Recently I got into a Twitter conversation with a friend who lives on the West Coast of the United States and is planning a cross-country road trip with her boyfriend.
From couches they could crash along the way, the talk soon turned to race and safety.
My friend is Black. And while most major U.S. cities have their minority-friendly zones, the vast spaces between those major cities can sometimes be questionably comfortable for non-white people.
I’m white. And while I’ve long realized the difficulties of Road-Tripping While Black, it was only after I adopted my first (African American) daughter that I had to really start employing the same tactics my Black friends do.
On our first baby’s first visit to her grandparents in Philadelphia, we would be driving from Illinois to Pennsylvania. I asked a Black friend who often made the same trip where was a good place to stop in Pennsylvania.
“Just cross your legs until you get to Philly!” she warned me.
Travelling passenger with suitcase, Image Credit: Shutterstock
Now I don’t mean to cast shade on the many good residents of Pennsylvania. But the fact is, that when you are traveling outside your urban comfort zone (or just your comfort zone—in which you know people and they know you and you understand the nuances of a neighborhood), there is a fear factor if you can’t “blend in” with the locals wherever you might need to stop.
In the eight years (and another baby) since my older girl was born, my partner (who is a butch lesbian and has learned to do her own safety checking when in strange places) and I have mapped the safest routes between Chicago, where we live, and both Kansas City to the West (my parents) and Philadelphia to the East (my in-laws and brother).
We know exactly which restaurants, rest stops, small town centers and gas stations are—if not the “safest,” certainly the “friendliest.”
My road-tripping friend said that her boyfriend, who is white, didn’t quite understand all the fuss she was making about planning the trip.
Maybe she should direct him to this story about Joe Rickey Hundley, who, sitting next to a mother with a crying baby on a flight to Atlanta, allegedly told the woman to “shut that [N-word] baby up,” then slapped the baby himself, for good measure.
For those of you who somehow missed this story until now, I’ll pause for the rage to subside.
Okay, the rage isn’t going anywhere. I’ll just have to continue.
Usually, one supposes that a flight would be safer than a road trip—both statistically safer from accident and “safer” from being treated poorly, given all the regulations around air travel and all the people who are there to enforce them, from TSA, to stewards to air marshals.
So if this can happen on the well-regulated, carefully-policed atmosphere of a plane, well, how much easier would it be to mistreat someone at the Flying J on I-70 somewhere between Kansas City and St. Louis?
Sometimes, people unfamiliar with the tricks and trials of traveling while something other than whatever narrow range of people bigots accept think we’re being paranoid when the topic comes up.
And sometimes, we feel paranoid.
But we know that not only do incidents like this one still happen, and we know that when they don’t happen on a major airline flight they don’t make the news, so they probably happen more often than even we realize.
And to be honest, I am not actually worried that someone will call my child the N-word to her face or slap her. That’s simply an extreme example. It might even be an example that allows people to dismiss the more subtle ways travel can be less than pleasant or even safe for minorities and their families.
Case in point: Stopping midway on an all-day car trip, I take my daughter into the Bass Pro Shop for a romp in its long, wide aisles, a visit to its aquarium full of live lake fish, a special treat chosen from among its vast collection of stuffed animals and a meal in its bowling-alley-cum-bistro designed to look and feel like it’s all underwater, complete with “sea life” hanging from the ceiling.
What a great way to break up a road trip with a child, right?
Well, my daughter was the only non-white person in the all the acres of the place (I am certain, we explored them all!). But even that didn’t deter me from stopping there again on the way home.
What has kept me from darkening its doors ever again is what happened on that second stop, when a group of three white brothers, all roughly in my own kids’ age range, ran up to my daughter in the aisle, pointed their toy guns at her and shouted “bang! Bang! bang!”
Their parents stood by watching, not meeting my eye or saying a single word to their kids.
Innocent kids? Maybe. Teachable moment for the parents to intervene? Definitely. But an opportunity not taken.
I’m not saying this was a racially-motivated pretend assault. But I do think my daughter, already conscious of her difference in the place, was not exactly made to feel welcome by it. And the parents ought to have been extra sensitive to the spectacle of their white sons pretending to kill my Black daughter. I sure as hell was.
My daughter and I spent a lot of time processing it in the car on the rest of the trip.
Most of time nothing happens that tips the hand of the people around you, showing them to be at worst overtly racist or at best indifferent to a little Black girl’s feelings. All the same, you step into these spaces between the cities with a heightened sense of alertness to the possibility of it happening.
And that’s uncomfortable.
It’s a shame because I want to take my kids everywhere and introduce the to everyone. Most people defy the stereotypes put on the from the outside, whether it’s the Feminist Mormon Housewives, or my cowboy lawyer brother-in-law who defends the civil rights of Muslim immigrants in Texas.
But unfortunately, the first lesson my gregarious, extroverted kids have to learn is that meeting strangers in places where you are a minority is a bit like meeting a strange dog. It’s probably friendly. But you never know when it might bite.
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