running hurdles at the schvitz

dear humans with capacity to hear about some racisms,

tonight I went to the schvitz in detroit for the first and probably only time. I was excited – anyone who knows me knows I love basically any kind of public bath, banya, hammam, sauna, hot spring. this one is very old, and most of its life has only held the naked public bathing antics of men. but it’s reopened as a bathhouse with men’s, women’s and coed nights.

I wanted to love it.

I was the only visibly Black person there. this is not unusual for me in terms of bathhouses, but anytime I’m in a space in Detroit with no Black people, I feel like I’m in a deleted scene from Get Out!

to be precise, there were no other visibly non white people there.

the person who was supposed to give me a tour didn’t include the actual baths. I didn’t notice this until I saw her giving the full tour later. it gave me a slight hmmm feeling.

I’m often slow to realize racism is happening to me. I can see it for others, like a nibbling sees me sneaking chocolate (this is the most hunter like vision I know of). but I’m my father’s child. he survived impossible racism by denying it was happening, or, if it was undeniable, seeking the humanity of the racist and then quickly forgetting the whole thing. the thought that this was a racist oversight only emerges, for me, in context of what followed.

I brought the Vanity Fair with Michael B Jordan on the front; I love the challenges of reading a magazine as it steams apart, and I wanted to be in my own little world – this was one of my days off in a packed work period. the first sign that I was in the wrong place was when a clueless voice called across the banya (which basically means hot ass room): “who is Michael B Jordan?”

I turn around – I was facing away from everyone and reading in order to send the clear message that I didn’t want to engage with humans. I look briefly at this very young white girl, wondering what kind of social exclusion it must be, to be so out of touch with human contact that you can’t read a full body ‘leave me alone’, and so out of touch with your generation that you don’t recognize Michael B Jordan on sight. I say he was one of the stars of Blek Paintha, a crossover hit. another very young white girl says, “not the star though right? I don’t think, right? but he could be?”

I can’t think of anything nice to say, so I return to my reading.

A while later the woman who didn’t give me the tour sets up to do the platza treatment – the person getting treated lays on the highest, hottest level of the banya and gets beaten with oak leaves and then massaged with soap. I scoot away so I don’t get splashed.

This dialogue follows:

person about to receive treatment: is that Dr Bronners?
untour lady (the bottle is clearly branded): Yes!
patrt: {describes an allergic reaction to Dr. Bronners} but let’s do it!
untour lady: ok.
patrt: {possibly said some other things, but what I next heard was} it’s probably made by enslaved children.

I freeze, because my body carries memories of enslaved children, and it always freezes when reminded of this weight.

someone else, in the banya: right?
patrt: slave child rash!

laughter.
laughter?
laughter.

no one speaks up, and I wonder if I am invisible or too visible. is this cluelessness or aggravation or threat?

I notice where I am – in a basement with no windows, in the back corner of a sprawling tile bathhouse, naked and Black. I splay my energy wide around me like peacock feathers.

I hear the ways I could say something to this room of sweating naked white strangers, but then I add up the cost to myself of doing free educational labor for ignorant white people on my day off. when something so egregious is spoken aloud, it’s not enough to name it, you have to also teach it. I have allocated my free or low cost labor to Black people. and I already paid the $30 entry fee.

I stand up so slowly, like if I move slow enough I could slip right out of this warped dimension of white gentrification and into the future post-horrific bathhouse I’m going to open. I go to cool down in every way in the cold pool at the center of the bathhouse, this is my second dip of the evening. the first time another blather slipped past me, swam, and left without a word. I want to shout her out, as long as she wasn’t in the banya for the enslaved children remark.

anyway the water, it’s super cold, so I just go in to my thighs so my arthritic knees can feel some relief. this time a white woman splashes in loudly from the edge and tells me “it’s shallow if you can’t swim.”

I swim every day that I can. I’m more mermaid than any other magical creature. I feel responses well up, coherent, from deep within me. one response involves me singing Chakra Khan’s classic ‘I’m every woman! it’s all in me” but with the lyrics “I’m Esther Williams! Bitch can’t you see?”

but in equal measure to my rage is my exhaustion from teaching classes I didn’t sign up for.

back in the banya, hoping the racists have migrated, I get a moment’s peace. there is one other woman there, and she’s mostly quiet.

then two tall white women walk in, one of whom has a european accent and is loudly cataloging every thing she sees. I wait, knowing the heat eventually quiets everyone. loud lady is dramatically shushed by her friend. I’m reading and reclaiming my schvitz.

I get up and leave the room. as soon as the door closes they start giggling and whispering. curious. I realize I’ve forgotten my towel and slip back in to grab it. they freeze, three blonde raccoons in a trash can.

I wonder if this is an elaborate prank, or intended to make me feel unwelcome, or just ignorance in the wild. white supremacy is tricky that way, a mixed message, consistent only in its hateful bent.

the rest of the evening was less racist, though it still involved a ton of forced engagement, the kind that makes you appear rude when really you’re just minding your business. I kept slipping to wherever there were the least people, wanting to sweat these small racisms out of my system.

I’m going to stick to the sauna at the gym, where the demographics reflect the city and the other patrons know when to let you cry and when to make you laugh, and how to leave you be. oh, and it’s not a rampant racism zone.

riding the line between memoir and psa,
yours
amb

1 Response to “running hurdles at the schvitz”


  1. 1 Omolade Rosalyn Roddy

    no.words
    damn

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