At the head of the table in the conference room of the Hiram Revels Community Center, a white man opened a PowerPoint presentation while a black woman linked it to a wall projector. Seasoned and serious—not to say intimidating—they introduced themselves as Andy and Maxine, and together, they’d been facilitating antiracist workshops for several years. Their clients were a diverse group and ranged from all-white police departments to all-white corporate boards. The work was never easy and often ugly, but it was always worthwhile. Andy and Maxine were encouraged by the recent explosion of interest in the subject matter, even though it was, by nature, messy and fraught. For that reason, above all, they thanked everyone for the bravery they’d already shown by signing up, showing up, and committing to grapple with the racism in their lives.
“I just want to be clear that I wouldn’t be doing this,” said the old man next to Mrs. Broadside, who had an everlasting grimace and a head like a toe, “if my family wasn’t making me, on account of my Facebook memes.”
The young woman beside him tugged her dreadlocks as she glowered at his red hat.
“The point is that you’re here,” said Maxine, smoothing out her purple blouse and shaking her head at the girl. But first she wanted to go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves.
“I’m Guy Whitman,” the old man said, “and you already know my story.”
“My name is Kristen Smith,” said the young woman, wiping her glasses. “But I’d prefer it if you called me Cambria. I’m here, obvi, because I want to be a force for change in the world. I’ve already watched two antiracist videos on YouTube,” and here she put her glasses on and stared the old man down, “and have three more saved to Watch Later.”
Across from her sat a boy, no older than seventeen, his face ravaged with acne, his camo wrecked with holes. He was Evan Grody, and he didn’t even know why he was there. “Mr. Nelson said I had to come because the day he taught the Holocaust I showed up in full SS regalia.” He paused for reaction, received only Cambria’s stink eye. “Which, like, for one thing, doesn’t even relate to what you’re talking about, and for another, whatever happened to my freedom of speech?”
Guy Whitman nodded his head so hard he almost snapped his neck.
“I’m Spencer Broadside, and I’d rather not say why I’m here.”
“Welcome, Spencer,” Andy said. “That’s all right. But your name—Broadside—sounds familiar. How do I know it?”
“Because I’m his wife, and my name is Karynne.”
In the silence that followed, Evan Grody flashed Mrs. Broadside a hideous grin, Guy Whitman leaped to his feet and gave her a full salute, and Kristen Smith—Cambria—shot back in her chair and threw up in her mouth.
“Karynne Broadside,” said Maxine. “This comes as quite a surprise. I honestly didn’t recognize you with the haircut. But it looks great, and I’m glad you’ve joined us.”
“That makes one of us,” said Cambria, and then she spat her upchuck into a tiny hemp sack.
Andy tapped a pen on his head and said, “Guys, there’s no need for that. While we dig into some uncomfortable material, this is a space of learning and growth. We should work to make sure everybody feels accepted here.”
“With that in mind,” said Maxine, “I’d like you to share what you think this means.”
She brought up the PowerPoint’s first slide, which was the word Racism in white on a field of black. After strenuous reflection, Mr. Whitman said it was something that used to exist in America, but didn’t anymore, thanks to Martin Luther King. Evan Grody called it “something Big Brother and the real racists accuse you of as a means of stifling your free speech.” Spencer and Karynne wished to leave the defining to the experts, a class to which Cambria, having seen a couple YouTube videos on the topic, belonged. She said that racism was a “coupling of power and race prejudice,” which made the boy and Guy Whitman double over in a coupling of laughter and despair.
“Thank you, everyone,” Maxine said, “although I’m not sure what’s funny about Cambria’s definition. It’s the one we’ve been working with for years.” At the click of a mouse, the girl’s description appeared in quotes below the dreaded term on the wall.
Andy scratched his nose with the pen. “Race prejudice and power. What do you think about when you hear those words?”
“Haven’t we made that clear enough?” the old man said once he’d regained his breath.
“What he said,” said Evan Grody, who had begun to fingerbang one of the holes in his military jacket.
“You’re disgusting,” Cambria said, “and you smell like the studio audience at a Steve Wilkos taping.”
The boy poked his middle finger through the hole, wagged it at her.
“Remember, we need to approach this with an open mind,” said Maxine. “This means not forming judgments. Not writing anyone off for their views. Our goal is meet each other where we are, engage in respectful dialogue to forge a path forward together.” Her words hummed over their heads like a thick, translucent fog. “We may have wildly differing opinions about this, and about everything else, too. But the fact is, we’re all human beings, and we should treat each other as such. There’s no place for hostility here.”
“Sorry,” said Guy Whitman, and he leaned back, loosed a long fart, and looked to Karynne for her approval.
Cambria arose in a huff and moved to the table’s other side. Evan Grody took her old spot, giving Mr. Whitman one up high and then one down low.
Andy wondered if everybody else found the question of race prejudice and power amusing. “What about you, Mrs. Broadside?”
Karynne’s eyes bulged. Her cheeks rubified. She turned to Spencer for support and, finding none, clenched her shirt collar and pulled it all the way over her head.
