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Monday, June 9, 2008

Interpersonal reactions

I've been traveling a lot lately and have not had time to process all that is going on around me. So I put down this blog for awhile and now I am back. I don't really know how people have something to blog about every day. I would rather wait until I have something at least of interest to me on which to write.

Several different types of interpersonal reactions have surfaced making me acutely aware of my instinctive rush to judgment and inherent racism,
my lack of racial understanding, and the need to see the humor in indefensible situations.

The racism: my friend and I have been giving some work to a neighborhood guy - mowing, cleaning up - labor with minimal need for tools type stuff. We wanted the work done, he was willing to put his back into it, and it seemed a good fit. I vacillate in this type of situation between do-gooder and super do-gooder. By this I mean that I feel good helping out another person who needs a break. And I feel really good about helping out a black man through my white largess. This is where it gets tricky for me. I can validate my feelings of wanting to help someone out. But when do I cross that line into sanctimonious, "look at me," the great white hope, helping out the downtrodden black man? I am not quite that derogatory, but I want you to get the drift of this because what happens next is difficult to navigate in terms of the racist-ness of my reactions. We don't lock our doors and have not had any trouble with this practice except when somebody wants to do harm by taking stuff. See some of my earlier posts about this issue. We took off for a few days and told our "handyman" that he could do some work while we were gone. We came back a day early to find that he had moved in, made himself quite comfortable with our stuff, and brought some illicit items in with him. I had a fit and all my racist vitriol bubbled right to the surface. I was certain my emotions were linked to the fact that this guy took advantage of us - the nerve of a homeless person to do that, that he disrespected our home by bringing in illicit materials - an addict that can't manage his habit elsewhere is just rude, and that he endangered our reputation by these things - doesn't he know how good and right we are? Once I got calm I thought about why I had that outrage. In part, I was ticked off that the guy took advantage of us - but the litmus test is whether I would feel as outraged if he were white. Maybe. But the illicit materials was the tell - I am sure that my stereotype of the urban black man as purveyor of such materials was in play and thus, my racial hostility was full-blown. I'm not trying to excuse his actions - wrong is wrong. I'm trying to get at my reactions to it.

The understanding of race: A friend shared a great NPR story with me on a new book -- "The Beautiful Struggle - Growing Up in West Baltimore" which is a tale written by a black man growing up in the 1980s and his quest to navigate the streets and black music. My friend (who is black) was so taken with the writing that she suggested we read the book and share thoughts. I read the lengthy excerpt and had no clue what it was saying. I didn't get the cultural references, I didn't get the language, I didn't get the context. I just didn't get it. I wanted to get it. I should get it. I am an enlightened person. My first reaction was to say this is not for me and I am not interested. I immediately dismissed it as not worth my time. Ouch. I then thought about why I was so ready to dismiss the book. It boiled down to - I don't have to get this. My life will go on without missing a beat and I will not feel I am missing anything by not reading and understanding this book. Why would I say this? Because I can. Now I am not trying to turn everything into race. There are many books I pass on, some I start and put down because it is of little interest, and some I never even consider. But this was recommended by a good friend, was profiled on NPR, and is about growing up in an urban setting similar to the neighborhood in which I now live. This is definitely the type of confluence that would lead me to read this book. I can only assume that my lack of understanding was defended by my white privilege - I don't have to know these things. Fortunately my better judgment prevailed and I will give this book a try with my friend.

The humor of race: My friend and I were traveling on a plane. At the stopover we had a chance to move up to the front of the plane and get choice seats. We took the second row - he at the window and I at the isle. He said - "this is great. We won't have anyone sitting with us unless the plane is completely full." This was a Southwest flight with no assigned seating - but the first few rows ALWAYS fill up. He insisted he knew what would happen. A little context is required: my friend, who is black and male, was dressed in his black sweats with a hood. He also has braids. He looked the part of the ghetto thug. Scary. The people started coming on board. I made no eye contact with anyone. Everyone - every single one - passed us by. There were 3 other middle seats vacant when they closed the door. Next time you are on a Southwest flight that is full, see how many seats are vacant in the first 5 rows. Zero is the right answer. So this is pretty appalling but it is awfully funny too. He knew he could turn the racial prejudice to his advantage and beat the white passengers at their own game. I laughed at the absurdity of it all as we enjoyed space in our seats. He asked me if I would find it as funny if they were passing me by because of my color. Yes, I would be outraged by the racism, and yes, I would still find it funny that people are so lame as to benefit me by cutting off their own nose to spite their face (as my mother used to say...). We relayed the story to a friend after we got home and laughed ourselves silly, though there is an underlying hubris that casts a pall on the joke.

So there you have it. In interpersonal situations you will find that you will always default to the stereotype, the inherent prejudice, and white privilege. Question is whether you will stop and catch yourself, examine it, learn from it, and yes, laugh at it. Your life may be richer for it.


Dan said...

Can't you just leave it at being cool and hiring the guy to help you out, and he turned out to be a jerk, so you're okay and he's an asshole? Because that's the level of analysis I feel comfortable with . . .

More seriously, great post. You do have a habit of scraping just below the scabs of my self-satisfaction, and exposing the rawness of my own racism.

The book one was especially hard to swallow, because I'm so entirely guilty of choosing my reading while in the full bloom of my cultural biases. I LOVE working through a difficult passage of TS Eliot's arcane references, but I'm completely impatient with cultural references that are inferior and don't matter - who cares if someone is alluding to a folk tale from slave days? Wow. Damn - I never thought of it that way . . .

Anonymous said...

I read with interest your latest blog & repsonded to it yesterday but apparently I did something wrong as it was not published.
First of all concerning your experience with your "handyman". I am all for helping out people in their time of need & commend you for doing so. However your blog was kind of misleading as you first say a neighborhood man then you call him a homeless man. To me there is a difference. A neighborhood man implies that he has a home in your neighborhood where a homeless man implies he is just hanging out in the neighborhood. Also as for not locking your home up, I think that was just impaired judgment on your part. Even in "good" neighborhood if you leave your home empty for a period of time you are susceptible to potential criminal activity. As for respect, I believe that is learned at an early age & you either have it or you don't. However, I don't believe respect or lack thereof is color based.
As for your trip, there are many reasons that people did not decide to sit between you & your companion that has nothing to do with color or dress. People may not have wished to inconvenience you to reach that seat by climbing over you. You said you avoided eye contact with other people & to me that indicated unfriendlyness & I would not bother someone avoiding contact with me.