Ari Kaplan/AGNI: In “How to Speak to a Police Officer,” your individual accounts of the same event overlap and form a kind of conversation, yet the two parts are also discrete. Can you talk about how you composed and revised this essay? How much of your process was collaborative, and how much independent? When did you share your writing with each other, and were you each influenced by what the other had written?
Bailey Gaylin Moore: This essay started as two separate pieces we were writing independently. Donald’s segment is an excerpt from a nonfiction collection set to be published later this year, and mine comes from an essay I’ve been working on. We’d like to write a book together, and the experience of merging these two narratives was a good start. We didn’t share our individual portions with each other until right before deciding to submit the essay to AGNI.
Donald Quist: There wasn’t too much influencing, at least not intentionally. But I think our shared experience and our familiarity with each other’s writing and being lent the essay a cohesiveness.
The endings of the two parts describe how you apologized to each other after leaving the police station. It’s striking that you both felt the need to say “I’m sorry” when you had, as you write, “nothing to apologize for.” Could you comment on that impulse to apologize and why you chose to conclude there?
Donald: Being a person of color in America has taught me how to feel like a problem. I often find myself apologizing for taking up space, for being too visible. In the moment described in our essay, Bailey was essentially punished by law enforcement for her proximity to my blackness. I felt guilty and partly responsible. Writing this essay together was part of an ongoing process for me of unlearning that guilt.
Bailey: Being raised in the Ozarks—an area that is 95% white—I’ve been slow to understand the impact of whiteness in the world. Awareness of systemic racism wasn’t woven into my education, and even in college, white fragility caused these conversations to be evasive and move quickly to other subjects. It wasn’t until Donald and I started dating that I began to see the direct impact of whiteness; Donald not being able to drive through a particular area at night, or simply his knowing how to speak to a police officer.
When you are just being introduced to your own privilege, sometimes the only thing you know how to do is say sorry, even if the situation isn’t directly your fault. Interrogating whiteness, however, is more about the actions you take after feeling the need to say sorry. So, Donald and I started a podcast about our confrontation of issues surrounding race, gender, and identity.
Donald, in a 2018 interview with AGNI you noted: “I hope the stories I tell encourage more constructive discourse about some of the exigencies of life in North America.” What hopes do both of you have for the ways “How to Speak to a Police Officer,” and your writing generally, might contribute to conversations about systemic racial injustice in this country, as well as the ongoing protests against police brutality targeting Black people?
Donald: I’m still hopeful that the things I write might affect change, particularly in a way that could improve the lives of people in marginalized communities. This past summer’s outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement can be partially credited to art that has pushed discussions about race and interrogated racial injustice. But I also recognize that while progressive rhetoric can be a catalyst, it must be followed by progressive action. There is also the fact that my work is less likely to reach those I’d most want to change. I’m not sure how many police officers get the opportunity to read a journal like AGNI. But I can share stories like ours with my students; I can do my best to work across a variety of platforms to encourage others to think about the ways they might be contributing to the subjugation of others and how they might break those cycles of oppression.
Bailey: I just want to say this is a conversation that doesn’t end. Reading one essay or taking one class doesn’t undo the effects of whiteness.
Ari Kaplan is an editorial assistant at AGNI. (1/2021)