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 bouclé 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.