The inadvertent racist

I am not the hero of this story. Not even close. But its a true story all the same. This really happened.

I was coming home from work.
I was standing on the Expo line platform at La Cienega and Jefferson. The station there is elevated a good 30-40 feet above the traffic below. It offers a nice view of the lights of Culver City, especially at night. Its also a short block away from a Sees Candy factory/shop. When the wind is right you can smell them making chocolates.

A young african-American man approached me and stood nearby.
He looked to be in his late 20s. My height. Well groomed. He had on slacks, a long-sleeve button down shirt, and a tie. A coat as well, but I can’t recall exactly what kind. Not a suit jacket, more like a trench coat or a rain coat. It was dark, and cold (what people on the East Coast would call cool). The elevated station not only offers a excellent view, but it also exposes you to the on-shore breeze, the Pacific Ocean being only a few miles away. It was cold enough people were wearing gloves, stamping their feet, moving around, and standing instead of sitting on the concrete benches. So we stood.

I was dressed like a person of privilege.
I don’t recall exactly what I was wearing, but this is how I dress for work. Jeans and a fitted t-shirt. On warmed days, tan dockers, but more than likely it was jeans. The t-shirt was colored, and might have been long-sleeved. I buy them at Target because they’re cheap, and because they look good on me. I was probably wearing my skating jacket which is bicycling jacket: comfortable, lightweight, stuffs into a small pouch, is 100% synthetic, and is amazingly warm. The jacket looks like something a cyclist would wear on a windy day because that is precisely why it was made. It was a gift from my in-laws, is the perfect coat for anything but a serious downpour, and is easily hauled around in my back-pack.

All this to say I was dressed like a person who doesn’t give a damn about how they dress. That’s because I don’t. My day job is being an artist, a pixel-pusher, a photoshop expert. A great job for people who like to dress like they don’t give a damn. My outfit has evolved to this point as being the perfect blend of comfort, ease of use while skating, and just professional enough to give the appearance of confidence. As such my outfit is strictly utilitarian; clothes I put on to accomplish the task at hand, and nothing more. The uniform of a slightly socially awkward artist.

But its also important to point out I dress this way because I don’t have to dress better. No one expects me to prove my worth based on my dress. Quite the opposite in fact. No one has ever questioned my value to society based solely upon my clothing. Or at least not since I was in college. And it would be considered rude for someone to do so. Its not something I ever have to worry about.

We started talking.
Possibly because he was friendly, but more than likely because I like to talk to strangers. I try not to be too pushy, but almost anyone will engage in casual conversation. “Sure is cold tonight,” that sort of thing.

I asked what he did for a living.
I do this with everyone. Its a great way to get a stranger to talk about something they’re comfortable with. Since I collect stories, like some people collect butterflies, I use this question, among others, as a method of exploration; a way to dig deeper. Everybody has good stories tucked inside somewhere, and I am shameless in my hunt for them. Up until a friend posted something on Facebook, I didn’t realize that asking someone this particular question has another meaning in the black community.

He told me to “guess.”
I thought this a funny response, a bit like a girl who is flirting with you might want you to guess her age. Only we were definitely not flirting. So I looked at his outfit, at the way he carried himself, noted the other passengers (remember I ride the train and busses all the time, so I’m familiar with the clientele), and took a wild guess.

“Are you a security guard?” I asked.

“I work in a bank,” he said. “As a loan officer.”

He may have said something more about his job. He may have not actually been a loan officer. I don’t recall. All I remember is that he worked in a bank, and not just as a teller.

He was angry after that.
Not sneering angry, not growling angry, not “ball up a fist and punch someone” angry. Nothing so overt. It was more subtle than that. More of a “slight tightening of the jaw” angry.  That, and he all but stopped talking with me.

I won’t pretend to be the most observant guy in the room, but I can tell when someone is done talking with you. They turn a shoulder. Ignore the next question. Don’t say or waive goodbye. They are done. Period. And this guy was done.

