Two nights ago, I met my partner for a cocktail at a bar near our house in Madison, Wisconsin. (My job is in Iowa City, her job is in Madison, I’m back and forth.) It had already been a long week. I’d been in Chicago Monday and Tuesday for meetings, and in Iowa City Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning for meetings and to administer a final exam. Wednesday evening was a good occasion for a drink.
There are many reasons to avoid the sort of place we ended up going to. It’s next to a high-end outdoor shopping mall; it’s overpriced; it doesn’t have much of what reasonable people would call any special character. But it’s close to where we live and they make a good martini.
While we sat and caught up (I hadn’t been home in more than sixty hours), I noticed a very drunk middle-aged white woman standing two feet behind us, talking loudly to two male companions. There was plenty of room elsewhere at the bar where they could have stood or even say, but they remained directly behind us, their conversational volume escalating as drinks arrived and departed in rapid succession.
When I first felt the woman grab the back of my chair, I shrugged it off. She was happy-hour drunk and probably didn’t realize that she was really getting into my personal space. Then she grabbed it again, jostling it hard. Then a third time. Then a fourth.
It had been a long week. I just wanted to relax. I turned around and said seven words: “Can you please stop jostling my chair?”
She absolutely exploded, leaning into my face and screaming that I’m a “snowflake” and asking mockingly if I “needed a safe space” before sitting down next to my partner and I and screaming into our faces. The whole thing lasted probably about three minutes, which doesn’t sound like long until you realize that it is a long. fucking. time. Throughout it all, I quietly seethed. One of her friends eventually beckoned her away and then came up a few minutes later to apologize for her behavior, but the damage was done. The woman left about twenty minutes later and called me a “fucking snowflake” once more on her way out.
This is the second time since 2016–when “snowflake” really began entering the conservative zeitgeist as a cutting insult–that this has happened to me. Two years ago, when we lived in Indianapolis, we were sitting outside in the afternoon at a local brewery. The restaurant next door had recently been bought by a Japanese family, and they were re-siding the building on this particular afternoon. A middle-aged white couple sitting next to us began making more and more racist jokes at the family’s expense, with anti-Mexican jokes (about the superiority of Mexican people for physical labor relative to Japanese people) bundled with at various points. I couldn’t take it. I told them to stop. The male half of the couple stood up and got in my face and started screaming at me. I wanted so badly in that moment to hit him, but I didn’t. He and his partner finally left, and they too called me a fucking snowflake on their way out.
Perhaps there isn’t a ton of meaning to be had here, although if we take the word “snowflake” as these horrible people mean it to be taken–as a marker of emotional hyper-sensitivity and psychological fragility–it’s worth considering who is truly truly emotionally hyper-sensitive and psychologically fragile in a case where someone loses their mind when asked to stop shaking a stranger’s chair or when told to stop making racist jokes.
But this does lead me to a few things. First, it’s worth remembering how purely, viscerally socially toxic it is when people as profoundly horrible as this week’s woman and that couple two years ago feel empowered to interact in such ways with someone who’s literally done them no harm. I think liberals and Leftists tend to think of “snowflake” as either a stupid and silly term (which it is), or alternatively as something to be stolen and redeployed against conservative reactionaries (which I sort of just did in the above paragraph, now that I think about it). I would caution against the latter modes of thought. “Snowflake” is the language of post-2016 mainstream conservatism, which makes it venomous and revolting by design and not to be emulated. But more to the point, when it’s deployed with such rhetorical violence as I’ve experienced it, it has real impacts on people’s lives. Our night was wrecked. I lost sleep after it happened. I can’t stop thinking about this despite having grading to do and other things to focus on and look forward to.
I also cannot ignore the racial dynamics at play. I’m a person of color who happens to be light-skinned enough to pass or not pass depending on who is reading me in any given moment. In both these instances, I wonder what would have been different if I were white. Especially in Indianapolis, it was clear to me that the couple was particularly angry about being challenged on their racism by a person of color. Two nights ago, it’s less clear to me, but I don’t know that this white woman would have felt so comfortable doing what she was doing if I was white.
Finally, this: this incident the other evening so severely ruined my fucking night that when we got home, I posted on my private social media about it. Among the dozens of comments that the post elicited, at least ten congratulated me for “keeping my cool.” I really, really hate that. I don’t think there is anything particularly noble about my response or lack thereof. I hate that there is an expectation that there is something innately good about letting someone berate you without telling them exactly what you think of them. I don’t know much about how to sort through these situations, but I do know that congratulating someone on silently taking unwarranted abuse does not seem particularly healthy.
And to emphasize a point that needs emphasis: I want to say that I am not proud of how I handled the situation, and to say that I didn’t refrain from exploding because I wanted to take some moral high road. If you want to know why I didn’t explode, it’s because I was scared. I was scared of what would happen if things escalated–namely, what the optics would look like of a thirty-five-year-old male of color screaming into the face of a white woman twenty years my elder, what would happen if security and/or police were called. This is not a healthy society.
As a personal note, I leave this story here not to elicit sympathy or get well-intended comments saying that folks are sorry this happened to me. My situation is not special (I’m not a unique little snowflake, I guess), and to draw the racial question back into it, people who have less visual fluidity in terms of how they’re read racially are put in far more depressing and more dangerous positions by people like this horrible woman all the time.
I leave this here, rather, for us to think through the power of this language to do the things it does to people–both those who receive and those who deploy it–and think about the costs of finding virtue in other-cheek-turning.