I first encountered Penny Guisinger at Nonfiction Now. She was on a panel called “First Person Dangerous,” about the side-effects that writers of nonfiction face. Penny wrote about driving hungover—not hammered, mind you—hungover, and how, while driving, she imagined the essay she’d write about it, about drinking, about not drinking. An Internet troll had a heyday when her essay was published, tearing her apart. Who knows why. Because she was honest. Because she was a woman. Because, the Internet.
But I was immediately drawn to her because of these qualities: her humor, her honesty, the way she self-deprecates, and well, because I struggle on and off with this whole alcohol thing, too. But mostly I was drawn to Penny because she was so god damned smart. Then, in April, at AWP, I got to read with her and I realized that she was a lesbian, too, and with a fucking awesome book called Postcards from Here. I’m telling you, this book is brilliant and pithy and its stories accrete until suddenly you’re faced with this amazing whole life of a divorced, surprisingly gay mother (well, okay, I was surprised by the gayness, Penny, maybe wasn’t) from all these micro-essays. It gets better though, I got to have dinner with her and found out she was just as funny in real life as on the page. Now we’re Internet bicoastal BWFs (Best Writer Friends) and I get to introduce all of you to her, too.
So grab a cup and sit down to read Penny again pushing the envelope, talking about the implicit racism every white one of us carries. Don’t flinch, don’t turn away. It’s hard to acknowledge our bias and our privilege, but if we want to change our country and defeat the Orange Jesus, this is exactly what we must consider.
The Authenticity Experiment, the implicit bias edition. Last week, I made the long drive home to Maine from Massachusetts with my two kids. It wasn’t exactly late at night, but it was dark when, still three hours from home, I saw a car on the side of the turnpike. A person stood by its taillights, swinging a flashlight, signaling for someone to stop. Nobody else had stopped. I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t think about it. Whatever had happened, had just happened. In Maine, we stop. I pulled over in front of the disabled car, grabbed my phone, and said to my alarmed children, “Stay in the car.” My son was immediately scared (because he’s crippled by generalized anxiety – just like me), and he asked urgently, “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to help,” I said insistently. “You stay in the car.”
I jumped out, pushed my car door closed behind me, and jogged to the other car. It was difficult to see in the dark, but I made out the car’s hood,
“What happened,” I asked him. “Are you all okay?”
He turned to me, watched me try to cast some pathetic light on the scene with the screen of my phone. “We hit a deer.”
I couldn’t make out any of his features in the dark. His voice was flat, the monotone of shock. “Is anyone hurt? Are you hurt?”
He shook his head and said, “No. I think we’re ok.”
I nodded, trying to decide if he was really ok.
Another man appeared from the darkness. A car then a truck zoomed past the three of us and our parked vehicles. Headlights lit us for seconds, then shadows returned. The other man was smaller than the first man, and in that moment of blinding light, I got a good look – good enough to realize he was black. They both were. His hair was tight against his head in cornrows and two cigarettes dangled from his mouth.
My liberal, white, anti-racism brain split in two, and I thought of my kids, strapped in and waiting anxiously in my Honda. What was I doing here alone with multiple men in the dark by the side of the highway? And, worse, why was I suddenly afraid? The hair style? The double cigarettes? Their obvious maleness? What was it that triggered this doubt? There wasn’t a lot of time to really think about this question, but could it be…could it actually be…because of their blackness? My brain glimpsed that possibility, then began an epic, white, liberal back-peddle. Full cognitive retreat.
There’s no way around this. I am white. Not only white, but I live in Maine, which is 93% white by some estimates – estimates that are either true or low. I lived in Brooklyn, New York as a teenager, which makes me less insulated by thick, cottony whiteness – but I am still pretty fucking white. I listen to Counting Crows with enthusiasm. I own a shocking number of CDs by Celtic trios, many of which were purchased at actual folk festivals. I go to contra dances. I am so white.
As a white person, even one who tries to be an ally to my friends of color, I know I’m racist. Obviously, racist is the last thing I want be but, I can’t divorce this hated truth – I was raised in the same institutions, in front of the same televisions, subject to the same bullshit messages as all other white people, and so the stereotypes and biases are etched deep in my grey matter even though I wish they weren’t. White people like me are trained to be afraid, and the untraining is arduous, never-ending work.
I try to address this by doing a lot of active listening to black America. I read. I ask questions. I stand up to overtly racist assholes on Facebook when I just can’t take it anymore. (Note: this last thing never helps and, in the end, just leaves me enraged and shaking, unable to do it again for weeks.) One friend, a white poet, reminds me to spend more time at the mirror than the window. My friends of color tell me to stay in the conversations – keep showing up. I am trying. I think of myself as an ally. That night on the highway, before I drove off into the night, this belief about myself was challenged – it was scooped up and broken. Like a deer on the hood of a car. This is not who I am. Is it?
