The backpack incident

Ever been smacked in the head by your own whiteness, assuming you are white?

I’m in the supermarket waiting to buy a pound of salmon when I realize someone is trying to get my attention. “Ma’am? Ma’am?” she says to me. She is a brown-skinned woman with her hair in a ponytail. “I was just admiring your”—here I assume she’s going to say “coat,” as I am wearing a truly awesome garnet-colored vintage bouclĂ© coat—“backpack.”

The thing about my backpack is until recently it said “Black Lives Matter,” discreetly, in Sharpied letters on gray canvas. Last week I got a paint pen and operated on the letters until they were much more noticeable. Aha! I think. “Oh, thanks!” I say.

“Where are you from?” she says.

I say I’ve lived in Boston a long time. With a slight smile, she presses: “But where are you from?”

“New Jersey,” I say. She nods as if she was expecting that and turns away.

But I’m not willing to let our encounter end so swiftly. She noticed my backpack! I’ve been waiting weeks for someone to do that! So I take a step after her and say, “You mean the slogan, right?”

She looks reluctant to talk but I’m determined. I start gabbling that I haven’t seen another white person in Boston wearing this slogan, that I’m surprised it’s not more widespread.

“Do you want a medal?” she says to me.

I stall. She repeats, “Do you want a medal?” She’s staring at me, not in a friendly way. “I think that’s part of it,” I say. After all, I can’t deny that I want approval, on some level. On some horrifyingly deep level. I stammer on: Maybe she thinks it’s not so common here because Boston’s so racist, but . . .

She interrupts me. “I actually don’t think Boston’s very racist at all,” she says, still fixing her eyes on me with the same slight smile. “I think it’s people who come from other places who make our city much less pleasant.”

At this point I understand that I’ve not only made a tremendous error in assuming this lady shares my politics but thoroughly humiliated myself into the bargain. “Well, that’s interesting!” I say brightly. “I’ll have to think about that!” She’s still looking at me. “I’m sorry I’ve made your city less pleasant,” I say. She walks away and I turn back to the salmon. I pretend I’ve never seen anything as interesting as this salmon here. “Smack,” I say to myself.

Clarification. Some people have asked what my whiteness has to do with a lady being weird in the supermarket. The answer is simple. First, I assumed that all people of color would share my views on race—and want to discuss them. Big white mistake. Second, I pursued the conversation because I wanted approval. The fact that I was so strongly motivated to get my ally cookie is just another manifestation of the system of white supremacy that affects us all.


  1. David says:

    Cathy, I read this after Kyle posted the link on f——k. I appreciate your writing and your perspective. I left a couple of comments before Kyle informed me you wound’t see gthe, as I probably should have guessed. So I’m re-posting here:

    David Hewitt
    I don’t know how I feel about that. The woman says she admires what you have on your backpack, then turns on you. Seems pretty uncalled for to me. Why ‘smack’?

    Rebecca Stimpson
    Rebecca Stimpson ha. obviously i’m white, but i sort of get where the woman was coming from with the “do you want a medal” thing.

    David Hewitt
    I get it too, but it’s still pretty harsh. What I don’t get is telling you she admired it and then going on this absurd tangent about there not being a racial problem in Boston, as if a) your backpack was only addressing Boston, and b) there was any legitimacy whatsoever in claiming that people from other places created problems. (I know of at least one person with whom you’ve been very close for years with someone who is from Boston, and who apparently shares your views to the letter.) Either this woman initally alluded to the fabric or design of your backpack, or there was an unaccountable incongruency in her interaction with you.

  2. David says:

    I can understand her bristling *sometwhat* at you going after the ally cookie, but to turn it around 360 degrees on you like that? You were only given to assume she shared your views because she had said she admired your backpack. It’s not like you sought her out or stuck your message in her face – she responded to it first. I don’t believe her level of hostility as you describe it was warranted.

    • Cathy says:

      Hi David! I didn’t say anything about whether her hostility was warranted. My comments are about what was happening on my side, not what was happening on hers.

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