Photo by PoPville flickr user Ted Eytan
Ed. Note: To be honest, I’m still processing this whole thing. OP explains to me in response to my query:
“It was such a weird experience – I almost wish I could track the woman down to find out whether she was part of a movement or protest. Or, it’s totally possible that she was just crazy. In any case, it had an impact on me for sure.”
Regardless of how it happened, as far as the conclusion: “White Americans cannot sit idly by and let People of Color do all of the work to bridge the undeniable racial divide in this nation.” To that I do agree.
Realizing my White Privilege on a Sunday Run
Two miles into this run and I’m really in a groove. I have made it a habit of going on a long run in downtown DC on Sunday afternoons as a chance to reflect and get some good exercise in before kicking off the work week. Today’s air is especially crisp and clear, and I am relishing every step of this run, as I know today could very well be the last mild Sunday before the polar vortex descends upon the city and hovers above for what will feel like eternity (i.e. until March).
The two mile mark on my usual path happens to be at the Trump International Hotel, a sight that, over the past few months, has generally elicited visceral responses of anger, disgust and disappointment considering the divisive state of affairs in our country. Today, my mindset is different. Perhaps I have been moved by a rush of Thanksgiving-induced gratitude over the past few days. As a gay, white man, life has moved forward pretty much as normal after the election, despite my worst fears. I wasn’t laid off. The stock market didn’t crash. No one is calling for gays to be rounded up into camps (yet). Washington hasn’t descended into chaos. I am feeling cautiously optimistic that a Trump presidency won’t have as much of an impact on my day-to-day life as I initially thought during my post-election grieving period.
As I trot passed the hotel entrance, I notice a young (early 20’s), female, black woman begin to jog alongside me. At first, I think that our paths have coincidentally overlapped for a few moments, but then I see that the woman is wearing dress slacks and a sweater, and she is carrying a messenger bag – definitely not your typical DC jogging attire. I skip to the other side of the sidewalk, and it becomes apparent that the woman is following me. She skips alongside me and begins mirroring my every move. A little unnerved, I ask “Can I help you?”
She replies, staring straight into my soul, “I don’t know, can you?”
Overloaded on endorphins and drenched in sweat, the following thoughts start rushing into my head: “Am I about to be mugged?” “Should I pause Spotify and call the police?” “What does this person possibly want from me?” Before I get the chance to ask, she presents me with a question.
“Do you work for the government?”
“No” I say. “Just trying to enjoy an afternoon jog.”
“Interesting” she replies. “I can’t stand the government.”
I am sufficiently freaked out.
We run along for a few more moments as she continues to copy my every move. Each time we make eye contact, she moves a little closer to me. At some points, she is less than a foot away from me and I worry that we may collide. Eager to ditch her, I ignore a “Don’t Walk” signal and dart across a busy street, weaving through oncoming traffic to get across. The woman follows me as closely as my shadow.
“How long are you planning to follow me for?” I ask shrewdly.
“Probably to the Museum of American History. Seems fitting right, a shrine to your kind.”
I start to digest her statements and speculate as to why this could be happening. The woman must be trying to prove a point. She is throwing it in my face that I am white and therefore responsible for all of the horrible things that have happened to black and brown people since America’s inception. I think to myself, “I’m not your guy. I’m progressive when it comes to race. I have black and brown friends. I worked in public education for almost 10 years, trying to improve schools for students of color. I’m not like one of those white people in the middle states who voted for Trump and doesn’t seem to be phased by people like Steve Bannon finding their way into the new presidential administration.
The defense I am building in my head is abruptly interrupted. “You are starting to turn quite PINKKK,” drawing out the word ‘pink’ in an almost condescending tone. “Am I flustering you?”
For reasons that I can’t explain or rationalize, this strikes a nerve in me. This woman has been following me for about five minutes now, and I want her to go away. And not question my self-proclaimed anti-racism.
“You know, it’s awfully harsh to judge me based on the color of my skin,” I snap.
Instantly, I realize the horrific irony of this statement. I wish I could grab the words and pull them back into my mouth. But I can’t, and my naivety is immediately confirmed by the woman’s response. “EXACTLY.”
With that, the woman peeled off our shared path as I continued running. I glanced back at her to find her looking up at the pink and gold sunset in front of Museum of American History’s entrance, seemingly praying or communicating with a higher power, although I will never be sure.
I continue my run, at first trying to shake this odd series of events. The further I run, the more the woman’s statements sound off in my mind. As a white person, It has been easy for me to block out the tragic implications and consequences of the 2016 election. Even as a gay man, I can blend in pretty easily, especially in DC. I’m typically not judged for simply walking down the street in a hoodie or for wearing the “wrong” type of clothing; or for entering a store that typically doesn’t see patrons like me; or for going for a simple jog in my neighborhood. For better or worse, I reap the benefits of white privilege. My encounter today served as a reminder that so many Americans do not share this privilege and face unwarranted discrimination and prejudice every single day.
I’m not exactly sure how to best support the evolution of American society on race. But, I realized today that my active participation is essential. White Americans cannot sit idly by and let People of Color do all of the work to bridge the undeniable racial divide in this nation. I’m not sure exactly what my jogging companion set out to accomplish when she started following me this afternoon, but I can assure you that she reinforced my commitment as an ally today. I will stand up and fight against racial inequities today and always, even if it’s difficult and uncomfortable, and regardless of who is in the White House.”