TOWOIT #211

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August 19, 2017… Day 212

On Friday I was invited to a Seahawks pre-season game, last minute, with some women from work. I have worked with them for years but haven’t been too tight with them. They’re 10-15 years older than me and really funny. They are put-together, caustic, fun, a little drinky. So I was honored and I said yes.

I told my mom and she said, “I thought we were boycotting the NFL because of head injuries and they won’t give Colin Kaepernick a job.” My mom loves watching football and I think yelling “Run, you son of a bitch!” at the TV is an important form of therapy for her. I said, “I know, I feel like a hypocrite.” But I’d only ever watched the game on TV, never in the stadium, so it was an adventure and an opportunity.

“I thought we were boycotting the NFL because of head injuries and they won’t give Colin Kaepernick a job.”

When I got to the pub where we’d be pre-funcing, the women (who are all white, like me) were chatting at a round table with two black men. “Oh,” I thought, “We have gentleman friends along!” Actually my co-workers were just cleverly poaching the table as the men seemed to be leaving soon. It was a bit of a “we’re all suddenly best friends” situation though, super jocular between the men and women. Everyone teased me for having no Seahawks gear on.

We were in the hallway on our way to the stands when the anthem played. I couldn’t see anything. A clump of people were just standing with hands over their hearts, waiting to proceed to their seats. I wondered if anyone sat down with Michael Bennett. I wanted to ask someone when I sat down. I didn’t want to ask the group of black men seated directly behind us, because I didn’t want to seem like a nosey parker white lady about it. I didn’t want to ask the white guy sitting to my left, because I didn’t want him to think–even for a second–that I was inviting white disapproval of black protest.

A cop who had been shot raised the 12th Man flag. I knew about him from the news. The stadium swelled with heroic orchestral music and the crowd was rapturous. The camera swung around behind him and displayed the crowd below him — thousands of people at his feet, roaring applause. There were fireworks. It was thrilling on a visceral level, but then again–team spirit is a close cousin to tribalism, nationalism, and mob mentality. I thought, “I guess we’ll still all have a nice time doing this when the bill of rights is gone.”

“I guess we’ll still have a nice time doing this when the Bill of Rights is gone”

We watched the game and had fun. The seats were wonderful. My companions joked a lot with the row of black men behind them and then an older white woman in front of us turned around and said, “Could you quiet down? All I can hear is your talking!!” She scowled at us. We were collectively a little too drunk to take criticism well. I whispered to the woman next to me, “I’m such a people-pleaser that this is killing me” and she guffawed. The woman on the other side of her said too loudly, “Well fuck you, lady, it’s not the symphony.”

A beer vendor in a silly hat passed by in the aisle. He looked really familiar. We smiled at each other. I saw him again when the women and I were making a herd-like run to the ladies room. He said, “Hey, we know each other!” But we still couldn’t figure it out. He asked me if I was part of the glass-blowing world. I wasn’t. I asked him if he’d lived in Alaska. He hadn’t.

After the game, the women and I went to another bar to get something to eat. The bartender and the waiters, the clientele, the decor — it all reminded me of working at a steak and seafood place in Juneau in a windowless cave inside an old art deco hotel. The conversations between us four women turned deeper and more serious. There were workplace rifts, hurts, slights, and burdens that I never knew about. We were eating these delicious teriyaki steak skewers and slowing down and drinking water. We were almost speaking baldly about real gender issues.

But a man to the left of me at the bar inserted himself into the conversation. A couple of the women were still feeling mischievous enough that they bantered back with him. This was a guy who bragged about the size of the diamond in his wife’s engagement ring, as he was flirting with my co-worker. He bragged about knowing a lot about whiskey. He bragged about knowing at least three different well-placed merchants who could get you a very high quality this or a very premium that. He bragged about the steak he was eating. The TV was right above us, and the Seahawks coach, Pete Carroll came on. The sound was off. “Look at that broken nose,” said one woman. “It looks good,” said another. One of them looked at the guy next to me and said “You have a broken nose. Like Daniel Craig!” There was then some friendly one-upsmanship about James Bond trivia. I said something casually about how a woman Bond would be fun, and the man said, “NO. James Bond is a man. That’s the way that it is. People are trying too hard to change society. Everything is fine the way it is!” I already thought he was a serious blowhard up to that point, but the vehemence with which he turned a lighthearted conversation on Bond trivia to an indictment of meddling feminists — well, I had his number.

