Anger

When I was 19, I drove my college boyfriend home from school, and we kissed at a red light. Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw a police car stopped behind us.

“Uh oh.” I’d said.

My boyfriend laughed it off and said, “It’s not like we were sodomizing.”

At the time sodomy was still illegal in Texas, though only for gay people. After I dropped my boyfriend off and continued on my way, I noticed the police car was still behind me. The car followed me for several blocks, and then finally pulled me over.

When I asked why he’d stopped me, the swaggering, white cop had said, “Just a routine check to make sure your license and registration are in order.”

He made me get out of my car and hand him the aforementioned license and registration. After making me wait while he took my paperwork back to his car, he eventually came back and said that I was free to go.

He followed me the rest of the way home.

I understood he’d only stopped me to intimidate me. To exercise the power of his authority over me. To put me in my place.

I was just a kid then, and afraid of what someone in his position could do to me. If something like that happened now, I’d get a name and badge number. At the very least I’d file a complaint and at best sue for discrimination. I would not have any fear that a cop might murder me.

Having the luxury of not having to feel terrorized by the people who are supposed to protect and serve us should not be a privilege afforded only to straight, white people.

I have no idea what it must be like for people of color who have the legitimate fear that a routine traffic stop could kill them. I don’t know how the repeated headlines of yet another black person being murdered by police must affect their psyche. I can’t imagine the trauma that must cause.

But I think I have an inkling. The barest sliver of an inkling. Coming from a deeply racist small town in Texas, I have witnessed overt racism my entire life, but I’ve never understood it. The concept of it has never made sense to me. Human life began in Africa. We are all part of the same family tree. The idea of assigning value based on the amount of melanin in one’s skin is insane.

The times we are living through are insane.

I don’t know why the murder of George Floyd by police was the watershed for what I hope is radical reform of a deeply racist, authoritarian institution. It seems like every other week for as long as I can remember there has been a news story of someone meeting a similar fate. There’d be a flash of anger. A Facebook furor. But nothing ever changed.

This time feels different. Maybe the heightened anxiety of dealing with a global pandemic already had everyone on edge. Maybe outrage accumulates. Maybe enough was just finally fucking enough.

Even my mother back in Texas was angry. “They should round up all of those police that did that and shoot them.” She’d said. Of course, she’d also suggested that the people looting should be shot as well. True to her Texan heritage, her solution to most of life’s problems is to shoot them.

I get the anger.

I feel like I’ve been angry every day for nearly four years. I walk through town with my shoulders hunched. I clench and unclench fists. I’m angry at work. I’m angry at home. I go to sleep angry and wake up angry. My anger is a giant, red ball. A flashing police siren. Red. A splash of graffiti over the boarded window of a closed shop. Red. The spilled blood of another murdered black man. Red.

I do not know what to do with it.

I anxiously watch other people go to protests. Anxiety is an easy excuse when there is a deadly virus still rampant. But probably not the whole truth. If there was no virus, would I be out marching in the streets, adding my voice to the angry masses? Or would I still be curled up on the couch watching the last season of Supernatural, “liking” my friends’ posts to defund the police on Facebook?

In Seattle parts of the city look like a war zone. At 4:00am in my neighborhood, streets were fogged with teargas. The police station has been boarded up and abandoned. Tonight in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone people are calmly watching documentaries on a cordoned off street outside the empty station.

At 8:00pm the neighborhood cheers to support our healthcare workers.

I am at home, watching Sam and Dean battle wayward Angels. I respond to posts on social media with the red faced anger emoji.

I am angry in a general sense at the society that voted for the current white supremacist in chief who has used his platform to normalize bigotry.

I am angry at the machinery of institutionalized inequality.

I am angry about gerrymandering and marginalizing.

I am angry that the people who are supposed to protect us are often the biggest threat to our safety.

Then there are the little angers.

I am angry that having a middle aged body means that turning over in my sleep can screw up my back for two weeks.

I am irrationally angry at people who litter.

I am angry at people who don’t seem to know how to walk down a sidewalk.

I am angry at guys on gay dating apps who describe themselves as “chill.”

I am angry that my ceilings are so high in my living room that I can’t hang my mini blinds.

