I’ve been transfixed by the trial of Derek Chauvin this week. For so many Americans, it is an inflection point, a critical moment in the story of race in America that was energized by the brutal death of George Floyd. The prosecution is relying the video evidence of Floyd’s final moments and the callous indifference of Chauvin as the man gasping beneath him expired. The defense is attempting to inject doubt anywhere they can. Who will you believe: the defense or your lying eyes?
I have a personal stake in the outcome of these events. For the past few years, the woman I love has been unlike anyone I have ever dated. The kindness and love of her heart is the warmest comfort I can imagine in a world that seems not to value her because of the color of her skin. I cannot help but see this trial as a societal referendum on if her life matters.
I met my girlfriend through online dating. After a few messages back and forth, we agreed to meet at a coffee shop and hit it off immediately. She liked to dance and laugh and listen to bands I’d never heard of. She thought my jokes were funny and my love of early 90s hip-hop was interesting. I spent months convincing myself that she was too good to be true before finally admitting that I was in love with her.
Never had I imagined that love could be so patient and kind, so gentle and understanding. When I talked, she listened. When she was anxious, I would hold her close and tell her that she would always be safe in my arms. When COVID started, she worked from home at my apartment, a reassuring presence that said that even if the world outside was going to become scary, we could make a safe place with each other.
When George Floyd died and the protests started, we spent our quiet moments having conversations that echoed our emotions. We talked of going to protests but stayed away because of the pandemic. I held her close and told her that I worried that I had lied to her, that I couldn’t keep her safe in a world that would kill her without consequences.
“Do you love me, even though I’m dark-skinned?” she asked me once. I told her that I loved the way our hands looked intertwined, the color contrast that was simple but striking. I told her that I loved her blackness and the ways it made us different. With everything shut down, I grew my hair out but bought a pair of clippers and did the best I could to give her the close, natural style that she preferred.
In small ways, she showed me how we had lived such different lives. At the grocery store, I picked up a box and looked at the nutrition label before putting it back and shoving my hands in my pockets. She stared in open jealousy at a thing I took for granted. When we got home, she told me all the invisible rules that her blackness had taught her.
Never open your bag in a store. Never put your hands in your pockets. Keep an eye out for other black folks to see if an area is safe. Never seem threatening or angry. Always stay calm.
When my girlfriend caught sight of a woman staring at us in a store and whispered to me if we could leave, I instead turned and asked the woman if she needed something. As she sputtered a no, I told her that I’d just noticed she was staring and wondered if she needed something. She mumbled an apology and walked away. My girlfriend was proud of my support but horrified that I’d confronted the woman directly.
After that, we developed a system of quiet signals to use in public. A long squeeze of the hand to indicate that one of us is uncomfortable and needs support. An innocent question about what vegetable to put with dinner as a signal that one of us wants to leave. Our emergency signal is a request to have dinner at Applebee’s, a restaurant we both hate (and thus would never ask for).
Her biggest fear was the randomness with which death stalked the people who looked like her. For her, a traffic stop could be merely an inconvenience or a death sentence, and the knowledge that it could swing wildly between the two haunted her. A police officer on a corner was an invitation to be hyper-aware of her actions and how others might perceive them. Don’t attract attention. Don’t be suspicious. Don’t stand out, or someone might pick up their phone and create a life-or-death situation.
I had always known police as benign or helpful, but this was not her experience. Nor was it the experience of so many other people who looked like her. It was not the experience of Sandra Bland, of Elijah McClain, of Laquan McDonald, of George Floyd, or any of thousands of others stretching back in history long past Emmett Till.
She is quick to point out that she is not living in fear, just being aware of the possibilities that could occur. She is not the type to cower in the face of a challenge. Her bravery is yet another thing that I admire about her.
Still, we have had to have difficult discussions about what to do in case someone provokes us. I have already told her that I am unlikely to respond well if someone uses a racial slur at her (or at me for loving her). While she assures me that her mother will love this protective streak in me, we both acknowledge that she will probably have to be the one who keeps her cool in such a situation. It is not a fun conversation to have.
Whatever happens at the end of the Chauvin trial will ripple through American society, but it will change the scenery of my life, not its contents. I’ve made my decision: I love this woman. No external factor will change that. I’m not trying to “challenge expectations” or be “transgressive.” I’m trying to build a life with the woman who so thoroughly charmed my heart that I pack her lunch every morning and smile every time I think about her.
That she is black is just another in a long line of adjectives that describe her, one that matters much more to people outside of our relationship than it ever will to me. She is kind. She is beautiful. She confronts every problem we’ve ever had with a spirit of teamwork and understanding. We are together, come what may.
Whether others can see the value of her soul is not a question that I can answer. I cannot speak for them, but I can speak to my own feelings. She matters to me, more deeply than I ever could have thought possible when we met, and that is enough.