This article by Elie Mystal appeared in the Nation on March 23, 2021:
I’ve said, here and elsewhere, that one of the principal benefits of the pandemic is how I’ve been able to exclude racism and whiteness generally from my day-to-day life. Over the past year, I have, of course, still had to interact with white people on Zoom or watch them on television or worry about whether they would succeed in reelecting a white-supremacist president. But white people aren’t in my face all of the time. I can, more or less, only deal with whiteness when I want to. Their cops aren’t hunting me when I drive through my neighborhood; their hang-ups aren’t bothering me (or threatening me) when I’m just trying to do some shopping.
That’s because I haven’t been driving or shopping in person. White people haven’t improved; I’ve just been able to limit my exposure to them. I’ve turned my house into Wakanda: a technically advanced, globally isolated home base from which I can pick and choose when and how often to interact with white people.
To be clear, it’s not that most or even many of my interactions with white people are “bad”; it’s that I’m able to choose when to expose myself to interactions with potentially bad white people. That choice is a privilege I’ve never really had until this past year. Going out into white society for me is a little bit like a beekeeper going to get honey. I know what I’m doing: If I put on the right protection and blow enough smoke, most of the bees will leave me alone and the ones who don’t won’t really cause me that much pain. But I’ve got to put on the suit and the hat with the mesh and carry the smoke machine and be careful every time I want some goddamn honey. This year, it’s been like somebody said, “You know the honey comes in bottles now, right? You don’t have to risk being stung every time you want some food.”
It’s been a revelation, but it can’t last. With vaccination (I get my second shot next week) comes reentry into the larger society. I’ve been the “default” skin color in my personal life for a year, but as I open back up, I’ll be thrust again into a world where I’m treated like an “other,” one where white people feel empowered to just walk around like they own the place.
A weekend trip to CVS showed me that I’m not ready. I’m not ready to go back to accepting that, in a diverse and pluralistic society, some white people are allowed to just impose their implicit biases on the world, and the rest of us have to suck it up.
On Sunday, my wife went to CVS to buy Easter candy. It was exactly the kind of nonessential trip we’ve been avoiding for the past year, but the weather was nice, and she wanted the walk. She texted me when she was nearly done to pick her up, so she didn’t have to carry the heavy bags, and I took the kids with me for a nice little car ride.
The author, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, is the justice correspondent at The Nation.
In the rest of this article, Elie Mystal recounts an incident in the CVS parking lot which affected him deeply. While sitting in his car waiting for his wife, an older white woman pulled up in front of him and shouted a question at a young Black teenager standing outside the store, “Is this where you get the vaccines?”
The Black teen ignored her, the white woman shouted the question again, and the Black teen ignored her again. The white woman then drove off after “yelping” in disgust, “the service,” having mistaken the Black teen for an employee. It must have been a loud and coherent “yelp” for him to have heard it. That was it, but the incident had a profound effect on Mr. Mystal, which he analyzes.
It is so sad that Mr. Mystal feels so uncomfortable around whites. Harvard must have been an ordeal for him. Even now, his encounters with his fellow editors and white employees at The Nation must be terribly painful. No wonder he enjoyed his voluntary COVID isolation!
The incident he described was typical of the sort of lived experience that Blacks must encounter every day. Add that to the explicit and implicit bias, microaggressions, inequities, and low expectations. No white, even the most woke, can ever understand what Blacks go through.
If only there were a Wakanda for Mr. Mystal to retreat to. But, alas, no majority-Black country in Africa would meet his standard of living, so he will have to stay in the United States and continue to endure its intolerable whiteness.