Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Just Another Random American

This article in the New York Times by Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds me of the few trips that I've taken abroad, and why I, the closer it comes to the date of my return home, why I would become more and more attached to my destination.

When I'm in the United States, I'm a Scary Black Man®. People stop me on the street and ask me if I'd like to take part in a job training program, and don't like to take "no" (because it's been a long day at work) for an answer. People cross the street, clutching their keys as impromptu weapons, when I walk towards them on my way to the grocery store. I never have run-ins with the police - almost all of the police officers that I've ever met have been really nice people. It's the everyday people, even here in the Seattle area, who shout "Nigger!" at me as they drive past in their cars. An acquaintance of mine once said that out here (as opposed to more urbanized places, like Chicago) people behaved in this way because they weren't afraid that I would start shooting at them.

"So." I replied. "You're saying that White people are only civil when they think their lives depend on it?"

Which was unfair. After all, I'm old enough to know the difference between a racist and a jackass, and where the two can shade into each other. And there are far too many White people for none of them to be jackasses.

It's tiring and demotivating to constantly feel that all the people around you want to know about you, they gleaned from your skin tone. And they are quick to remind you that they are good and decent people. This is true. But, like Coates, I'm tired of good people. Good Americans.

When I was in Japan, I was someone different. When I went out in the morning, during rush hour, I was treated as just another random gaikokujin, on their way to work. Noone batted an eyelash. When I played my actual role, that of tourist, I was often a novelty, starring in countless snapshots of smiling Nihonjin with their fingers held up in "V" signs.

When I went to England, I was just another face in the crowd, able to wander around a mingle with people going about their days without anyone paying me a moment's thought, until I opened my mouth, which would be greeted by a surprised "Oh! You're an American."

I haven't left the United States because, well, I like it here. I speak the language (well enough, anyway) and I know what side of the street to drive on (and which way to look when crossing the street), and I can figure out how to get from one place to the next without needing technological assistance. And besides, the people here aren't that bad.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I've had all of them that I want to take.


John McGuinness said...

Reading Coates' piece, here's the challenge.

We've elevated racism to a capital crime, such that everyone will resist all accusations of racism, and thus, all opportunities to learn and grow from it.

In the end, Coates continues his boycott of the deli, even if he recognizes the owner made a mistake.

It's obviously a bit distasteful for me to lecture victims about their victimhood, but I wonder if it would be better to instead of considering racism to be a binary yes/no thing that we certainly don't want to be on the wrong side of, but rather something present in all of us, that we all need to fight against and rise above, just like any other number of natural but antisocial urges.

If we would have the courage to admit that we all have racist feelings and urges, and that we may even act on them at times, we might be better off.

Aaron said...

I think the challenge is less accepting the idea that we might have some racially-motivated opinions and feelings than it is not always seeing them in everyone around us. I'm pretty sure that there were people in Japan and England (and Germany and Canada) for that matter who looked at me funny for being Black. But I wasn't expecting to have to deal with that history, and so I didn't see any of it. That lack of concern with it, much more than its actual absence, it what's so liberating about being abroad.