“No. James Bond is a man. That’s the way it is.”

So then Michael Bennett came on the TV screen. He was wearing a camouflage shirt and his beard and hair were a little longer and less-kempt than I remembered seeing them. The reporters were probably asking him about why he sat down, but I couldn’t read his lips. I still didn’t know if anyone had joined him. The man next to me said, “So what do you guys think about–” (Don’t say it! I thought) “–Michael Bennett sitting down during the anthem?” One of my companions said, “You know what? It is what it is.” She said it a bit curtly, like she didn’t want to talk about it. In that moment I was a little  disappointed in that reply, but it turned out to be the least disappointing thing in the conversation.

The man went on to say that HE was in the military, HE had been around the world twice, HE had been in Afghanistan, HE was a firefighter now. And the flag was sacred cloth, and America paid those football players’ salaries. And the women I was with seemed to be just nodding along and letting him run with it. “My grandfather was a marine, so I get it,” said one. And the man said, “I’ve had to deal with some unsavory characters and I just want to tell them to go fuck themselves.” At this point I looked at my watch, stood up, turned to the man and said, “I support Michael Bennett 100% and I’d like to tell you to go fuck yourself.” I turned to the women and said, “I’ll see you all on Monday!” waved cheerily, and left.

“My grandfather was a Marine, so I get it”

This crap, this crap one week after Charlottesville. I was livid. I was vibrating on an unholy frequency. This is White America.

At the bus stop, a young black man approached me, saying he needed $20 for something. He interrupted his pitch to say, “Oh, you have the prettiest smile.” He had a lisp and was smaller than I was. He was really young. He had a southern accent and said he came to Seattle from Lynchburg, Tennessee. The Confederacy, I thought. I readily handed over a $20. This looks like white guilt, but I’m sorry you had to put up with so much crap, kid. I didn’t care if I was being scammed, right then. I just wanted to feel slightly less gross by doing a good turn for someone.

Michael Bennett is from a military family. Michael Bennett gets all of that the-flag-is-sacred-cloth stuff. He gets it. How hard is it — how hard is it really — to just imagine that you, as a white person, do not understand what black people go through in this country. That you just don’t get it. That there are things worth sitting down during the anthem for. That it is ok to see that. I wished I’d had the presence of mind to say some of that, any of that.

I was halfway home on the bus when I realized I was still clutching the big white linen napkin from the restaurant. It was smeared with teriyaki sauce from the skewers, which I had not eaten in a ladylike manner. I looked ridiculous.

The next day, Saturday, I was rattled and jangled still. I mentioned what happened to a white friend and she said I seemed awfully angry lately — that maybe I should consider getting help with my anger issues and how I react to people. Maybe I was too dialed in to politics, she gently suggested.

I don’t want to get less angry. Another friend of mine is a woman of color, is married to an immigrant from Mexico, has a little girl, and has spent her whole professional life as a community organizer among low-income people of color — SHE can look away from the news if it helps her. SHE can avoid the added hurt and anger that the headlines and Donald Trump’s face give her. SHE can be unaware of what’s happening in Washington, D.C. and cite self-care as the reason. But I’m a white woman who works in the financial industry. I damn well better pay attention to what’s happening. And if that means crackling with bad feelings, then that’s just what it means.

“I’m a white woman who works in the financial industry. I damn well better pay attention to what’s happening.”

On Saturday, the Boston counter-protest marches dwarfed the white supremacist rally. My white neighbor, sitting on her stoop, told me frankly that she would spend the rest of her life rooting out hidden racist tendencies in her brain, and dismantling institutional racism however she could. A (normally) annoyingly zen white yoga teacher friend put our entire Trump-voting hometown on blast in an uncharacteristically angry Facebook post. “This post seems shaming,” commented one person. “Yeah. That’s because it is shaming,” he replied.

On Saturday, I learned that no one sat down with Michael Bennett. But a white team-mate, Justin Britt, had hung back and stood right next to Bennett, with his hand on Bennett’s shoulder. It was a show of support. A frustrating display in some ways — why not just also sit down, Justin? — but it was something, it was not nothing. I hope.

On Saturday, I finally remembered where I knew that white guy who was selling beers at the game. It was at a day-long anti-racism workshop in the spring. He was called out for something by a young Latina and an older white woman sprang to his defense. No, no, he calmly said, gesturing that the white woman stand down. He didn’t come there to not be called out. He came there to learn.

