When I was my daughter's age, there was a little white girl I wanted to play with. Her parents didn't allow it, so I shrugged it off and went off to play on my own. At the time, Mom didn't tell me why the girl wasn't allowed to play with me. And to those parents' limited credit, they didn't tell me either. It was much later that I was finally told it was because I am black.
When I was just a little bit older than my daughter, a white boy in my class called me a nigger on the walk home from school. I turned around, kicked him hard in the nuts, and then chased him home. Classmates were around. They heard what he said. They saw my response. And when the kid and his father came to school the next day, looking for witnesses to report me, my friends had my back. And I don't think it was because they were afraid I'd beat them up too (I wouldn't have). They had my back because in their elementary sense of ethics, they knew it was the right thing to do.
Fast forward thirty years, and some of those same friends who had my back in grade school, have turned their backs or stood in palpable silence as I and people who look like me have begun to be harassed by racists emboldened by my "friends'" chosen savior. Those friends no longer have my back. They have stabbed it.
New friends, better friends, promise they have my back in the fight(s) to come. And to the extent that their hearts are true and their spirits strong, I believe they do. But I also know that the beat downs along the way (some reputational, some legal, and others, I'm sure, physical) are coming as much for my allies as for me and people like me.
And the tests my back-havers will endure will be many, with varied expectations of advocacy and intervention.
When I studied abroad in Russia one summer, I was one of maybe two dozen black people in the entire city of St. Petersburg. It wasn't long before the neo-nazis under Nevsky Prospekt saw in me an easy mark, and the abused and down-trodden Roma saw in me someone who, finally was lower on the whipping post than they were. I got through those two months sometimes by hiding in my room but mostly because two white male friends who spoke better Russian than I did, essentially took shifts hanging out and exploring the sites with me. They had my back in a most literal sense and I will forever be in their debt.
Last Thursday, when I finally had to leave the house (pesky job and adulting responsibilities), I was anxious. Friends and others around the country were already reporting racially abusive language and physical acts. But though I live in Denver, CO, I was on alert as I walked out my door. What would the rise of the Age of Trumpence have in store for me that day?
Very little, it seemed. I parked in a parking garage and scurried to my office hours, encountering no overt racial enmity whatsoever. I carried a large box several blocks to another meeting downtown and encountered nothing but either averted eyes or really earnest and hyper-kind smiles. I got through the day! Yes! And as I walked back through downtown, to the garage, I allowed myself a little relief.
Then a car rolled up slowly beside me, which was odd because there are no parking meters on that part of the street, nor any storefronts. A sneering voice said something out the window to me. I didn't catch all of it but I did hear "Trump's White America." And as I picked up my pace, without looking at the car or saying anything, the car sped up too and drove off with the sound of the occupants' malicious laughter.
I was shaken. But I wasn't alone. There was a thirty-something looking white guy who was just a couple feet ahead of me. When the haters rolled up and pronounced the truth of the day, my sidewalk neighbor glanced over his shoulder at me and the car. And here's the thing: he didn't say or do anything. He just kept walking.
I won't have friends like my buddies in Russia around me everyday. I need to rely on the kindness of strangers in this Age of Trumpence. But can I? When 1/4 of the voting-eligible population saw an opportunistic racist and xenophobe and said, "Yeah, I'm cool with that." And nearly half of the voting-eligible population saw the rise of the opportunistic racist and xenophobe and said, "Yeah, I don't care enough about that to vote to keep it at bay." When nearly 3/4 of those who could have had my back chose or enabled those who'd rather but a bulls eye on it, can I rely on the kindness of strangers and still feel safe in the land of my birth?
I am tired of abuse. I'm tired of the shocked white moderate and liberal realization that white supremacy isn't America's underbelly, it's fundamental to too many Americans' national identity. I'm tired of those with more privilege and security than I have ever had or ever will have here telling me THEY need ME to fight the fight that THEY should have been fighting with their families and friends.
I need sanctuary to recover my footing, heal my broken heart, and raise my daughter in a space of genuine compassion and safety. I need to relearn who I can trust to have my back as I have theirs, and who offers nothing but smiles and lies.
Sometimes, getting out is the best course of action. Trumpenistas may triumph when I and others leave. They may even try to block the right of return for anyone who departs. But if those who have the wherewithal (and strategic privilege) to stay and fight prevail, then the Trumpenistas will win this terrible battle but will lose the long and bitter war for this country's soul.