A Black Response to Tim Kreider on Reentry

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.”

– ALD

 

Anniversary

Mural by: Xena Goldman, Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain, Niko Alexander and Pablo Hernandez

To the white woman who crossed the street to avoid me today:

I saw you coming, masked and middle aged
Down the street of my church
Toward me, a minister of faith
As I waited to meet a different white woman
Who I had not seen before in person.

Unfamiliar, I searched your face from a distance
And surmised it was not you I was meant to meet.
But you fully introduced yourself to me
Without a word or a gesture
When you visibly stiffened
And “New England avoided” my gaze
While I stood there
Watching you
As you deliberately and most intentionally
Crossed the street
To avoid any proximity to me
Like I would do you harm.

There I stood
On the other side of your whiteness
Looking more youthful than my 56 years
Baseball cap
Athletic body
Slim, virile
And also masked
…but Brown
Brown
Brown
The only darkness in the bright afternoon of your sunny spring day.

There I stood
A threat to you
And I watched as you force stared steely eyed
Into a distance beyond me
Where you would be safely
Away from me
And this “confrontation”
Between your peaceful white walk
And my dangerous black gaze
(On my street.)

And I thought to myself
“I’m standing beside my church…
The one I lead
As minister/ CEO
The one with my name outside
The one I work to keep safe
The one for which I memorialize the dead
And name the newly born
For fuck’s sake, even at my church, I’m not safe
From goddamned white fear
.”

Today,
On the anniversary
Of the murder of George Floyd
I’m reminded
That whiteness is a weapon
Wielded suddenly, irrationally
Without consequence.
And whiteness doesn’t need a knee for nine minutes
Or a tazer or a gun to murder
In a thousand different toxic ways
Every
single
day.

– ALD

 

Article about the George Floyd mural artists:

https://hyperallergic.com/567663/george-floyd-mural-minneapolis/

Links to other work of the artists:

Xena GoldmanCadex Herrera, Greta McLain Niko Alexander and Pablo Hernandez