I’ve said, here and elsewhere, that one of the principal benefits of the pandemic is how I’ve been able to exclude racism and whiteness generally from my day-to-day life. Over the past year, I have, of course, still had to interact with white people on Zoom or watch them on television or worry about whether they would succeed in reelecting a white-supremacist president. But white people aren’t in my face all of the time. I can, more or less, only deal with whiteness when I want to. Their cops aren’t hunting me when I drive through my neighborhood; their hang-ups aren’t bothering me (or threatening me) when I’m just trying to do some shopping.
That’s because I haven’t been driving or shopping in person. White people haven’t improved; I’ve just been able to limit my exposure to them. I’ve turned my house into Wakanda: a technically advanced, globally isolated home base from which I can pick and choose when and how often to interact with white people.
To be clear, it’s not that most or even many of my interactions with white people are “bad”; it’s that I’m able to choose when to expose myself to interactions with potentially bad white people. That choice is a privilege I’ve never really had until this past year. Going out into white society for me is a little bit like a beekeeper going to get honey. I know what I’m doing: If I put on the right protection and blow enough smoke, most of the bees will leave me alone and the ones who don’t won’t really cause me that much pain. But I’ve got to put on the suit and the hat with the mesh and carry the smoke machine and be careful every time I want some goddamn honey. This year, it’s been like somebody said, “You know the honey comes in bottles now, right? You don’t have to risk being stung every time you want some food.”
It’s been a revelation, but it can’t last. With vaccination (I get my second shot next week) comes reentry into the larger society. I’ve been the “default” skin color in my personal life for a year, but as I open back up, I’ll be thrust again into a world where I’m treated like an “other,” one where white people feel empowered to just walk around like they own the place.
A weekend trip to CVS showed me that I’m not ready. I’m not ready to go back to accepting that, in a diverse and pluralistic society, some white people are allowed to just impose their implicit biases on the world, and the rest of us have to suck it up.
On Sunday, my wife went to CVS to buy Easter candy. It was exactly the kind of nonessential trip we’ve been avoiding for the past year, but the weather was nice, and she wanted the walk. She texted me when she was nearly done to pick her up, so she didn’t have to carry the heavy bags, and I took the kids with me for a nice little car ride.
I was idling in the parking lot, near the door, when another car pulled up, stopped right in front of the store (blocking traffic behind the car) and rolled down the window. An older white woman shouted towards the door, “Is this where you get the vaccines?” There was only one person standing outside of the CVS, a young Black woman, who looked to me to be no older than 16.
The Black teenager ignored the woman (as I teach my kids to do when strangers are shouting at them), but the white lady insisted: “I said, is this where you get the vaccines?” At this point, the teenager did this elaborate pantomime of looking behind her, a very clear “she must not be talking to me, a person just standing outside and messing with my phone” move. This, apparently, really pissed off the white woman who then yelled at the top of her voice: “IS THIS WHERE YOU GET THE VACCINES?” By this point, a small traffic jam had piled up behind her, and the cars started honking. She yelped in disgust—“the service!”—and drove off.
If I had been on my game, if I had remembered my beekeeper suit, I would have rolled down my widow and spoken up on behalf of the teenager. I generally try to ignore bias directed at me, but I cannot abide bias directed at young people. Pre-Covid, I’d have been ready with some witticism which both answered the lady’s question and made clear that I disapproved of her haranguing a young person.
But I’ve been living in my white-free castle for a year. My mind and my mouth bottlenecked with thoughts about why this was happening, whether I was “supposed” to speak up, and what my children would think if they saw me getting in a shouting match with an old white lady. By the time I’d figured out what to say and how to say it, the moment had passed.
And then I was left with the other side effect of racism that people don’t always see: the shame. Did I fail to show solidarity with this young Black stranger? Was I part of the permissive culture that has allowed that white lady to exist? Did I miss a teachable moment that could have showed my children how to stand up to people? It’s been a year since somebody else’s racism made me feel like I failed.
A lot of white people have no idea what I’m talking about. I know that because I posted this story on Twitter and the responses from some of the white people were so typical. Just a bunch of recentering on the experience of the white lady shouting questions. “Why didn’t the young woman just answer the lady’s question?” was a common refrain. “What’s wrong with asking other people for help?” I suppose if you are a part of the majority culture and aren’t regularly confused for an employee, the white lady’s question seems innocuous (at least at first, before she starts screaming). Multiple white people brought up the experience of wearing a Hawaiian shirt at Trader Joe’s and being mistaken for staff. As if wearing the distinctive outfit of a chain-store employee is the same as “wearing” black skin outside of any old store.
If I’m walking around Yankee Stadium in pinstripes and cleats, you can ask me who’s on first. Otherwise, look for context clues, like the giant scoreboard with all the information on it, to solve your problems.
Look, for those who still don’t get it, the first issue is that the white woman was not asking for help; she felt entitled to it. She didn’t say, “Excuse me, young lady, would you happen to know where I can get a vaccine?” That’s just etiquette 101. That’s how I would ask an actual employee, in a uniform and everything, a question. I use the fact of an employee nametag to say, “Hi, Brad. When you have a moment, can you point me to the aisle with the life-saving medicine?” I don’t use the power of knowing their name to say, “Can I speak with your manager, Brad?”—as is perhaps the intention of their paymasters. Treating everybody with respect, especially when you are the one in need of assistance, is just something people are supposed to do.
The second issue is that the assumption, by white people, that Black people were put on this earth to serve them is a very real and annoying thing that happens in this society. Every Black person I know has some story of when a white person assumed they were staff at a business they were both shopping at. Just a few weeks back, there was a story about a Black guy—a well-known attorney and media expert—who withdrew his name from consideration to be on the board of directors of a company, because years earlier the white CEO had mistaken him for a valet, even after they’d been seated together at the same dinner table. I myself had a white lawyer hand me an interoffice mail envelope, like I was the mail guy, at a law firm I was interviewing at (I didn’t take the envelope, or the job). This happens way more often than some white people seem to think it happens.
It’s an unconscious bias, and, if I’m being generous, I’ll assume that most white people don’t know they’re doing it most of the time. But, if you’re Black, you do notice it. And after about 500th time it happens, you get really sick of it.
It’s exactly the kind of everyday racism that I’ve been able to avoid for the past year: the crap that white people do without even knowing they’re doing it. Whether I’m the person outside the store, or just the person watching along, it’s these little bits of racial bias that I could really do without. It’s not that I can’t “overcome” any of it—it’s that I resent having to. I despair of going back to a world where the slings and arrows of outrageous white people are part of my day.
I’ll shake off the rust, eventually. A year from now, when I go to pick up my wife from CVS, I’ll be ready for white ladies like the one in the parking lot. I’ll tell her a version of what I always tell white people in the suburbs who demand directions like my name is Waze: “No, sorry, the [whatever you’re looking for] isn’t here. You have to try the one in Harlem: 1619 Martin Luther King Boulevard, just a few blocks from Marcus Garvey Park. Good luck.”