A Brief Encounter

Last summer, the family and I were road tripping through the Southeastern United States, when we stopped for a night at a hotel – somewhere between Alabama and Mississippi. Tony got the kids settled in bed while I went downstairs to do the laundry and catch up on some computer work.

The laundry room was small, barely big enough for the washer and dryer, but I grabbed a patch of linoleum, leaned back against the wall and got to work.

By the time the dryer switched off, I had gotten through the bulk of my workload. Feeling pretty accomplished, I loaded everything into our laundry bag and scooped up my computer, notebook, cellphone, and charging cords. I was just standing up – trying hard not to drop anything (or at least anything expensive) – when someone came around the corner into the room – or almost into the room.

He had barely crossed the threshold, when he spotted me and leapt back in alarm.

When I say leapt back, I don’t mean stepped back. I mean recoiled away from the door and urgently backpeddled into the hall, to the point where he was pressed against the opposite wall outside.

I don’t remember exactly what I said. I think it was something like, “Oh, hi.”

I do remember how surprised I was. Here was this grown man pressed against the opposite wall like he’d just encountered a rampaging bear. I also remember what he said.

“I am so, so sorry,” he said. “I really, really didn’t mean to scare you.”

I wasn’t scared. Not even close.

The guy was clearly over reacting. He hadn’t even startled me. He was just a normal looking guy. Probably mid-30’s, dressed in a t-shirt and athletic pants. Clearly, just another hotel patron coming in to do his laundry. His reaction seemed so out of place.

If anyone was out of line, it was me, taking up all the whole room, arms overflowing with poorly organized items.

“No worries,” I said. “It’s all good. Sorry to take up the whole room – gotta work when and where you can when you’re on the road, am I right?” I added with a laugh.

He chuckled and relaxed a bit, but didn’t relinquish his hold on the wall until I was long gone.

It was weird.

I wish I would have stayed and asked about that. I wish I would have said, “You seem frightened. Are you ok?”

But I didn’t. So I’ll never really know what happened there. I do know however, that this guy wasn’t just startled. He was scared to death – of me; and not in a social way. Not in a boy/girl way, not in a ‘wasn’t expecting to see you there’ way. An actual primal fear way.

I’ll never actually know why – because I didn’t stay and ask. But I keep thinking about what he said. “I really, really didn’t mean to scare you.”

He was scared of scaring me – and I don’t think it’s because he was afraid of me physically. I’m average height, average weight, average everything; just another northwestern Caucasian girl.

So here’s where we leave the realm of what we do know and go with what my gut tells me was really going on. Because this occurrence wasn’t just an isolated incident. It occurred in the most extreme southern states, where for many black men, as this man was, accidentally scaring a white girl isn’t just a funny incident. For many, many, many black men, accidentally scaring a white woman has meant arrest, imprisonment, and even death.

This isn’t hyperbole. It’s history – and it still happens all the time. If the roles had been reversed, I’d have been scared too.

Less than a year after that day in the hotel laundry room, America watched footage of a white woman in Central Park making a hysterical 911 call. Amy Cooper was standing in the middle of the grassy lawn, clearly physically safe, yet as she reported that she was “being threatened by an African American man,” she accelerated her breathing as if she was running for her life. In short, she exaggerated and fabricated, playing on longstanding systemic prejudices with the intent of hurting the man, who was just trying to spend his day birdwatching.

Somehow, the man had the wherewithal to keep his cool and quietly videotape the interaction. Doing so probably saved him from being arrested and jailed.

Amy Cooper isn’t the first person to intentionally use racism to eliminate those in her path. She’s just the first I’ve personally seen do so on camera. History is paved with the stories of white women whose portrayal of their interactions with black men resulted in murder, incarceration, and even the obliteration of entire communities, as in Tulsa Race Massacre, which occurred after a white teenage girl accused a black teenage boy of assault.

These things aren’t new. But technology is. Cellphone cameras may just be the most powerful force for raising awareness in the ongoing battle against racism and racial injustice, as evidenced by the murder of George Floyd later that same day.

I’ve seen news coverage of people dying in wars and terrorist attacks, but I have never witnessed a slow, methodical and intentional murder until I saw the cellphone footage of George Floyd being slowly choked to death. Even while onlookers screamed that the man in the officer’s uniform was killing him, even as they begged, pleaded and called for help, even as they stepped forward and were shunted away, the man continued to indifferently extinguish Floyd’s life. It was shocking in its unrelenting horror.

When I first began writing this essay, several months ago, 17 U.S. cities had been placed under mandatory curfew, imposed in an effort to help quell the rioting that broke out after George Floyd’s murder. These riots are attractive news fodder, but for every rioter, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of peaceful protestors, marching.

They are following the historical footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and many more.

The kids and I attended a local march in our own small town. When they asked why we were going, I explained to them that we can’t individually solve something as big as racism, and that our little march won’t do that either. But in times of great tumult, the one thing we can do – the one thing we must do – is simply stand in places that matter.

So that’s what we do. We add our bodies’ weight to the critical mass gathering in favor of peace and justice. We stand beside our friends and neighbors of all colors, creeds, and backgrounds. We support, we speak, we witness.

That’s just what we do. It isn’t much, but so often, the alternative is to do nothing. And that will not stand.  

After all, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good women and men to do nothing.”

In addition to standing in solidarity, we can also stand on the side of justice by:

  1. Being an ally. Those bystanders who pulled out their cellphones and hit record are heroes. We can all be heroes, if we’re brave enough to document and report.
  2. Educating yourself.
  3. Voting in every election.
  4. Providing resources, food and financial support to families affected by rioting.
  5. Standing in solidarity (it bears mentioning twice).
  6. And, as you advocate for other causes, making sure the rising tide lifts all boats. There is a long history of activism that only advocates for the few. The founding fathers advocated against tyranny *for white men only. Early feminists activated for voting rights *for white women. Make sure that whatever you advocate for – is advocacy for all.
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