At any given moment, one or more of these big or little angers (or any number of greater or lesser angers in between) is fighting for dominance in my selfish, middle aged, white mind.

Most of all, I’m angry at myself. I’m angry that I have lived for nearly 44 years just accepting the status quo. Of allowing these atrocities and saying nothing. I may not know what to do with my anger or my anxiety. But I know the very least I can do is say something.

The Help

“I’m not your nigger-nanny,” my mom used to say when I was growing up. This was her stock response to me asking her to get me or do something for me that I was perfectly capable of getting or doing myself.

My mother was raised in a time and a place where she saw first-hand black women raising the children of affluent white families. Like me, she was born in a small, southern town where dropping the n-bomb was part of the everyday vocabulary. My father had a friend who he often went ‘coon hunting with called “Nigger Bobby.” This was the name he used to the man’s face.

Even as a child their way of speaking made me cringe. I grew up watching Sesame Street and the Electric Company. The world I came of age in was a politically correct one where everyone was equal, and where people went out of their way to not offend other people. Not that racism didn’t still exist. At home, my family still liberally used the n-word, and at school all the black kids were put in special-ed classes, and my aunt would lock the car doors as we drove through certain neighborhoods.

When I pointed out to my family as a teenager how racist they were, they were genuinely offended. My dad said in his defense, “I’m not racist. There are a lot of niggers that I like!”

Thankfully times have changed. Not only is the president of the United States a black man, but my racist, redneck family actually voted for him. They no longer use the “N” word. My mom, now a pre-school teacher, has adopted the term African-American when she feels that such distinctions need be made. My dad still has a lot of room for progress.

On my last visit home, my mom had me watch the movie, The Help, with her. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the film, or the book that it was based on, it’s about a young, white protagonist who sees the injustice in how the black servants raising the spoiled children of wealthy, white families are treated, and swoops in to rescue the poor, beleaguered colored folk who couldn’t possibly save themselves, thus ending institutionalized racism once and for all. Aside for the performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the film wasn’t much to write home about. My mom and I were both disappointed in it for different reasons.

I flew back to New York City, relieved to leave the South behind me. The small town where I grew up where people still hang confederate flags in their windows, where my cousin proudly brags that he’s a member of the KKK, where I know first-hand what it’s like to be discriminated against.

NYC is a haven of diversity just like Sesame Street promised, where people of every color walk down the busy streets in suits with briefcases, getting in and out of taxis. I feel more comfortable riding the A train where I’m often the only white rider than I do in the small town where I’m from that’s comprised almost entirely of white people. In New York it’s easy to pretend that the divide between white and black is a thing of the past.

When Carlos got a job in TriBeCa, I found myself spending a lot of time in this affluent neighborhood near the World Trade Center. It is full of children and women with strollers, so much so, that we’ve nick-named it Stroller-Town. Walking around Battery Park, I began to notice a strange phenomenon. I kept seeing black women pushing strollers with white babies. My first thought was that white babies must be the Must Have Accessory for rich, black women this season.  There were so many of them, walking down the streets, sitting in the parks, coming in and out of the expensive apartment buildings I could only dream of living in. Then it dawned on me. The women were not the parents, they were just taking care of the white babies of other people. As I watched more closely, I heard the women with Jamaican accents chasing down white toddlers with blond curls, being ordered around by petulant youngsters, demanding to be given ice cream. My stomach sank.

The Help made me believe that the world had changed since the early 60s, but the reality is that even in a diverse, progressive city like New York, certain institutions remain intact. I wonder about these children with their black nannies. Do they grow up to be more tolerant, more blind of something as ridiculous as skin color, or do they just get the idea reinforced that they are the ones who’ll grow up to be the movers and shakers, and black people will forever be their servants?

Last week in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, where everyone is poor, and therefore equal by default, I saw a little black girl walking down the street with her mom, wearing a Wonder Woman outfit, and was hopeful. I hope this little girl grows up knowing that she can be the super hero without needing some great white hope to swoop in and save her. I hope that she grows up never knowing what it’s like to be discriminated against for her color, or her sex, or her sexual preference (whatever that might turn out to be.) I hope that she grows up believing in herself and teaches the rest of her generation to do the same.