As the pandemic wanes, and I have to leave the safety of my whiteness-free castle, I know that racism is going to come roaring back into my daily life.
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.