White Woman Running
By: Elaina Portugal
June 5th, 2020
Before I broke my back, I was a runner. There was nothing better than going out early in the morning or later in the evening when the world was dark and quiet. I focused on the sound of my feet on the pavement and the breath entering and leaving my lungs. I would work to match my breath to my foot beats. Every sixth time a foot hit the pavement, I would slowly breathe in. On the seventh breath, I would slowly breathe out, working hard to keep my breathing slow and rhythmic. I hated panting; it messed with the Zen of my experience. With everything happening right now in the world, I am reminded of an experience I had while running from dusk to dark through my suburban, white, neighborhood.
I never ran the same route twice, not for any other reason but boredom. Sometimes I ran two miles, sometimes four, depending on my mood, the heat, and available time. Being rather top-heavy, I bound my chest in ace bandages to reduce the amount of jiggle and impact. I found it easier to breathe while constricted rather than the constant feeling of jello the weight of wet sand pounding up and down on my chest. I also knew from my high school running days that boys and men stared while I ran which inhibited my ability to hit my runner’s high.
This particular evening, bound and covered, I ran a route through the side streets of my neighborhood planning to do about three miles. I had just begun my run when a car filled with guys I didn’t know slowly drove past me, catcalling. I ignored them and moved to the gravel on the side of the road rather than continue on the pavement as my neighborhood didn’t have sidewalks. After a few moments of catcalling, they drove slowly past, yelling “Frigid Bitch,” at me, I assume because I didn’t swoon at their attention. I turned at the next corner as they drove straight to avoid giving them any thought I was interested. I didn’t think much more about it as I ate up the pavement, but about a mile further into my run, I saw the same car going slowly through the intersection a block down and I could hear them calling “Frigid Bitch,” followed by laughter. I felt uneasy, and I changed my route to avoid them.
I was almost home free, just around the corner from my house, when the car came tearing around the corner, bright lights on. I heard one of them yell, “I think I see her up there!” and I took that as my cue to run into my neighbor’s bushes. The side of their backyard bordered the back of my yard and I thought about simply running through the backyards to my house. However, we had a family of skunks living in the bushes between our yards, and the previous day a woodchuck, who we thought was rabid, chased my neighbor through his backyard into his house and paced for over five minutes at his sliding glass doors. I hunkered down behind the bushes, hoping the bushes would provide enough cover until the car passed.
The car crept up the street. I tried to slow my breathing so they wouldn’t hear me pant. Someone screamed, “There she is!” and a flashlight as big as a spotlight, hit me square in the face. I took off running, noting that my pale skin shining through the dark bushes must have given me away. Fear of the guys behind me outranked the fear of the animals in the bushes as I hurdled over them into my yard. Our acre lots felt like miles of unprotected space as I tried to make it into my house before they caught up with me.
When I jumped onto my porch, I held my breath trying to hear if anyone was approaching. I only heard laughter in the distance and tires screeching on pavement. I collapsed to the ground sobbing. It had been a long time since I had felt that scared.
Please understand, I do not write this to compare my experience with the horrific events in GA or MN. I was not chased because of the color of my skin. I was chased because I was a woman. I write this because of the fear I felt. It spread through my body like wildfire, heating up my core, squeezing the breath from my lungs, and jumbling my thoughts. Is this the fear people of color experience when pulled over? When harassed? When faced with racism and bigotry?
When I started teaching in an urban school, frustrated at one of my student’s lack of motivation, in my privilege and ignorance I asked him, “Don’t you want more from life?” He was in the same class as his uncle, both of them the same age. His mom was his classmate’s brother. He looked at me and said, “Mrs. Portugal, I was born in the hood, I grew up in the hood, I’m gonna die in the hood. I feel safer in my neighborhood where there’s guns on every corner than I do when I leave it.” I was gobsmacked. At the time, I couldn’t understand that thinking. What could be worse than guns on every corner?
I’m finally understanding.
I’m remembering that fear of being chased and am horrified to think many live with that fear on a regular basis.
I’m ashamed it took me so long to begin to understand.
If you’d like to read more of Elaina’s letters, click here.
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