Kashana Cauley’s “Clippers” in Slate’s Trump Story Project.

The Trump Story Project: The Steady Whitening of Public Life

The Trump Story Project: The Steady Whitening of Public Life

Novels, stories, and more.
Feb. 27 2017 7:09 PM

“Clippers”

Measuring the slow but steady whitening of public life.

170227_FICTION_Clippers-FB
170227_FICTION_Clippers

Lisa Larson-Walker

In the Trump Story Project, we’re presenting a series of short stories from contemporary writers, compiled by Ben H. Winters, imagining America’s future under President Donald Trump. This series was made possible by support from Slate Plus members. Read Ben Winters’ introduction to the series.

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The clippers passed over his head like a grain combine taking down late summer corn, with a buzz and a hum and at the end a click that sent their black blades down to the bathroom counter and his hands up to his head to examine it for missed spots. The spot check normally only took him a minute or two, but he’d been extra afraid lately, so he spent a full 10 minutes in front of the mirror checking for any extra bump of hair. He cut his hair down to the point before it kinked, just as he’d done every week in the nearly two years since the 2018 election when black people were legally barred from voting.

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“There’s plenty of milk in your coffee,” his mother had told him as a boy, when he’d asked dark-skinned her why they didn’t look alike; enough milk for white people to ask him stupid questions about whether he was Italian or Greek or any of the rest of the sort of people that white people liked to call tan instead of what he really was, which he’d call a set of feelings about the way the world worked and a method of shifting around in one’s body more than strictly a skin color no one ever labeled right. But his mother died years ago, the rest of his family disappeared after he picked up a college degree they didn’t understand, and he’d gone racially underground right after he switched to the first accounting job he’d ever taken where he’d avoided checking any of the boxes in the optional ethnicity questionnaire, right before the questionnaires became mandatory and ever-present.

On his walk to work, he checked “white” on the racial quiz he had to fill out to buy his breakfast, a melted mess of egg and cheese on a roll from a street vendor whose cart didn’t look big enough to store the hundreds of racial questionnaires he made people fill out every day. But 10 suit-clad people stood in front of the cart, pencils and sheets in hand, and every time one of them handed over a completed form the vendor shoved it underneath, out of sight. The accountant walked away, unwrapping the warm sandwich in his hand and looking at everything he could to avoid fixating on the perceived race of everyone else: the dead November grass, the leafless trees, all the people with candidate buttons pinned to their bags as if voting could ever be fun. He’d tried to vote in 2018, after checking “white” on the voter racial questionnaire, but when he stepped into the booth, pencil in hand, he found that attempting to vote as a white person sent him into convulsions that slid his twitchy hand off his pencil and onto the floor. Yet he was going to go home at the end of the workday, eat a simple dinner, go to sleep, and try to vote again in the morning.

The election had been going on for a full three years, ever since the president realized he couldn’t improve his approval ratings without an opponent. He refused to improve the economy or the schools or the general vibe of the country, so one of his advisers told him to pick a fight. No foreign country took him seriously enough to declare themselves his nemesis, so he plucked an enemy out of the wilds of Texas, a senator whose face drooped like a half-dead flower, whom the president had defeated in the last election and had nothing better to do than run a campaign against a man who falsely claimed his father had killed JFK.

The accountant couldn’t say that he cared about the issues at stake in the election, which mostly revolved around stuff like taxes and school choice, issues he thought of as the whims and desires of real white people, not fake ones like himself. But he thought voting could serve as a form of closure, a way to celebrate the end of the television ads and the campaign buttons and the overly enthusiastic arguments of people who thought presidents could still change their lives for the better.

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He’d given up on better and merely hoped that things wouldn’t get worse, that the president wouldn’t rig the next election to give himself four years to root out the true ethnicities of the tan people of the country, like him, but instead leave them in the quiet lands that lay just outside the suspicion that covered darker people. In the 10 blocks he walked between the sandwich stand and his office, he passed dozens of darker-skinned black people huddling around the edges of buildings and subway stations, wrapped in blankets, with the sort of feet that looked like they’d absorbed a decade’s worth of dirt. He worked with a dark-skinned black accountant, and a few darker-skinned black people took the building elevators up and down with him in the sort of suits and clipped, accent-free speech that meant they probably made more money than he did. But since the last election, he’d seen more black people in aprons and fast-food uniforms and the sort of beaten-down clothing that marked them as obviously homeless, and he didn’t know how to vote himself away from joining their ranks.

