Unsmiling

I wish I had the ability to write today as a short story that could effectively communicate the pathos of a hundred little actions culminating in an unsmiling face of the man behind me at the Walmart checkout.

Because I can’t write the story or essay I would like, I’ll put down the day in notes so that at least i can look back on this.

I volunteered for Refugee Services of Texas. I had initially signed up to volunteer with them almost two years ago, and then was too wrapped up in pregnancy and depression to do anything more than was required of me. Then I went to the orientation in a fury after the inauguration of the man most likely to start WWIII. And again did nothing. So feeling sick about the state of our country this Fourth of July, I signed up for a mission: apartment setup for a family. Essentially, this means shopping for them and getting all the items to their apartment before they arrive.

It took about 7 hours, 3 trips to walmart, 9-10 trips with groceries and house supplies in the Texas July sun around an apartment building and up a flight of broken concrete stairs. The apartment was about as bad as landlords can get away with in the US, M’s knees and hands were black from crawling over the floor and dead bugs with scattered liberally around, almost as if left with care.

M, 11 months, was strapped to my chest through walmart and then the trips back and forth to the car for the bags.

It was awful.

I was not filled with a deep sense of joy at helping my fellow man. I was depressed and sad and very, very tired.

And this sorrow culminated in man at the checkout that wouldn’t smile or engage. I tried apologizing once; he had three items and it was absurd that he was behind me, because checking out must have taken nearly three quarters of an hour. I thought he might have not heard my first apology or my second. But the third left no doubt: he had heard me, he had seen, and was resolutely not going to smile or nod or in any way acknowledge me.

And here I should probably mention that I am white, he is black, and I had moved my purse to my shoulder during the process of checkout.

I can’t know, of course, what was going on inside his head. I can’t know if he is deaf, and simply wears a grouchy face as part of his normal expression. I can’t know if his stomach hurt or if he doesn’t like women.

I can’t know, in short, whether he held an opinion on my skin tone or the position of my purse.

But that’s where my mind went, and where it remained for the rest of the day: on the unaccountability of privilege. Because none of my actions thus far, or any after this, matter. No opinions I hold, on race, on black life matters, on police brutality, matter. At that moment, I was just a white woman moving her purse away from a black man.

He’s right. He’s right not to smile.

It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t the reason I moved the purse. …although now I have to ask myself if he was. Did he see something in my face at that I didn’t even realize was there?

I have to stop now, because the laundry is done and I have to go pick it up.

And I don’t have an answer to this. I wanted to sit down and write about inequality, about not making nice or pretending everything is ok, when in face we live in a broken country. Instead I am left wondering about my own head. Because up until this writing, I was certain I moved my bag in order to have enough room in the cart. And now I don’t know. I’ve seen my mother suddenly retract after an action or statement that wounds, suddenly and fiercely claiming all deniability. How do you walk yourself back from that self knowledge?

 

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