Thursday, December 31, 2020


Challenging. Unprecedented. Unpredictable. Difficult. Dismal. Brutal. Of the many adjectives I’ve seen applied to this year, probably the oddest is “odd.” I mean, 2020 wasn’t like your quirky, wayward cousin. It was a steady stripping away of lives, livelihoods, faith in democracy, and whatever fantasy of racial equality many of us white people were complacently enjoying. 

Of course it’s arbitrary to call December 31 an end to any of this, to look at it in some sort of rear view, as if we aren’t still facing all of these things. But don’t we all need a sense that some dark chapter is closing and perhaps a brighter one is ahead?

On the penultimate day of this fantastically fucked up year, Sir UncMo and I went for a walk. It was the first time in many months that we had gone anywhere together other than to pick up food or run something to my parents. We were at a park near where I grew up, a pretty one with sloping pathways, playgrounds, a little amphitheater, and a talking trash receptacle called Porky the Litter Eater that miraculously still works just like it did when I was a child.

The ground was blanketed in brown leaves that complemented the tan paint on all the park’s buildings. Nothing spectacular, but it was sunny and the air felt good. As we walked back to the parking lot, we slowed behind a couple who looked to be in their 60s. The woman was walking on a wooden beam bordering the road, holding her arms out for balance like a child. I can’t tell in retrospect whether that detail makes what happened next more surprising or less.

The man decided without a word to pull over and sit down, veering to the left. The woman, still in her own world, didn’t realize this at first. When she did, she cut across in front of us to join him. We both stopped to maintain a distance and let her pass. Since we both had to pee, I was focused on getting to the car and didn’t give her a second glance. But suddenly I heard Sir UncMo saying, “Are you OK?” He said it so mildly and carefully that I thought the woman, who was behind him and out of my line of sight, had fallen or something.

“No, I’m not,” she said. At this point she was sitting next to her husband with her chin up. I can’t remember whether she said “actually” at the end of the sentence, but if she didn’t, it was implied by her tone. “Is there a problem?” Sir UncMo asked. She held up a limp hand on an outstretched arm and shooed us away. “Just go on,” she said, dismissing him.

He turned away. “Well, you have a nice day,” he said. “I’m sure you mean that,” she snorted.

“What happened?” I asked with alarm, completely perplexed. Apparently on her trajectory in front of us, as she passed by Sir UncMo, this white woman had stopped and glared hard at him. We were wearing masks, but she wasn’t, so he was able to see her full expression. It was the same mean stare he’d gotten from our Trump-loving neighbors: the one that says, I don’t like you being here.

“Tell me that’s not racism,” he said to me in the car after explaining what happened. There was no other explanation for it. She’d looked only at the Asian man, not me. The only question was whether it was racism of the conscious, “Chinese virus” variety, or something more subtle. We may have walked too close for her liking—but she chose to focus her hostility only on him, and there were several other people within the same range of distance. This second scenario seems less likely, since she wasn't exactly being a stickler for pandemic protocols.

When I was in my early 20s, I had a chatty, friendly acquaintance with a guy who worked at the gym I went to. He was a Black man who one day told me about getting profiled in stores on a regular basis. You know, suspected shoplifter. I had the audacity to argue with him about this. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of, I don’t believe it—surely you’re imagining things. (Did this reality seem more unlikely to me because he happened to be light-skinned and the type to always button the top button of his polo shirt? Probably.) He gave up on me eventually and shook his head: “You don’t understand.”

I’m ashamed of this memory, of how incredulous I was, and have been, about what happens to people of color in this country. Even on this day in the park, some small reflex within me wanted to find a “rational” reason for this woman’s behavior. I guess that’s because when you’ve been living as a privileged white person your whole life, things more or less work the way they “rationally” should for you. Thanks to the advent of phone cameras, Trump’s encouragement, and, for me, witnessing my husband's experience, all of this society’s most irrational, cruel, and murderous tendencies are now on full display, no longer to be denied or ignored. Whatever change comes because of this will be too late for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others.

Tell me that’s not racism. This time I knew better. I couldn’t, and didn’t want to, explain it away. I wished I’d seen and understood what was happening in the moment, so that I could have stood with him.

“I have to be prepared for this,” he said, meaning that woman’s stare and future attacks of all kinds. Yes, sadly, he does. But also, we do, together. It struck me yet again how many people are fighting enemy on top of enemy for survival in this country. Sir UncMo and I joke that 2020 has been Project Stay Alive. The year left us with one more reminder, small and unsettling, of how relentlessly, unfairly hard that project is for too many people.

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