The evening of the 4th night of the Republican convention, I went out to dinner with my husband and my in-laws. It was an ordinary weeknight, except that the restaurant was unusually crowded. My mother in law speculated that it was crowded because people wanted to have dinner early before getting home to watch the “highlight” of the convention, where the candidate would accept his unfortunate nomination.
We make an unusual group. Me, a plus-size black woman in my mid-30s, and my husband, a white man about 15 years older than me with elderly parents. Sometimes when we go out, they’ll say, “Party of 3?” And we say, “No, there’s 4 of us.”
I’m used to being stared at when I am out in mostly white spaces, especially when I am with my little family. But as we walked to our table, one couple stared at us so hard that they stopped their conversation. They looked uneasy and nervous. And they wouldn’t stop staring at me.
We were seated across from them. Making matters worse was that, due to the crowd, we were seated at what is literally the restaurant’s smallest booth, and I was squeezed in so tight that the table moved every time I took a deep breath. Faced with the choice between asking to be moved, (which would have involved asking my elderly mother in law, who is frail and uses a cane, to struggle to get up and then wait another 15 minutes for a seat), or sitting there hoping dinner would go by quickly, I made the second choice. And the couple kept staring.
I tried to ignore them. I am not sure if it was hostile or curious, but it was definitely one of the several types of “black stares” I have been subject to in my life and we all knew it. My husband said they stared like we were “animals at the zoo.” They stared until the waiter brought them their check, at which time they whispered audibly about getting home so they could watch the Trump speech. They scurried away, and I couldn’t help but be relieved when they were replaced with a friendly looking black couple.
I have wondered for the past year what Trump’s normalization of racism, his liberation of angry white people from “political correctness,” would do to the daily lives of black people. I’m old enough not to be shocked by racism, old enough to have been raised to be “twice as good.” But I’m too young to know what it was like to live in a “George Wallace” America. What will happen when the veil hiding the most virulent hatred from polite society is lifted? I spoke to my mom and grandmother the day after Trump’s fear mongering, hateful speech. After we all offered our multigenerational perspectives, Grandmother said, “You think this is bad? Just wait.” She did not elaborate further, and the ominousness of her tone reduced my mother and me to silence.
She’s right. My life as a black woman is certainly different than Grandmother’s when she was my age. While I’ve never been free from the literally constant racism (it’s only since I left the work force that I’ve experienced a life without daily microaggressions for the first time), compared to what she went through my life has been easy. And I am heartened by my “woke” white friends who go around shutting down racists on Facebook like a digital game of Whac-a-mole. It is good to see Trump’s demagoguery openly condemned by so many (others, however, seem to have made a deal with Lucifer). And when I woke up the morning after the speech, the birds were indeed singing as the world continued to turn.
I wouldn’t be a good Democrat if I believed in the dystopian nightmare Trump is selling. But the bottled up resentment that has been allowed to flourish will not be put back soon, in fact it has always simmered on the surface or just below it. We will encounter more of this specific category of people: people who used to be quiet or stick to “code words” who now feel free to stare openly, to comment, to intimidate, to blame us for “division” and “racism” when we have the audacity to remind them that we are black.
In those moments at the restaurant, I knew that not only was I a curiosity, but I was acutely unwanted, a situation created by race and magnified by the social politics of size. As well read and well versed in societal racism as I am, and as sure as I am of my right to exist in public as both a black woman and a person of size, I was frozen, my mind lost to its calculations — whether to say something or stay silent, my discomfort vs. my family’s inconvenience. Compounding the overthinking was the knowledge that these incidents are likely to increase, because I live in a red state where the nonsense seems to speak louder than anything else.
Later that night, the staring couple went home to their living room to watch and applaud a man who cannot speak or read above a 4th grade level, a man who gave a Mussolini speech with “fear of the brown people” as its central narrative. I can only hope at this point that Mr. Trump will be defeated and end up nothing more than just a horrible symbol for white angst. I’m only relieved by the idea that I can and will speak louder — maybe not in the restaurant (it is not always a good idea to verbally confront racists) but elsewhere. Trump has done less than nothing for black people on his own, but his horrifying candidacy has at least inspired us to speak out and assert ourselves and try to affect change.