It is, of course, not enough to be aware of my implicit bias. It is not enough to write this piece and induce a round of head-nodding among liberal white readers of this blog who relate to my cognitive dissonance. It is also not enough that I know what intersectionality is, what microagressions are (a word that does not, by the way, make it through spell check yet – get on it, Microsoft), or to write this mea culpa and publish it online, inviting a slew of internet trolls waiting to fire up the outrage machine. It is not enough to be horrified by the movement that propelled Donald Trump to a place within a few percentage points of the Oval Office. (Though I am, truly, horrified.) None of that is enough. All of that is good. All of it well-intentioned and good-hearted. None of it is enough. I do not get a sticker on my chart for knowing there is a problem and that I’m part of it.
White people have to work harder to stop being the problem. We have to read and digest the writings of black authors and white allies. We have to teach our kids that America was founded on implicitly racist principles – that racism is built into our founding documents. It’s coded into America’s national DNA. We have to teach that to ourselves and eat that fact for breakfast every day. We have to talk to our white kids about daily injustice. About Colin Kaepernick and the backlash against him. We have to show them the videos of black men being gunned down by police – over and over. We have to watch these videos ourselves. We have to take a knee at our kids’ sporting events and ask the coaches we employ to do the same. We have to mea culpa ourselves – ourselves as an entire nation of people – all over the internet, in the classroom, in board rooms and PTA meetings and at the farmer’s market and at the folk festivals and contra dances. We have to be ready to lose some relationships. We have to suit up. Those thoughts – sudden fears of black men by the side of the highway – will come, and we have to look those thoughts in the eye, acknowledge them as our own, then send them to the next exit. Stay in the conversation. Stay by the roadside. Hand the black man your phone if he needs it, but remember that, for him, calling 911 may not be a safe thing to do. Triple A is probably a better bet if he doesn’t want to get shot dead. Focus on his humanity. You are not the only one who is scared. (This is Maine, after all, and our mini-Trump of a governor has spewed his own white toxicity for all to see, and been elected twice.)
But on the shoulder of the highway that night, not knowing what else to do, and with my split-in-half, do-good-white-liberal brain trying to solve impossible calculi and equations, and with the also-real possibility that maybe it was dumb for me to have stopped to help strangers on a dark highway – with that possibility holding hands with what was obviously an unwelcome, implicitly racist response, I defaulted to New England helpfulness. “Are you all okay?” I asked this same question, to this new person, hoping to keep us all on track. Trying to keep a situation deescalated that only I was escalating in the first place. “Do you have a phone? Did you call 911?” My complicity is so clear to me now, and maybe next time I will do better.
He nodded slowly, the cigarettes shifting around in his mouth, and said, “We called triple A first. They’re coming.” The outline of his shoulders was tense. They had all nearly died. (The last thing they needed was the cops showing up, right? It’s so obvious now, all these days later.)
I wanted out of there. It wasn’t that I had a specific thing I thought might happen. I knew they couldn’t grab me and kidnap me in their disabled car. Instead, I felt a fear like that dark night –impenetrable and undefined. Pressing in. My kids. Alone in the car. I had to get back to them. More cars, then another truck, dopplered past. I did not want to be the person that I am. The person I have to unlearn.
“Well,” I offered, “I’m glad you’re all ok. It’s scary to hit a deer.”
The men’s eyes, wide with what was probably shock, reflected passing headlights back to me. They both nodded solemnly in agreement.
There’s no way around this uncomfortable truth.
I softened. “Yeah. It’s fucking scary.”
Penny Guisinger is the author of Postcards from Here, published by Vine Leaves Press in 2016. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. A Pushcart nominee and a Maine Literary Award winner, she is an assistant editor at Brevity Magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: Short Prose Conference, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. She lives with her wife and kids, two dogs, two leopard geckos, and a constantly changing number of tropical fish. She can be found at: www.pennyguisinger.com and @PennyGuisinger.
I’m finishing the final edits on the manuscript of The Authenticity Experiment and it’s hard to write and edit simultaneously. So, for the next two months you’re going to hear from a variety of amazing writers. You’re gonna love their writing. Dark and Light, both/and from voices you should know and will soon want to be following.
If you miss my voice too much, you can always buy yourself a copy of Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. And those of you in Portland, I’m reading at two Lit Crawl events on November 4th, Get Nervous at 6pm at Tugboat Brewing and Grief Rites (natch) at Literary Arts–and then at Wordstock the next day. In fact, I’m reading in a whole bunch of places, including Corvallis and Eugene. Check the event calendar. Until then, be well.