 

Update: When I saw the women on Monday, they didn’t seem bothered at all by my abrupt style of exiting, and said that the guy was a creep and they hoped not to run into him again.

Sightseeing Car

July 4, 2017

I think since the Fourth of July is a travel day, that means I’ll be sidestepping the holiday altogether. It’s such a hot, dusty, crowded holiday sometimes and we’re sliding toward authoritarianism right now, so skipping it seems fine. But it doesn’t work out like that on the Coastal Starlight Amtrak train from Salem to Seattle.

By the time we cross the Columbia River and head up into Western Washington, I’ve abandoned my seat in coach and am stationed in the sightseeing car. On those big trains that come all the way up from L.A., the coach cars feel like dormitories. People are really camping out in there. There’s little babies, and odors, and sleeping bags. More than half of the curtains have been pulled shut. The sightseeing car is full of light and windows, with the seats facing out.

A couple of volunteer park rangers are narrating what we see out the windows. They have a lot of good information about rivers, the industrial stuff we pass, ships taking grain to Hong Kong, steel plants. Osprey nests. Local history. It’s a bit cheesy at times, but I enjoy the narration of the ride, and it’s kind of cute how many people are happy to be talked at by the old duffers in vests.

Different people sit around me and then depart. They half listen, half talk amongst themselves. A young man in head to toe Seahawks gear sits down awkwardly in the seat next to me for a while. I take him to be Middle Eastern. Two young Asian women across the aisle seem to just be getting to know each other. I catch snippets of their conversation. “It can be hard. Do your parents speak English?” “No, do yours?”

I’m half listening, half writing in my journal about my weekend at the coast. A little voice says, “Excuse me, but is anyone sitting here?” It’s a black girl of about 8 years old. She is wearing pink sweat pants and a grey sweatshirt with pink stars on it. She has many long black braids. She’s confident, she’s polite, she’s smiling. For the moment she’s unaccompanied by an adult. I tell her to sit down. She’s peering out the window but also keeps blatantly looking over at me writing. “Whatchu writin about?” she asks. I tell her, “Just my weekend. Stuff that happened.” She looks disappointed, like she doubted I had a very interesting weekend, and if it were her writing it would be something juicier.

A little while later, an older man comes in the car. I don’t take him for her grandpa at first because even though his skin is dark brown like hers, he has one long braid down his back and his facial features and body language remind me of the old Native guys in the town where I grew up. But he is her grandpa and they move a little further down the car to where there were two seats together. He is spare and stone-faced, with a ball-cap on and plain jeans and a t-shirt. He doesn’t react much to the girl and certainly not to anyone else around him, but she merrily fills the picture in. “Yes, this is my grandpa,” I hear her say to someone across the aisle. She’s turned around in her chair, long arms hanging off the back. “We go to the lake, but usually only when it’s good for fishing. We catch a lot of fish. And eat them.”

I remind myself not to stereotype. Just because he seems really Native American, that doesn’t mean he is. He’s just a travel weary guy with an inscrutable face. And the whole inscrutable face thing, that’s stereotyping too.

We pass a tree farm, and one of the volunteers is saying in the microphone, “This is a Christmas tree farm, but where on Earth do you think you could use a 30-foot tall Christmas tree?” The little girl’s hand shoots up. The old white guy points to her and she says, “IN A MANSION.” He says, “Well no, they just cut some of the branches off to make wreaths and the rest of the tree keeps growing.”

She turns back to the window, unfazed. She seems to know her answer was better than his. She seems pleased with herself, and reasonably sure others are pleased with her too. Not in a show-offy way, but just in a nice way.

I hear two people behind me talking. Their travel plans were both thrown off by the train derailment a couple of days earlier. They commiserate, and then start talking about other things. They both live in Seattle. The woman is white, in her late twenties or early thirties. I’d taken a peek at her earlier. I don’t know about the guy. He sat down after I looked last. I don’t want to look over and be obvious.

Then I hear her saying, “You know, that one, that loud-mouthed African woman.” I think, “Who can she be talking about?” and then realize she means Kshama Sawant, an Indian-American councilwoman. The woman is saying that raising the minimum wage to $15 has “ruined Seattle” and caused businesses to close their doors. The man she’s talking to says “Um… that’s all really… debatable.” The woman goes on to say that she herself got a pay bump when the minimum wage was raised, but she says it scornfully, like it was no good to her.