“Mrs. Broadside?” Andy said, his face expressionless. “Karynne? You know that we can still see you, right?”
A pair of eyes emerged from underneath the neckband. “No, you can’t.”
Andy repeated the claim. His partner and the girl affirmed. So did Guy Whitman and Evan Grody, though they hated to admit it.
Karynne’s head shook free. “I thought for sure you couldn’t.”
Maxine found it telling that Karynne had hidden in the first place, and she wanted to know why.
“Beats me,” said Mrs. Broadside. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure how to answer, so I panicked. I don’t know what I was thinking. It all seemed so logical at the time.”
“It was a hundred percent logical and a hundred percent okay,” Guy Whitman said, holding his hand to his heart. “I’d have done the same, but I didn’t think of it. Lacked the brains, I suppose.”
Cambria submitted that the last part was the first true thing Mr. Whitman had said this session, if not in his entire life.
“You don’t know me, Dreads.”
Andy dug the pen into his cheek and said, “Everyone, please. Your reactions, Mrs. Broadside, are interesting, but not at all unique. I don’t think we’ve ever had a workshop where somebody didn’t balk when first confronted with the link between our power and our conceptions of race.”
“But that’s the thing,” Karynne said. “The whole country—the whole world—knows who I am. You know my story, what’s happened to me. You can’t possibly believe I have even the slightest amount of power in my life, let alone any conception of race.”
Light swelled in Maxine’s eyes, exploded like tiny supernovas. “Let’s stay on that a minute. Your experience, since you’ve brought it up, could be really helpful to our discussion of the awareness we have—or don’t—of the connection between race and power.”
“I don’t see how,” said Mrs. Broadside. “I just told you I don’t even have the smallest—”
“Can we go back to that afternoon, to the front lawn of that home?” Maxine said. “As you say, we all know what happened—you were out on a run, you noticed a family having a party, you asked for their mortgage papers, and when they refused to comply, you called the police.” She clicked her black-painted nails on the table’s white surface. “What we don’t know is what was going through your mind at the time, the thought process leading up to the decisions you made.”
Guy Whitman’s sneer grew three sizes and grayed. He caressed his red hat and said, “It’s obvious enough to me. She was keeping her neighborhood safe.”
Maxine took the man’s point but pressed further, asking from what, exactly, Karynne had thought the neighborhood needed protecting.
“I don’t know,” Karynne wavered. “From strangers, I guess.”
“So the Paxes—they looked like strangers to you?”
Karynne shrugged. She’d never seen them before. She didn’t know what else to call them.
“I do,” said Evan Grody.
“Mouth-breather,” Cambria said.
“What a terrible thing to say about that poor family—”
“I wasn’t talking about them, Proud Boy.”
Andy, gnawing on the pen’s cap, called for silence with his free hand.
“To you they were strangers,” said Maxine, “and not just because you’d never seen them before. Am I correct in this assumption? That there was something else about them that seemed a little, let’s say, different?”
“Yes, but if you’ll let me explain—”
Maxine’s eyes glimmered with the light of miniature white dwarfs. “Please do.”
“They looked different because—”
“Because I—” said Karynne.
“Don’t stop now, Mrs. Broadside. They looked different to you because you—”
“For crying out loud, people.” Cambria threw her arms up in the air. “What’s with all this beating around the bush? We all know why she did what she did—because she’s a racist!”
Karynne buried her face in Spencer’s shoulder.
Evan Grody bewailed the curbing of Mrs. Broadside’s constitutional rights.
“Stop the madness,” said Guy Whitman. He patted Karynne on the shoulder. “How much more pain does this poor woman deserve? She’s already lost her job and had her fitness as a mother questioned. Worse yet, she’s been called ‘Karen’ when those people on the Internet know full well her name is Karynne—”
“Emphasis on the -rynne—”
“The fact is,” Mr. Whitman said, “that this awful term, ‘Karen,’ is a slur no less hateful and offensive than the N-word. Why, when I think about what Mrs. Broadside has been through, I’m afraid nobody’s had to endure such terrible pain since—well, I’d say since slavery.”
The old man turned to Karynne and shot her a sly wink.
Andy shoved the masticated pen into his left ear.
Maxine’s laugh was practiced and pain-soaked. “Would you agree with that, Mrs. Broadside?”
Karynne slowly peeled her head from her husband’s body. “With what?”
“With your colleague’s assessment that your ordeal is worse than slavery.”
“Not worse than slavery,” said Guy Whitman. “I said it was the same as slavery. You’re putting words in my mouth to make me look a fool.”
“I don’t know,” Karynne said. “I’ve never experienced slavery. But I can say that I have been called ‘Karen,’ and that it did hurt my feelings.”
