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Hattiesburg, Mississippi



This time it’s the old white man at your gym, Iron Strength. Call him Rich.

His nose hovers inches from yours; his white goatee stinks, or maybe that’s his mustard breath. “I will fucking throw you out,” he screams.

Your gym is perhaps your favorite thing about Hattiesburg. Your student budget is tight, but you’ll manage to eek out thirty a month somehow—you have for the last three years.

Mostly, you love how the chipped iron plates and warped, knurled barbells are constant. It’s a Thursday, so you are deadlifting 315.

On the final rep, the bar slips, and the metal plates clatter loudly (but harmlessly) against the rubber and wood of the deadlift platforms. These are designed to absorb tremendous shock.

Ichor courses through your veins; it swells your lats, pools in your hamstrings and forearms. You’ve trained for years to lift 315 for twelve reps. You’re gasping for breath in sync with your music when Rich approaches.

“Do that again, I will fucking throw you out. Use the fucking bumper plates.” Reflected light glares off his bald skull. He bows his sagging chest, but it’s his gut that protrudes.

There are no signs to indicate you should use rubber plates to deadlift, but there is a poster with one rule on the wall.

It reads: BE RESPECTFUL TO OTHERS. There’s another—LIFT ANGRY.

You will wonder if there’s something wrong with you.

You will wonder why your Asian father never gave you “the talk”—that you need to be careful, that they may not know what you are, but they will know you’re not white, not completely white anyway.

Your black sweatpants and blue hoodie won’t hide your brown skin, can’t conceal your slanted eyes.

You nod at Rich because you have no words. Flecks of his spittle spray onto your shoulder. You take a step back. He doesn’t like that.

He notices your earbuds and yells even louder. “Have you even heard a word I said this entire time, boy? I will fucking throw you out,” he says as he steps closer. His nose hovers inches from yours.

Three gym-regulars, all white, all less than twenty feet away, continue their lifts. They watch the encounter through the mirrors, so they never look at you directly.

You don’t blame them when they do nothing. In fact, you’re jealous of them, finishing their workouts in peace while you frantically assure yourself it’s not about race.

Two days later, you’re back in the gym. You watch as a white man deadlifts 405 exactly where you did. On the adjacent platform, another white man deadlifts 585.

Both drop their barbells at the top of their reps, letting the iron plates produce deafening clatters as they pound the ground repeatedly.

They get to lift angrily—deep grunts, a yell or two.

Rich casts an uncaring glance at one of them and congratulates the other on a big pull before disappearing into the restroom. There’s cheering.


image: The Library of Virginia from USA