He walked far away to another entrance to get on the train.
That is to say, he made it very clear he wasn’t going to sit near me. Now I talk to people all the time on the bus and train, like I mentioned before, so I’ve learned a thing or two. I knew our conversation was over, and I had a pretty good sense the man was angry at me, but at the time what I didn’t get was why. I didn’t know if I had done or said something wrong, or if he was over-reacting. He didn’t have any of the signs of mental illness (I know, I talk to those kind of people all the time), and there was nothing about the conversation that I could see that would make someone upset. Sure I had guessed wrong at his occupation, but so what? I mean he asked me to guess. He could have just told me what he did, and we could have gone on from there. Hell, I would have loved to talk to him about his job. I’ve never worked in a bank, and I could easy have asked a hundred questions. Everything from, “do you still keep banker’s hours,” to “do you get any play with the ladies?”

He probably went home thinking, “what a racist asshole.”
He probably was right.

So that’s the story. Now, I’m going to turn the conversation over, and try to present it from his point of view. He was coming home from work. He was dressed well, dressed better than 95% of the people at the station. He works in Culver CIty which could mean anything, but probably meant he worked at a bank in the nice part of town–and the nice part of Culver CIty could give Beverly Hills a run for its money. He stood for his train, and was approached by an old white guy who dressed like a bum. They talked for a bit, and then the old gut started pestering him about his job.

I’m going to stop here for a moment because I want to talk about this specific topic. Its worth mentioning because its possible the white people in the room might not get all that is going on here. I know I didn’t at the time, so feel free to go to school on my mistake.

There are rules about how society functions. These rules are not written down, nor are they in a real sense enforced, yet they do exist, and they do come into play in public. For instance, if you are out in public late in the morning on a school day, and you see a couple of pre-teens out on the street, you will probably note them, especially if you are a parent. A child out of school sticks out. If you’re a teacher, you will probably say something to them. Anything from, “How’s if going,” to “Aren’t you suppose to be in school?” If you know the kids personally, you definitely will say something to them. “Billy Jones. Does your mother know you aren’t in school?”

There are two things to this example that are important. The first is that perfect strangers in public, who normally do not talk to each other, will speak out at kids who they think should be in school (whether they need to be in school or not, as my friends who have have home-schooled their kids will tell you). Its a social function. A protection. The social equivalent of white blood cells attaching themselves to a virus. Its not done to attack the kid as much as to preserve a perceived order; in this case having kids in school where they belong.

The second important thing about this example is that the person speaking will do so from a perceived place of authority. A kid on the street on a school day will not be enough for most people to overcome their natural inclination to not speak to strangers. But if that person is a parent, they will have more of an emotional stake in the issue, especially if they have kids near that age. They understand deeply what a kid out of school means. For a teacher, this is doubly true. They have first hand experience with kids and their motivations. They also have, what my sister (a long standing middle school science teacher) calls “the voice”. In others words, they know how to be effective. And if the stranger actually knows one of the children and their family, they will almost certainly say something.

In each of these cases, the person doing the talking is doing so from a place of authority. They know something, or feel something and are compelled to act. They do this from a place of privilege. This is what privilege means, having a raised point in a social experience.

So this social system, this method by which people of privilege speak out in public to correct a perceived flaw, also happens to be the very same method by which racism is carried out, and perceived racial divides are maintained. The equivalent of weeding in the racist garden.

I think most of my readers can imagine themselves in the dim dark past, out in a small town somewhere deep in the south, and see how white strangers might have have asked a black person what they were doing out on the street in the middle of the day. Especially during the time of slavery, where free blacks were as rare as kids not needing to be in school. This is what I like to think of as “safe” racism. Its somewhere deep in the past, doesn’t involve us, and doesn’t match or present social context. I mean, after all, no one today would ask a black person what they are doing out on the streets, right?

Well yes and no. You see, I don’t see white people doing anything of the sort, and as a general rule they don’t. But what they actually do is not all that different from it. If you’re like me, you probably won’t notice until its pointed out to you, but these kinds of things often still go on. All you have to do is ask enough people of color. They’ll tell you.

Go to a university and see how often the black students are asked, “are you here on scholarship?” compared to how often the white students are asked. Go around your neighborhood, especially a nice neighborhood, and see how many times a black person is asked, “do you live around here?” compared to a white person. Or go on a public train platform and see how many black men are asked, “what do you do for a living?” compared to the white men. If you are white, and confronted with these questions it doesn’t bother you because the questions will be few and far between, and the answers do not reflect poorly on you. But what if you got asked these things all of the time? What does it mean when every white person you see, even the well meaning ones, ask you the same questions over and over? And why these particular questions?

