“No. Let’s go at least another 30 minutes, until we get to a more populated area.”
“Fine, but we should stop while it’s still light out.”
This is the back and forth that takes place when you and your Black boyfriend are driving through middle America, and need to eat dinner. While other families on their road trips are playing the license-plate game, looking for an object that starts with the letter Y, and singing along to their favorite songs, we are strategizing—always strategizing.
We didn’t used to be so careful. Once, when driving up to Michigan from South Carolina to visit grad schools, we stopped in Kentucky to stay the night. In the morning, we were greeted by several middle-aged white men, who spread themselves out across all of the available breakfast tables while we went through the line to get our food. I sat in a chair in the lobby, and my boyfriend stood, while they stared us down for 10 minutes straight–not eating, just watching us–until my boyfriend said, “It’s time to go.” It was the first time I remember being genuinely afraid in my adult life, as layers upon layers of privilege had protected me from fear of violence or exclusion up until then.
After that, we were more careful. When we moved to Michigan, we wanted to live halfway between our schools, so neither of us would have to drive very far. The town at the halfway mark was known for its continued association with the KKK, including public cross burning ceremonies and well-documented incidents of racism in the schools and community. We changed our plans, lived near his school, and I drove an hour to class 3-4 times a week. It was not a decision made out of preference or convenience, but one of survival. We went where we knew we were safe. Where we knew we could live our lives without fear. Avoiding dangerous situations, practicing caution, presuming yourselves guilty of some unknown offense at all times was a language I had to learn–a language I am still learning.
In the weeks after the election, we were on edge. Multiple friends had warned me of incidents involving interracial couples, including one couple who’d had a Nazi symbol painted on their apartment door. We felt safe in our neighborhood, our town, but it felt like we were constantly waiting, preparing for some unknown force of intolerance to strike.
That force struck this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia as white supremacists and Neo-Nazis marched through the streets, torches burning, racist, bigoted, and anti-semitic howls echoing, violence ebbing from their limbs.
The day after the brunt of the chaos, we had to drive both of our cars from South Carolina to Michigan, passing through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio. We were on high alert. Which brings us back to the strategizing.
We stopped at a Wendy’s. Went in separately. Ordered separately. Paid separately. Took it to go. Went back to our separate cars. Ate in the parking lot like two strangers. As I sat there in my car, looking out my car window at my boyfriend, I felt a brand of anger I couldn’t name.
My anger had two levels. The first was a pure, self-indulgent, and child-like anger. It isn’t right, it isn’t fair, it shouldn’t be this way. That kind.
The second level was one of self-loathing. I was angry at myself for being angry, for acknowledging my own pain and discomfort when others were far more familiar with it than I—my Muslim friends, my Latinx friends, my Black and Brown friends, my LGBTQ+ friends, and mostly, the man in the car parked next to mine. The man whose hands shake fiercely when we are pulled over. The man who asks me to carry his bags through the mall so that he isn’t followed around the store. The man who gets asked what sport he plays rather than what he’s studying. The love of my life, whose skin has emblazoned upon him a permanent target, a slew of unfavorable labels that he attempts to shake off with a collared shirt and an advanced degree.
I allow both of those angers to remain in me, because they each serve a distinct purpose in my life. I give myself the space to feel the very real pain and fear that I do each day. It’s the catch in my chest when I see a car pulled over in our neighborhood that might be my boyfriend’s. It’s in the way I fret over the safety of the children I do not have yet. It’s in the numbers, which speak volumes. As late as 1991, less than half of Americans polled approved of interracial marriage. While that percentage now sits at 87%, support for and approval of interracial marriage has consistently lagged behind other evolving racial attitudes. I do not forget this. I cannot forget this.
The second level of my anger reminds me, though, that once I leave the privacy of my own head, heart, and home, this is not about me. Charlottesville is not about me. Ferguson is not about me. Charleston is not about me. These places, these spaces, these moments, are about Black and Brown Americans living in a country that always seems to forget. A country that always has an excuse. A country that is more willing to paint predators as victims than it is to exorcise old wounds and have critical conversations about race, equity, and justice. A country with a leader who hesitates to denounce racism, bigotry, violence, and oppression. An America that they do not deserve, that is not fair, that is not right, but that they are trying to survive in.
I have spent the better portion of the past few years working on practicing grace. Trying to offer patience and understanding to those who are blind to the realities of racial tension in America. I give them grace because I know that I likely once sat where they sat—not knowing, not seeing, not understanding. I give them grace because I know how much I still have to learn, that I will never know wholly. But now, as men march the streets bearing torches, as I watch weekly videos that end with lead in the chest of another Black body, they are running out of excuses for their blindness, my heart’s capacity for patience and understanding is dwindling, and I am running out of grace to give.
If you pray for Paris, but not for Orlando, I have no more patience for you. If you condemn attacks on Belgium, but do not condemn the 9 mosques targeted each month in America, I have no more understanding to spare. If you speak out for Cecil the Lion, but not for Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Terence Crutcher, Jordan Edwards, and so on and so forth, I am fresh out of tolerance for your conditional love. If you are one of those in this world who will love, protect, advocate for, and defend me, but not my boyfriend, my grace cannot sustain you any longer.
Authors Note: If, after reading this, you want to have a conversation with me, please reach out. No matter how difficult, tense, or uncomfortable that conversation may be, it’s worth having.