As I was contemplating quiche in the Grand Central Market, a woman near me was talking, either to herself, I thought. or on her cell phone. When I went to look at ice cream, she said, “I've had enough Ben and Jerry's, and need something new!” I realized abruptly she’d been talking to me all along. She was carrying an oddly large bundle, and a little voice in me suggested she was shoplifting or maybe wanted to hustle me.
Did I mention she was black?
This is the third time recently that I've failed to notice a black person talking to me. This has all been in New York City, so I wonder...is this a New York thing? A black thing? Or a New York black thing? Or is it just me not noticing when certain kinds of people talk right to me, and that I’m a low-level racist?
I’m talking about this as a “me” thing, but wondering if it’s also a “we” thing.
By the grace of Obamacare, I have insurance while figuring out a better arrangement. I am the only white person at my doctor's office.. Today I sat listening with wonder, entertained as two black women discussed beatings they endured as a child. With humor and warmth they recalled whoopings with wooden spoons, electrical cords, and switches.
(Laughter between the two women. “I was so naughty, my daddy once brought out 2 switches!.”)
I'm listening to this like a freaking anthropologist wanting to understand...but sadly afraid to ask.
The bathroom in this doctor's office, which services the halfway house next door, was disgusting. There were muddy dog footprints on the floor, and the sink was clogged with food scraps. The open closet displayed industrial cleaning supplies that weren’t being used often enough. It was gross, a health hazard, dangerous in a medical setting. My boyfriend said to inform them of this at the desk. Sure. I'll do that right now. Hey, white women complaining here!
Let's all just play into our cultural stereotypes. I'll go first, and pick up a Starbuck's. I own my Starbuck's-drinking, Real Housewives-watching, white woman from the suburbs-ness. Know why? Because I can. Because I do not face the challenges that women of color face daily. I can get a job just by being blonde. So I just thought ,“A black person needs to complain about this bathroom. If I do, I'll just come across as a priviledged white asshole.”
Was I right? Was I wrong? Am I a low-level racist because I even had this conversation in my head?
It isn’t all to do with race, of course. After hitting 50, I actually know people who’ve had heart attacks and strokes. So my saying. “I almost had a heart attack!” or “You look like you had a stroke.” doesn't ring as funny to me now. I also think “You assumed my gender!” hysterically funny. It's high-maintenency, like “Where's my safe space?” while dramatically using an inhaler. But maybe those things would’t seem so funny if I felt I were a woman trapped in a man's body.
Is there a timeframe? We can say, “Oh, the humanity!” and bring down the house, but what if your grandfather had died in the Hindenberg crash?
I wonder where we draw the line for humor. If I am in the group that never suffers the consequences of our prejudices and cultural disregard, do I have a right to set any humor standards at all?
I wonder what it must feel like to go on ancestry.com and find yourself in a dead end once you reach your great-grandfather from Africa or Jamaica. Of course, I haven't bothered to check that site. I'm pretty confident that I'll find enough to feel rooted to my world.
And what about my everyday assumptions? In my world, Asians — specifically Vietnamese Asians, though I never bother asking — do my nails, everywhere, in nail places in which there's a weird low-level vibe of prostitution. I get sidled up to and asked if I want a massage. Or, better yet, they just start massaging my shoulders and ask if I want 15 minutes.
This never happens in nail salons run by white people. Why?
Also, I am thinking about how I don't see racial slurs where others do, probably because I am not the brunt of them. Is that good or bad? Shouldn't I know? Shouldn’t I defend those being slurred because from “my position” I can? If someone sees a slur where I do not, should I not take their word for it and remove the offending post, photo, art piece, etc? But then where does it stop? Where is the degree that measures offensiveness? Must someone have died for an image or word for it to be offensive? What is the bar?
Oh, the humanity.