When he took the racial questionnaire from the elevator attendant in his office’s building lobby he noticed that the man, while remaining the same height, had changed color, from a tawny shade he associated with good port to a white color that looked several thousand shades lighter than himself. He shoved his tongue against the ceiling of his mouth to keep his expression fixed. Whenever he saw minorities who had been replaced with white people, as they had been during the slow but steady whitening of public life since 2016, his face instinctively drew itself into a frown. But he thought it dangerous to register any sort of visible protest against the new world order, so he boiled his frowns down into indifference while he shifted his eyes quickly away from whatever he didn’t wish to see. Yet his mind worked itself into a fury at this newest erasure, the idea that nonwhiteness could be swept away with the pink end of society’s biggest pencil right there in the lobby of his building, so close to where he worked. His rage swept him into the elevator and across his office’s lobby carpet, thick enough to blunt any attempt at emotion he channeled through his feet.

He’d brought a lunch, a paper-bagged Tupperware container of homemade chili that he squeezed with his left hand, and though he didn’t really feel like eating the same thing twice in a day, he planned to eat more chili at home for dinner to avoid the racial questionnaires he’d have to fill out if he went to a restaurant. Years ago, a college friend who’d just come back from studying abroad told him that one of the first steps to learning a new language involved developing a constant headache from the mental strain required to transition into thinking in the new tongue, and the accountant thought of that story every time he checked the “white” box too many times in a day and discovered a rolling pain deep in his stomach that also materialized whenever he found himself spending too long trying to figure out someone else’s ambiguous race. Sometimes, he felt as if people’s races were being shouted out as a reply to a hello he’d never said when he passed others on the street, or that their races had been typed in all caps into a computer with a screen that filled his head.

He stuffed the paper bag full of chili behind the other paper-bagged lunches in the break room and idly wondered what he could accomplish if he didn’t spend so much of his day thinking about race. He’d scale mountains, run marathons, maybe even invent something. Or he’d simply relax enough to run at a lower level of energy than the frantic laps his mind traveled all the time.

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He sat down at his cubicle and fired up his laptop. Three passwords and ten minutes later he descended into a world of profits, losses, and taxes. Number after number. Black font on a white computer screen that, to his relief, would remain 100 percent devoid of color.

* * *

After breaking his eight-hour workday trance, the accountant started the racial questionnaire he needed to complete to enter the subway, but after staring at the word “white” for several minutes, and watching the sheet dissolve in front of him in a frustrated haze, he checked the “other” box and wrote “purple” on its right-hand side before handing it back to the confused attendant, who frowned for a long moment before shoving it back through the slot in the box that hung from his neck. A stack of filled boxes sat near the attendant on the station floor, and the accountant eyed them as his train rolled towards a tunnel. Though he didn’t care to show outward enthusiasm at his decision to thwart the form, internally he pumped a fist.

He remembered the first time he filled out a racial questionnaire with fear, back in 2018, just after the president signed the order that made them mandatory and they’d appeared everywhere that had an entrance, or an exit, or simply a passageway from one place to the next. It was a lovely spring day that he remembered as abrasive from the second he picked up that first form and its accompanying pencil at his local subway stop, as if the sun had turned itself up in intensity so its light could batter his eyes.

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The fact that he’d written himself down as purple this time would matter to exactly no one but him, but to him it meant everything even if his victory would only last a moment. He’d listened to the inner voice that told him that whiteness was bullshit, and for that he felt pride, in the form of a calm in his often-tortured stomach and a blankness in his head, and it reminded him of the first time he’d gotten drunk, back in college, off of shit beer and whiskey, that sense that he must be flying just because he couldn’t put one foot after another in a straight line on the ground.

He lived in a middle-class NYC neighborhood where his suited and khaki-clad neighbors marched down the subway station steps in a silence only cut by snatches of music leaking out from their headphones, but on the day of the first mandatory racial quiz everyone stopped to turn their music off when they accepted their forms to look them over, so instead of everyone pouring into the station like water the forms created a dam. The accountant watched this stoppage with a quiet horror as if everyone’s legs had been lopped off at the knees and they were still required to drag themselves across the station floor to the train.

The train he rode from work rumbled through a tunnel on its way into and out of the 10 stations he passed through before his home station rose up on the right-hand side. He exited the train out into the station’s dull orange light, up its stairs, and down four blocks home to his tiny studio, where he sat down on his sofa. Since 2016, he’d hated entering stores to buy anything more complex than food out of dread that he’d need help, which almost always prompted a set of suspicious looks from the increasingly white constellations of employees that he was convinced were due to his race. He just knew his ambiguousness turned their stares dark and pursed their lips, so he ordered a dolly off the internet and went picking through the garbage for the best of what other people left out on the curb.

He’d found his couch two blocks away from his apartment, green and plush and patiently waiting for him, with clean cushions and legs that didn’t look too worn. For a while he imagined the person who threw it out as the son of an oil baron who could pay full tuition at NYU or an investment banker who swore to throw out his couches every six months to replace them with new ones, but soon it became his couch, unburdened by his fantasies of who’d owned it last, after he’d sat in it long enough to mold it to him.