Are these questions just a part of the friendly banter between strangers in public, or are they analogous to the, “aren’t you supposed to be in school?”? If you’ve only experienced these questions once or twice, I’d guess the former, but if you hear them more often, they start to look an awful lot like the latter.

Which is how I accidentally ended up a racist. See I wasn’t trying to subtly tell this young man he didn’t belong in my world of white privilege, I was genuinely curious what he did for a living. Only its hard to tell sometimes the polite question from the pointed, and intent–as any competent trial lawyer will tell you–is damn hard to prove, and easy to mistake. Asking a young black man if he has a job (which is probably how he took my question) is no joke. The unemployment rate for men of color, especially young men, is incredibly high. Only a few short times since the 1960s has it dropped below twice as high as white unemployment. I’ll say it again. The average is more than twice as high.

So if I had had to work twice as hard to find a good job, and then was bugged about it by someone who looked as if he had been handed their job on a silver platter, I can imagine I would be a little bit testy. Because men, especially young men, often measure their self-worth by their jobs and the money they make, this is a topic that is rife for misunderstanding and hurt feelings. Few things can make a man feel insecure faster than questioning his financial virility. This is true for men of any color.

Since that day I’ve learned to by more circumspect. I’ve learned that if someone talks about their work as being “a little of this and a little of that,” what they are really saying is either they’re unemployed, or they don’t want to talk about their work. Older men tend to be more sanguine about this, then the younger ones. They’ve found other ways to measure their own value to society instead of, or in addition to, making money. But it wasn’t until my friend posted something on facebook the other day that I realized I needed to find a different topic to bring up, or find a more socially acceptable way of asking. That, or I needed to acknowledge that my current style of questioning could end up with me being labeled a racist asshole. Again.

2 thoughts on “The inadvertent racist

  1. Interesting… I commend you on your reaction, to look inside and question if there was something you did rather than what many would do, would be to assume victimhood, and maybe seek out someone to complain to about the guy, “crazy people, I didn’t do anything and he got mad… etc.”

    I am not shy about talking to folks, but it does tend to be more in the moment stuff, perhaps just that one moment we are sharing, I might have in that situation had said, something like, “that chocolate smells great, now I want some chocolate… I used to work two doors down from a bakery, I gained weight!”

    But yes, someone perceives that question like one of those dating site questionnaires, it is a question which sounds like a test of whether they are worth knowing, a correct answer must be made for the further endowment of the questioner’s attention, and I am not saying that as if I was enlightened and you weren’t, I am one of those folks who is uncomfortable with that question… the part which makes me uncomfortable has nothing to do with the person asking, as that is a societal norm when you meet someone you don’t know (and something you are questioning, which is good, as we forget or just don’t know that the question could make someone uncomfortable)what makes me uncomfortable is that conversation I have with myself, how I perceive where I am, what I might rather be able to honestly say, and it boils down to how do I resolve what makes that question uncomfortable, so that I can not have to be uncomfortable, and is that even a possibility considering all the circumstances… and it also depends on whether the life ride is on a downtick or uptick… It can be very complex, and very simple at the same time. The only answer is a resolution within the circumstances, and trying to understand if I am speaking to myself truthfully about where I want to be, and if there is an actual road there….

  2. I think I’ve had this conversation with you before Eric, but I will share here as well to share with the class. One of the questions that bothers me is, “What are you? Mexican, Middle Easter, Native American?” It relates to what you wrote about because I’ve always felt like that’s some way of categorizing where I belong on the scale of society. I’ve toned down the anger that stirs inside of me, mainly because of the frequency of that question.

    Instead of being upset by the question, I simply use it as an opportunity to express how I view myself. I respond, “I’m American,” or “I’m from California,” which is where I disagree with the young man in the story. It’s not up to others to guess what offends him, it’s up to him to present the story he wants read. That being said, I didn’t always know that, hopefully he learns this and applies it in his own life. It will save him a lot of unnecessary grief. At least until the day where we don’t have to be categorized by uncontrollable things but by what we bring to the world as individuals.

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