I experienced racism that I didn’t know existed (still) in America, and it’s left me reeling. And sad. And most of all scared. I’m still trying to make sense of what happened.
I spent a long weekend at my friend’s cabin in a small rural town on Lake Superior. It was my husband and kids with my girlfriend and her husband and daughter.
I went to a bar in town with my girlfriend and her husband on Saturday night. I left there with an abiding fear-for-your-life feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m still shaking.
My girlfriend’s husband immediately knew something was up, and told my girlfriend, “Something is going down.” There was intense hostility in the air at the bar. Cutting I-will-fuck-you-up glares coming at us.
It took a few minutes for my girlfriend and her husband to realize those belligerent gazes were directed at me. My “race” was what was going down. My two blond, White companions figured it out before I did.
For the first 20 minutes, I tried to ignore it. I tried to meet the ominous glower of a few people there. I smiled, disarmingly. Giving them the benefit of the doubt. Without flinching, they held their penetrating scowl.
My girlfriend’s husband later told me that when he returned the dirty looks and death stares, the scowlers would look away to pretend like they had just been darting an aimless glance around the bar.
Someone hip checked me on their way to the restroom.
A man pulled out his phone and started filming me. That scared me. To what end?
Are they sharing footage of that chink bitch to “find” her and drive her out of town or off the road? I wonder how scared I should feel by incidents like this. Maybe my privilege is showing, and this is what it is to be a Black man everyday everywhere in America, even the liberal bits.
When we were all outside of the bar, at a bonfire 10 feet away from the entrance, we talked about what had unfolded. My girlfriend and her husband were appalled.
My girlfriend and her husband are outsiders in that small town. They’ve seen you’re-not-from-around-here gazes of scrutiny before. But they had never experienced that sort of intense hatred.
Neither had I.
I had tried to ignore it at first, and thought maybe people are like that to everyone here. But I knew it was more.
I feel so defeated and sad.
I am afraid of going to cabins in small, rural towns. I won’t be welcome there. People will find me threatening and offensive.
I did nothing to those people except show up in their line of sight, ruining their evening by being one of those people invading their space.
I know a few life-long racists who love me and hate all coloreds but me, and who would have busted skulls for me at that bar yesterday. But they know me on a personal level. That’s what changes people’s minds. You meet a couple “of the good ones” and the wheels start turning. Maybe some of them are okay.
Maybe I should have embraced last night as a teachable moment. I should have gone over and tried to be charming and disarming and changed hearts and minds — just a sliver.
But I was too sad and too scared.
My girlfriend was mortified. But not surprised because it’s a small, all White town with hard-working people and lots of barns and cheap beer and front yard flags with slogans like “Don’t tread on me.”
A few regulars at the bar overheard our conversation at the bonfire.
When my girlfriend’s husband went in to settle the tab, he was coldly told, “Thirty-nine dollars.” The bartender ran the card and gave it to him. No paper to sign. He asked about a receipt (to leave a tip) and was told nothing further was needed.
Word travels quickly.
We had talked about walking back to the cabin, only four or five blocks away. But I said I was too scared. I didn’t want to “accidentally” get run over.
We talked about me driving. (I had drank one Spotted Cow beer and 1 can of soda.) But realized that would place me in peril.
So my girlfriend drove back. As she drove, we were being watched. On the side of the road, a truck turned on its floodlights in our direction. There was a police car waiting (parked) beside it. The lights flashed into the car, that I was not driving, and we made it back without incident.
It felt like an ambush. To examine my driver’s license and question me. My residence. My intentions in the area. My immigration status.
I think back to a news story several years ago where a Hmong man shot and killed 2 White Wisconsin men. He was hunting, and accidentally traversed a piece of the White men’s land. They got in their pickup and zoomed after this man, yelling “Chink” and worse.
At the time, I had thought those White men were unsympathetic victims but the Hmong man was wrong. Dude, you can’t kill someone for calling you “Chink”. That’s a wildly disproportionate reaction.
But now, I get it.
Now, I finally understand why that man thought it was kill or be killed.
Now intimately acquainted with that feeling, I kind of want a gun.
I am sad and defeated. I was wearing a long, checked knee dress at the bar. I was not wearing anything BLM. Or femme political. Or provocative. I was jamming out to all those good-old-boy American standards, like Folsom Prison Blues and Tennessee Whiskey. I was clearly fluent in Americana. Wearing clothes from the Gap and Old Navy. And I was there with two blond-haired, White people. Still, it was not enough.
This is a new kind of racism. I thought I had understood racism before. Those annoying “But where are you really from?” sort of questions. People asking me my nationality and getting flummoxed, if not angry, when I answer “American”. People who hate “made in China” from an icky-yucky-gut-reaction sort of place. People who have BLM signs in their lawns but still call 911 when they see a Black man with a pick in his hair, gold grill, and sagging jeans walk through their neighborhood. Not because he’s Black; it’s but because he’s “suspicious” looking.
I’m used to racism that comes from people who profess to literally not have “a racist bone in their bodies”, but complicitly prop up racist systems like schools being funded by property taxes and needing to live in “good school” neighborhoods. Schools are more racially segregated now than they’ve ever been. (But it’s ok, because there are coloreds in my kid’s class and we have an adopted a____________ in the family.)
So yeah. I’m used to more nuanced, more esoteric racism. The kind that comes from people who don’t want to be racist, but will defend racist institutions that benefit them — with elaborate rationale.
This was brutal, cold, menacing racism. (From people as young as their 20’s and 30’s.) There was nothing nuanced about it.
Is this what it is to be a Black man in America every day? To feel this soul-crushing weight of fear?
I want to compare notes with Black men and Black women.
I don’t know how to wrap my head around it.
In the world of racism, I’ve had a lot of privilege. I’ve mostly only experienced “benign” racism in its most benevolent forms.
Even people who dislike coloreds don’t have a problem with me. Culturally, I’m White. I was adopted (as a baby) and raised by a White family. I’m not merely proficient in cultural Whiteness; it’s what I exude. My husband is White. I live in a 98% White neighborhood.
Racist people, who violently loathe people of color, have a problem with Black people. And Natives and Mexicans and Muslims. Their repugnant views, towards not-me others, are horrifying.
I’m aghast at my naïveté.
What is the solution? How should I have responded? Should I have confronted them? Launched a charm offensive?
What the hell do I do now?
Do I still go out to those sorts of watering holes anyway, otherwise the racists win?
Or do I stay away from “those places”?
I want to defeat the racists.
I also want to stay alive so I can come home to my children every night.
I am scared of that town.
I am prejudiced against Wisconsin and the North Shore.
And to think I had been so wont to mock and ridicule rural, White small town America.
I had dismissed them as a joke.
I had laughed at their backward, ignorant, uneducated ways. With pickup trucks and dirt roads and bad haircuts.
I don’t anymore.
They are not a joke. They are scary, and they don’t like me.
I know this sort of racism is everywhere in the United States and it’s not geo-specific.
But it doesn’t erase the trauma of memory.
Wisconsin, you can keep your Spotted Cow. I’m going to keep my life.