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He microwaved his dinner chili and sat down on the couch to eat it without turning on the television because he couldn’t bear to see one more campaign ad. The president had purchased every spare swath of airtime for the previous three months, so whenever a football game or sitcom paused, the same face eyed the accountant, orange and outraged, full of platitudes about keeping America safer and more secure. The accountant hadn’t felt safe or secure since the racial questionnaires arrived at his subway stop, but neither candidate had promised to take them away.

He finished his chili, washed the bowl, dried it, and put it in a kitchen cabinet. He brushed his teeth for exactly two minutes, making sure to spend time in the far corners of his mouth. He took down the cot he kept folded up in the corner of his living room to save space, under the theory that someday he’d meet a girl who’d come back to his place and make her decision whether to screw him or not based on how much clean floor she could see. In the three years he’d lived here, no one had come up to his apartment to give in to the sexual temptations of the several feet of floor he kept clean and bare, but he knew someday someone would.

* * *

His cot sat next to his apartment’s only window, so he woke the next morning with a grayish haze in his face from the clouds outside. The people he saw when he stepped out didn’t match his mood; they hurried up and down the street and to the train with an extra bounce in their step. In the past the city always came alive on voting days, but he’d figured his half-black neighborhood would feel dour since 50 percent of it had been disenfranchised. But his fellow black people looked cheerful too; they marched on streets in pairs and packs, humming a tune he didn’t recognize.

He walked the two blocks to his polling place with an unusually quiet head free of the usual racial concerns that plagued him most of the time. People looked like people again, eyes and noses and mouths and skin colors that could be noted and dismissed instead of obsessed over. He didn’t know what had happened to him, but maybe it could be blamed on a good night’s sleep.

He voted at an elementary school that normally looked boring in a tan stone-paneled sort of way, since the kids who went there played in the school’s backyard, which sat tucked away from the street and impossible to hear over its traffic. But that day hundreds of darker-skinned black people stood lined up at the door as if they’d be let in to vote soon, swaying and singing. Every so often, when one was denied entry, a group of them would run at the closed door and try to bash it open, to no avail. As a man accustomed to the placid boredom of reviewing tax filings and living a silent existence at home who could never see himself publicly objecting to anything, the accountant stood terrified at this disorder. But he dragged himself to the front of the line to go in anyway.

When the door swung open to kick out a voter he fit himself in the open gap and walked to the cafeteria at the back of the building, where an older black lady found his registration and handed him a ballot while he stood stunned, amazed that she’d work the polls if she couldn’t vote at them. He searched her face for visible disappointment and found none, only to remember the period where he earned the sort of hourly wage she probably earned and felt glad to earn it. She gave him a pencil and he picked a booth in a corner of the room and went to spend his time alone with the two names he’d seen at the end of thousands of ads, the president and his opponent, on the two top lines of his ballot.

Below them sat a dozen names he couldn’t remember seeing before and a couple of initiatives that confused him by implying he might care about places beyond his home and his office, like parks or roads he never crossed. But he was untroubled by the bottom of the ticket; he’d come to vote the top, and after surviving the mental assault of checking the “white” box he only needed a second or two more of deliberation to decide to go for the challenger. Though he didn’t believe a president could do anything positive for him he found no harm for voting for something different. The morning had felt different and the walk too, and even the protesters felt different in a good way; he could see something fresh and vital in their fight for the right to do what he’d just done, make a selection that probably wouldn’t help him out—but might.

He fed his ballot into the counting machine and turned to leave but before he could pass through the cafeteria door someone cuffed him, and he knew this by the sudden bow of his legs, which couldn’t move him forward without some cooperation from his trapped arms. His mouth hit the floor first, which sent his teeth into his lip and drew up blood, sour and metallic and, in a blink, all over his tongue.

Two cops dragged him out of the cafeteria into a corner of the school, where they placed him onto the floor in a handcuffed heap, and waited until his breathing had half returned to normal to tell him:

“No one is allowed to say they’re purple,” they said, and the form he’d filled out grew in his mind from an 8 by 12 sheet to a sheet of paper that could fill a room, or a whole apartment, or the length of the school that had trapped him, white and billowing in silent accusation. Outside, the accusations continued loudly in chants and screams, and people sang the song he’d heard earlier, in call and response, where the first group yelled “just say it loud” and the second said “I’m black and I’m proud.” Long after the cops had dragged him out of the building and dumped him in a jail cell that smelled strongly of shit he thought of that song, and the question it seemed to be asking him. Where exactly had he left his pride?

He’d grown up proud, full of soul food and family and a carefully memorized amount of historical black achievement, and yet the second he had the chance to escape blackness he’d gone running for the door. But he didn’t want to face whatever came next as either white or the purple he’d put on the form. They must have swept my fingerprints, he thought to himself. They always knew.

Kashana Cauley’s writing has appeared in the New Yorker and Esquire. Follow her on Twitter.