A man on the other side of them overhears the exchange and comes into the conversation. The two men are ignoring the woman now, choosing not in fact to have that debate. They are talking between themselves about volunteering for this or that Democratic state legislator’s campaign. They are both really well versed in the nuances of local politics.

The woman butts back in and says loudly, “Are you Hispanic?” The man sitting next to her says “Uh, no. Not at all.” She says “Ok, well I was just asking a question.” Then she says, “Where are you from, then?” He says, “I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio.” He is keeping his voice more casual than she is, but I can hear a certain tension sliding in. I can’t take it anymore, and glance over. The young man she’s talking to is the one I’d seen before, the possibly Middle Eastern (?) man in Seahawks gear. “Ohhhh” I think, as it all slides into place.

We’re approaching Centralia now. The little girl is still engaged with the scenery, the narration, her braids, her neighbors, herself. Her grandpa is still staring straight ahead thinking unknowable thoughts and betraying no emotion whatsoever.

The guys at the front with microphones are saying, “Centralia was founded by George Washington. No, not that George Washington!” They go on to explain that George Washington was the son of “a white servant girl and an enslaved black man” in Wherever, USA. His mother was afraid he would be sold into slavery, so she begged some people going west to adopt her son and take him with them. The family moved farther and farther west and I think George was a young man by the time they got to Washington. Stories of his entrepreneurial pluck. His ingenuity. How much the town loved him. How he was honored when he died in 1905.

I’m thinking, “Well, this is told like such a happy ending, but it’s a tragedy that this guy’s mother had to give him away because of slavery.” I think of Charles Mudede’s criticism of Nicole Brodeur—writing as if only white people are reading. I figure that’s what we’re all doing all the time. That’s America for you. One long rolling micro aggression, just like this train ride.

The train stops at Centralia, and our car is blocking an intersection. Cars are stopped waiting for the tracks to clear. A white couple in white middle age walk up and stop there, waiting. I look at them and think, “So you live in a town that was founded by a black man. Huh. Looks like Trump country.” I have no idea. I’m just stereotyping. He’s kind of sweaty and ruddy with a beer gut under his t-shirt and mussed up hair and sunglasses. She’s prim in her culottes with her little bob. I have no idea. But they seem very white and they could be Trump voters.

Then they’re smiling and doing big waves and I look over and see that they’re responding to the little black girl in the sweat suit and braids. She’s cheesing for them through the window. She’s waving like she’s royalty and her subjects have flocked to the tracks to watch her roll through her kingdom. I look to see if her grandpa looks amused. He is stone-faced as ever. I think, “maybe he’s like this all the time, or maybe he’s just really sick of white people.” As the train continues to sit there, the couple and the little girl both get distracted, but then as we pull away, there is a last beaming, waving connection—this time initiated by the white man on the sidewalk, who cranes his head and tips forward and makes the girl laugh with his goofy waving.

We’re running along the coastline now, and there are people down on the beach, on the rocks, on boats, on docks with their legs dangling off – mostly white people. The volunteer guys call our attention to a small island out in the bay, Fox Island. They begin another historical story, about how there was an Indian war because the governor of Washington was going to put “four large tribes and one small tribe” on a reservation out on that tiny island. I hear that the old white guys are trying, that they are saying the governor was responsible for the war, they are saying the names of the individual nations. They are saying it’s ridiculous that someone was trying to put all those people on a reservation on such a little island.

I think “HOLD ON” that’s not a reservation, that’s internment.

And then the guy speaking says that the tribes lost that battle but they “kind of won the war” because they got larger, separate reservations.

HOW IS THAT WINNING.

God. White people!

HOW IS THAT WINNING.

South of Tacoma, the crowds get bigger, browner, more citified. From the train it looks like some idealized version of a happy, multiethnic, multicultural society. Hijabis strolling in the sun. Big latino (latinx?) families. Kids running around. Black women with big natural hair and flowy skirts, swishing in the breeze. It’s just everybody. And people look happy. Tweets from that morning’s Black Twitter flash before my eyes. What the Fourth of July means, has meant to black people. How people find a way to carve out their own meaning, find their own sources of joy.

I read Black Twitter, and maybe I’m a bit of a lurker for following so many great black women writers on Twitter and reading their blogs and think pieces. But I figure if I keep listening to them, maybe I’ll be ready just on the off chance that I write something someday that finds its way to one of them. Because I don’t want to write like only white people are reading, or talk like only white people are listening, or experience the U.S. like only a white person can.