Maxine started to say something, then thought better of it. Instead, she drew the symbol for infinity on the table with her finger, traced it repeatedly on the plastic until her nail chipped. She took a deep breath. Then she thanked Karynne for her honesty and promised to be real in return. She stressed that the problem of race in this country was historical, ingrained, systemic, and ongoing. In spite of Martin Luther King, in spite of everyone else before and after him who’d fought and died for progress, the problem still had a broader and longer reach than most people cared to admit. Maxine was willing to concede that, on the day of the incident, Mrs. Broadside may not have been aware that there even was a problem. At least consciously. But her lack of awareness didn’t negate the problem’s existence or the fact that, once Karynne had inserted herself into the situation—had created the situation—she took full advantage of it. When she profiled the Paxes, when she demanded their mortgage papers and dialed the police, Karynne was acting as an agent at the intersection of power and race prejudice. She was perpetuating, in her own small way, the systems of injustice that hadn’t disappeared but merely changed forms. Maxine told her this not to pass judgment, but to help her understand. Mrs. Broadside, she said, rubbing the symbol out with her palm, first had to know the problem and her role in it. Only then she could make a beginning on the real work.
“God’s balls in a vise,” said Guy Whitman. “Are you telling me we haven’t even started yet?”
“Oh, we’ve started,” Maxine said. “We’ve started this session. But it’s when you leave here, equipped with a new understanding, that the work begins. If you learn only one thing from us, I hope it’s that this isn’t a one-and-done deal. It takes a lifetime effort, and the responsibility is yours alone. Our job is simply to provide you with the framework. It’s up to you to use it to dismantle the racism in your—”
“Wake me up when the propaganda’s over,” said Evan Grody. He pulled a copy of Mein Kampf from his backpack, set it on the table, and lay his head on it.
“You do you,” Maxine told him, “but Mr. Nelson may not like what he hears about your participation in this workshop.”
The boy tossed the book aside and, wringing his hands in supplication, begged her to reconsider. If he failed this class, his father would revoke his PlayStation privileges for a whole week.
Mr. Whitman put his arm around the teen and stroked his high and tight. “Leave him be, won’t you? He’s just a little boy who, by the looks of him, is one dark-web purchase away from the next school shooting. Hasn’t he suffered enough?”
“Fascist,” Cambria said.
Andy jabbed a second pen into his other ear.
“Stop it,” Maxine said. “Remember, there’s no place for hostility here.”
“Why not?” said the girl. “Why not, when we’re in an antiracist workshop full of racists? Seriously, people. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed Captain Ballbag’s MAGA hat.” She chewed her dreadlocks as she seethed. “Plus, he laughed at my definition of racism, he farted on me, and he’s spent this whole session making excuses for Nazi Boy and Ku Klux Karen—”
“I’m not Ku Klux Karen!” said Mrs. Broadside. She rose from her seat. She punched the table. She wrung her fist in agony and said, “My name is Karynne, and I’m a kind woman—foolish and confused, yes, but a fighter. I’ve made mistakes. Everybody knows I’m still paying for them. I’ll pay for them for the rest of my life. But I’m not going to sit here and let you—you Patchouli-burning, poi-swinging little poseur—”
Guy Whitman let out a triumphant roar.
“I will not sit here and let you—you kombucha-drinking, Coachella-going little Communist—”
“Get her now, K.!”
“—Lump me into same category as these unapologetically racist twerps.”
She might as well have canceled Guy Whitman’s subscription to The Daily Caller or gouged his heart out with a bald eagle’s beak.
“C’mon, Mrs. Broadside, I thought we were friends—”
“Shut up, you stupid, stupid man,” Karynne said. “You’re an adult who shares memes made by eighth-graders.” She turned to Evan Grody. “As for you, I’ll rip my children four new assholes each if they grow up anything like you, and I’d pity any girl thick enough to touch you with a pair of tongs. But I doubt there’s such idiocy even among your generation. You don’t just make me sick. You make Nick Sandmann look like Nelson Mandela. Beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep-beep,” she said, in the fashion of an old-timey bulletin alert. “News flash, kumquat—Hitler lost. Fuck your feelings, bro. Get over it!”
Though she still smarted from the insults, Cambria felt compelled to pump a fist. Maxine, too, strained to keep a straight face. Even Andy, now bleeding from both ears, played the air drums with his pens and did a jig.
“That said,” said Mrs. Broadside, cooling off, “I’m grateful for you both. You didn’t mean to, but you’ve taught me something valuable. It was one thing for Dr. Peacock to tell me that racism spreads with the swiftness of a cougar, from bone to bone. It’s something else entirely to witness its impacts on actual human beings. You’ve made me see not only who I am, but also the person I could become—and who I’d come to hate. And I don’t want to hate anyone, least of all myself. So thanks are in order—to you, Nazi Boy, and you, Captain Ballbag, and to the rest of you, too, for showing me that, when it comes to fighting racism in this country, only drastic action will do.”
Josh Cook is an MFA candidate at Lindenwood University. In 2009, he earned an MA from Indiana University with a thesis on Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. His fiction has appeared in journals including Across the Margin, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, Idle Ink, and Sage Cigarettes. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two dogs. Josh recommends the Kheprw Institute.