discussion. “This is your community. Why wouldn’t you want this series to win?”
You have to say something, I told myself. No one is talking about what is really happening here. I raised my hand.
“The only reason you just said that to her is because she’s the only black person in this room,” I said. “What does her race have to do with the merits of the article? This is a journalism contest.”
That’s what I was trying to say, but I didn’t say it like that. I don’t remember how I said it. What I remember is hardly being able to talk, flushing, my hands and voice trembling.
The room went silent. That’s what happens sometimes, when the elephant is named, even partially, even by a scared person who can hardly get the words out. We all took a break. I went out in the hallway and turned a corner and sat down on the marble floor and wrapped my arms around my legs. My neighbor turned the same corner, her phone to her ear, walked to the end of the hall and hunched against the wall, talking quietly into her phone for a long time. We said nothing to each other.
Until a year or so later, when we ran into each other at some kind of book event. She looked at me and I looked at her and we both smiled. She introduced me to her friend as “that one I told you about, the one who defended me at that horrible judging thing.”
I don’t really know why that one day has stayed with me all these years, or why I hate even driving by the building where we all sat around that ugly conference table all day long. Maybe it’s because I felt, for about fifteen minutes, the weight of what she had to deal with every damn day.
二. Getting BBQ. It was nighttime and I stopped to get some takeout at a bbq place. This was a place that looked kind of like a gas station-turned-smokehouse. I was the only white person in the place. That’s the kind of thing I notice right away, because it’s rare. I sat on a bench to wait for my order. This was years ago, before I made my life-changing decision to talk to everyone I find myself sitting next to, so I was quiet.
But I could feel the man next to me looking at me. I didn’t look back at him.
“Hi,” he said.
A hi calls for a response, in my world.
“Hi,” I said, still not really looking at him.
“You’re afraid of me, aren’t you?”
That made me look at him, in a sideways kind of way. He was a big, powerfully-built man, sitting there on the bench with his knees spread and his hands dangling between them.
“No,” I said. “I’m not afraid of you.”
“I think you’re lying,” he said.
“Why would I be afraid of you?” I said.
“Because I’m big,” he said. “And I’m black. I’m a big, black man. I bet if we were outside right now, in this neighborhood, and you saw me coming toward you on the sidewalk, you’d want to cross the street. Wouldn’t you?”
This was one of the first times in my life someone had spoken to me with such directness. I looked straight at him. He wasn’t smiling. Neither was I. We just sat there, looking at each other.
三 . Target. It was a hurried day, about eight years ago now, and my three children and I were doing a massive Target shop, one that fills an entire extra-large Target cart. We labored our way through the cashier line and then piled all the bags back into the cart to shove it out to our car in the parking lot. We got to the automatic double exit doors, which opened for us, only to set off that hideous BEEP BEEP BEEP which means that something in the cart either hasn’t been paid for or hasn’t had its special tag removed.
“Oh for God’s sake,” I said. We rolled our eyes at each other and waited for the manager guy to hustle over, which he did. One by one he started pulling items out of the bags. There were hundreds of items; this was going to take forever.
“Look,” I said. “We’re really in a hurry here (lie), my kids all have to be different places (lie), I’ve got a meeting (lie); can we just go?”
The guy made a half-hearted effort to look through a few more items as I stood there acting like an important person who did not have time to waste in this manner. Then he looked up at me –I’m tall– and smiled weakly.
“I guess you’re good to go,” he said.
I thanked him and we shoved the cart out into the blinding sunlight.
“Good work, Mom,” my children told me.
“Not really,” I said. “I just acted the part. Imagine if I were black and a teenager and wearing a hoodie, like”– and I named a couple of their friends. “Would it have gone down the same way?”
My son and daughters, all city kids raised in city schools, didn’t have to think for a second:
“Not a chance.”
“No way in hell.”
The only reason that manager let me go is because I’m white, female, educated, articulate and middle-class, and because I know how to use those things to my advantage. Which is what I had just done.
I’m thinking about that day at Target right now. And I’m thinking about a black teenage boy in Florida who was wearing a hoodie as he walked home, his hands full of candy.