Confronting My Racist Behavior One Puzzle Piece At A Time

By Amy Roost

The week after pandemonium* broke out, I met a friend for coffee. I thought Amy and I had shared everything — including our names—over the course of our nearly 50-year friendship. So I was surprised when, after kibitzing a while, she presented me with a jigsaw puzzle featuring an eclectic assortment of words in different colors, fonts and type sizes.

“I figured you could use a break from social media,” she offered.

“Ah, right,” I turned the box over, looking for something better than 500-pieces of cardboard.

“Also, I know how much you love words.” Of course she knew. Amy and I had literally met over words when in third grade the school librarian introduced me, a recent transfer student, to her daughter-of-the-same-name as we sat criss-cross-applesauce during story time. And while it’s true I love words (and fonts), what Amy apparently didn’t know is I don’t especially love puzzles, not jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, sudoku puzzles…. Nevertheless, I thanked her for the gift — because the thought counted a great deal — but when I got home, I stashed the box away in a closet.

The previous week, in response to an editor tweeting that she was looking for submissions from Black and Asian writers, I’d hastily pitched a news-pegged essay for which I was looking to find a home. In my email, I mentioned that I wasn’t Black or Asian, and poorly articulated that I thought she might be interested in my story for a different vertical of her organization’s (the acronym of which I’d misread) publication. The editor sent a brusque reply admonishing me getting the acronym of her organization wrong, centering myself, and accusing me of racism.

This is the point at which I should have replied, “I thought you were the editor of ‘X’ publication and my letter must have struck you as SO entitled. I’m very sorry for taking up space in your day.”

Instead, I exacerbated my error by petulantly complaining on Facebook that I received a rude rejection letter from an editor, whose name I didn’t mention. Unfortunately, my whiny Facebook post somehow found its way back to the editor, who then posted screenshots of our email exchange on her Twitter feed. Despite my frantic, hubristic attempts to defend myself against accusations of racism made by the editor and her followers, her Tweet went viral, and I was, in a word, cancelled.

Over the next few days, I couldn’t face the pain and so I suppressed it which only led to sleeplessness and, worse, intrusive thoughts of harming myself. I tried to keep from my husband that my ego and emotions were in smithereens, but my uptick in wine consumption gave me away. Across from me on the sofa one night, he gently inquired, “What are you drowning over there?”

“Shame. So much shame.”

His response broke me open. “Shame is about who you are. Guilt is about what you did. I wouldn’t be here next to you if who you are is bad.”

He then suggested we get away to an AirBnB rental in the desert. “You could take the time to heal and process,” he said.

The following week, we packed our bags and a cooler. I also grabbed the backgammon board, a few novels and, fortuitously, as it turned out, the jigsaw puzzle from behind the guest room linens.

The metaphorical and literal zephyr we’d hoped would greet us upon arrival in Joshua Tree, was instead a bracing wind that turned our lips blue, and left us little choice but to remain indoors during most of our stay. The internet was spotty as was my attention — consumed as it was by a hodgepodge of ruminations about my mistakes. Unable to concentrate on reading, and tired of losing to my husband at backgammon, I ambivalently, decided to give the puzzle a go. It was a round-shaped puzzle, and I was at a loss as to where to begin given my previous albeit limited experience with jigsaw puzzles was with those of the rectangle variety, No matter, I thought, I probably won’t finish it anyway.

Mindlessly, I sorted puzzle pieces by font and typeface, color, and texture. Fortunately, for someone with limited patience like myself, the shapes of the pieces were distinct enough that I made some immediate matches. As my eyes entrained, I began to fit still more pieces together, and before I knew it, I’d completed whole words. Without my noticing, a subtle shift in my attention occurred, and somewhere into my third word — ’diaphanous,’ with its Aegean blue letters a 60-point, serif font — I was completely lost to the task at hand.

With the wind still howling, and my husband immersed in a book — I worked the puzzle most of the afternoon. I felt especially pleased when I found the elusive missing piece to the upside-down, sans-serif ‘redolent.’ So pleased that I texted Amy, “This puzzle works better and is cheaper than wine! I get a little buzzed every time I make a match.”

She replied with a line of thankful hands and red wine emojis.

“I can’t thank you enough. Solving the puzzle has taken my mind off the “imbroglio!”

Or so I thought.

What I had yet to realize was that, like a left-open app running in the background of a smartphone, my subconscious mind had been busy sorting out my troubles while my conscious mind was sorting through puzzle pieces.

My public humiliation and subsequent cancellation had all happened so swiftly that, at first, I was completely flummoxed that I couldn’t see my role in what happened. Try as I might to face what I’d done, all I could think about were the painful consequences. But that first evening in Joshua Tree, as I stood at the stove, perspective rose up to greet me like the steam off the top of the soup I was idly stirring. I began to make out what others had witnessed: A privileged and entitled white woman trampling upon a space that had been set aside for Black and Asian writers. When I was called out by the editor and others for this behavior, I made excuses rather than owning my screwup. As a fair-minded colleague would later point out, “When you err, rarely do excuses come across as anything other than self-protective lies.”

Later, as I lay in bed without the puzzle to distract me, I tried to reconcile my latest observations with who I thought myself to be. In the still darkness, I admitted to myself that I was guilty of thoughtless and hurtful mistakes. Worse, I didn’t take responsibility for my mistakes, rather I talked over others’ objections to them, became defensive, and shrugged off the editor’s concern (one that I share) that women of color face egregious systemic barriers to success and visibility in journalism that white women, such as myself, do not. All this posturing was meant to prove the case that I’m not a racist. But to paraphrase Forrest Gump, racist is as racist does. And by any objective standard, unthinking as it was, I’d committed a racist act.

Hoping to quiet my mind and perhaps gain more insight, I quietly got out of bed so as not to disturb my husband, went to the dining room, and worked the puzzle some more.

As an auroral light split the difference between two sheer curtain panels, the mellifluous snap of the puzzle’s last piece finding its home filled the room. I leaned back in my chair feeling satisfied to have not only completed the jigsaw puzzle but to have also puzzled through my own circumstances in the process. In my hunt for interlocking pieces that formed words, I’d unlocked hard truths about my own words: namely, how careless I’d been with them, and why in the future I must use them with greater precision and thoughtfulness.

I texted a photo of the completed puzzle to Amy, smiling, as I did, at the thought it would greet her when she awakened. As it turned out, Amy knew me better than I knew myself. She understood that words have a salubrious effect on me. And she guessed correctly that a meditative exercise such as working a jigsaw puzzle would lead me back to the other side of despair, where, as Sartre wrote, ‘life begins.’ Again.

*Boldfaced words are select words from the jigsaw puzzle.

Postscript: This story is not meant to imply that racism can be overcome with one jigsaw puzzle. Once I realized my racist behavior, I set out to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. I began reading books such as How To Be an Antiracist, My Grandmother’s Hands, and Caste. I started regular therapy that not only helped me see the privileged bubble in which I live, but helped me sort out the immediate lead-up to my behavior; namely I was going through a lot of stress — the caregiving of family members, COVID anxiety, a cancelled book tour — without an effective coping strategy. Over time, this persistent stress led to the depletion of my emotional and cognitive resources to the point that I was reacting to insignificant stressors with tension, irritability and anger. I continue to educate myself about racism and am doing a lot of self-development work including an 8-week mindfulness based stress reduction class which, for those of you who haven’t tried it, is a game changer when it comes to effectively coping with life’s many stressors.

Essays, anthologies, and memoirs, oh my!!

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