I am incredibly lucky. I am a well-paid religious professional who is able to live in a certain amount of moderate luxury as a single gay man. I work and navigate some fairly impressive academic and cultural circles between Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard and Princeton Universities, national policy and politics and the like. My intellectual work gets read and published and I am well paid to simply show up and share my thinking and creative work. I have literally traveled around the world. Lucky, yes…but I’ve also put in a ton of hard work and effort. I’ve had plenty of days where oats were my only meal and where I didn’t know where my rent was coming from. I’ve moved more than 50 times in my life. I have made sacrifices of relationship and family to achieve my professional goals. Some of it I would trade, some of it I would not.
I’m also black. This means that the pandemic has played out very, very differently for me than for non-black folks. When I read Tim Kreider’s piece for the Atlantic I’m Not Scared to Reenter Society. I’m Just Not Sure I Want To, I was entertained and of course appreciate the buoyant and subtle humor; the self-deprecation and awareness. Yet, I found myself on the outside looking in…again. Last week I published a poem about a white woman crossing the street to avoid me…in front of the church where I am the lead minister. The painful juxtaposition of her actions with my professional orientation to where we were located is something that I am accustomed to having grown up in the Boston area and of course being black in America. But interactions like that take on a different power in the context of mask politics and human interaction post-pandemic. The minefield of race is something that makes “reentering society” significantly more complex for me than the dainty positing of ideas that Kreider engages in.
Over the last year, I have had multiple weeks on end where I was the sole non-white face in zoom meetings. Something about the technology makes this even more jarring, if you are looking for it. When the meetings are large, with several pages of white only faces the image can be overwhelming…at least to my black sensibility. At the same time, when emerging from my home and not on zoom, I’ve been very aware how the only black people I have regularly encountered have been primarily service employees. The most racially telling moment of this pandemic was when I went to get my vaccine shots. Both times, I was the ONLY black person in a line of over 1000 people at the Gillette Center, while nearly all of the service staff (nurses, vaccine center workers) were black and people of color. The color line of the pandemic is incredibly stark and I’ve found myself regularly starving for blackness.
…being able to curate the whiteness of my days through the pandemic has been a blessing.
Although I’ve experienced a catastrophic amount of loss through this time (sadly not only to covid), the more disruptive aspect of this situation, has been the way it has racialized my work and my world. Because of my identities layered on my position and my proximity to privilege, I have regularly been the person to raise questions of access and empowerment for everything from tests to vaccines to education to housing. I have been in spaces where I remind people that their liberal agenda may not actually be what the marginalized people want or are willing to trust; and at times I’ve been dismissed. I have also been in spaces where I literally had to remind people that I am black. And all of this has been in the shadow of the ongoing murder epidemic of black people by police and the increasing resurgence and legitimization in our government of a white supremacist agenda.
As a result, being able to curate the whiteness of my days through the pandemic has been a blessing. I can choose to engage or not engage. I can be on screen or screen off. I can simply and honestly say, “I need a mental health break” or even go so far as to say “I need a whiteness break.” Going back to “normal” means I will have to surrender that kind of control. As my interaction in Harvard Square reminded me, whiteness is a weapon over which I have no control and often little defense. I would rather not have to return to being hyper-vigilant to the unconscious racism of strangers.
We must consider the impact of reentry on those of us who will have to sacrifice having been able to choose where and when we want to be the target of intentional and/or unintentional toxic whiteness. There are those of us who will now have to be on guard again for that person who wants to touch our hair, or comment on the shape of our eyes, or follow us around the shop floor, or quiz us on our accent or our country of origin. Even worse, some of us will have to once again face people who assume because of our voice, carriage or skin tone that we are white…erasing us completely. That sucks.
Reentry is not just about workload, sweat pants, weekends, circadian rhythm or depression. Reentry is, like everything else in the United States, a project of and an experiment in race. For someone like me, it is not a questions of whether or not I want to reenter the society we left in March 2020; I do not. I’m wondering how do I hold on to some of the safety and affirmation I was able to suddenly have access to when I left. I would very much like to continue cultivating a certain amount of emotional health that has come from keeping whiteness at bay. To paraphrase Kreider, I’d love for my world to continue to be devoid of that “bullshit.”