A black woman’s guide to survival in Trump’s America

o this is how it happens. One day we wake up and realize that the groundwork has been laid and the lines have been drawn. Fascism is never sudden; certain steps must be taken. We are at the end of a long process.

On election night, I listened to fireworks exploding outside of my window. Joy. Whooping. I cringed in my bed, and could not help but think, “Has the war begun?” The next morning, I got in my car and quickly scanned the neighborhood. I looked at each closed door and wondered for the first time, “Which one of them hates me?”

Step One: Undermine their sense of belonging.

I went to the doctor the day after the election. I’ve been to this office many times and have always been treated well. On this day, there was a new black receptionist who greeted me pleasantly. I assumed something about her that I’d never assumed about any other staff member in the past: “She’s on my side.”

The young woman handed me a form and said, “Just fill this out and we’ll be right with you.” And, after checking to make sure I was the only one in the waiting room, I said, “After last night, I hope that I can concentrate long enough to fill out anything.”

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Her eyes filled with glassy tears. “I know,” she said. “Today is so strange.” Then pointing surreptitiously to the skin on her hand, she mouthed, “I’m the only one.”

Step Two: Make them wear their skin like an indictment.

I wanted to reach out to her in solidarity. But if I did, I worried that it could affect her job. We are no longer allowed to publicly commiserate, lest we be singled out as troublemakers.

As I tried to fill out the form, another patient bopped into the door. A pony-tailed white woman, about 40 years old. She came up to the desk. The black woman was now at the copier, so a white woman was the first to say, “How are you this morning?”

The patient said, “I’m tired. I was up all night!”

“Well, are you happy this morning?” the receptionist asked. The young black woman kept her focus on the copier.

“YES! Very happy!” said the patient. She never looked around to see who else was in the office. She never considered how I might be feeling at that moment. She was emboldened, brazen, newly entitled.

“That’s good,” said the receptionist. “We tried everything else. Why not Trump?”       

Why not Trump? WHY NOT? My heart pounded. My anger roiled. They are now speaking their truth open and notoriously while I swallow mine.

“Ms. Cooper?” the nurse escorts me back. She makes amiable small talk. I’ve seen her a million times, but I can’t smile back. I am stoic and prickly. She looks at me like I’m crazy. When she takes my blood pressure, I don’t want her to touch me. I hate the sludge in my veins, the pounding in my head. I don’t know if she’s in the basket of deplorables or not. I thought I understood America, but today I realize that I don’t understand it at all. Nothing I know is true.

Step Three: Use dog whistles to turn their fear into paranoia, and, if it works perfectly, aggression so that we can call THEM the monsters.

After work, I pick up a friend for dinner-a beautiful black millennial full of curves and swagger and sporting her natural hair. She works in a suburban real estate firm where she has a great relationship with the all-white staff.  When she got in the car, she exhaled audibly.

“I’ve never thought this before today,” she said. “But I actually wondered if I should straighten my hair.”

She needs her job. She’s figured out how to navigate it well. But now she’s not so sure what the new rules are. Is her expression of blackness going to get her in trouble? Is that expression worth losing a paycheck? Should she just tamp it down to be safe?

Step Four: Use fear to get them to self-censor, to shape themselves into the space of invisibility and compliance-without having to saying a word.

We dip into a suburban Coney Island for Greek salads. When we walk in, we case the joint, counting who might be on our team in case something goes wrong (what could possibly go wrong?). The white guy with the locs-he might be with us. The white family with the cherub in a high chair? Don’t count on them. The guy with the tatts and the leather motorcycle jacket? Nope.

We are probably outnumbered. We are skittish.

The clerk is friendly. A little TOO friendly. She is very careful with our order, going over simple things a million times. When she explains that she separated out the extra, hot grilled chicken (presumably to keep the salad from withering before we got it home), I didn’t understand. I asked her to repeat it and she ran through her explanation again. “Oh, yeah” I said. “Thanks!”

Outside, my friend looked at me and asked, “Did she really flinch?”

Hysterical, heartbroken, bewildered, and afraid, we laughed until we cried.

Desiree Cooper writes Detroit Proper each month in BLAC. She is the author of "Know the Mother," a collection of flash fiction.

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