Monday, July 15, 2013


About 20 years ago, I was walking North on Newgard Avenue, in the Rogers Park neighborhood on the far North Side of Chicago, heading back to my apartment from the grocery store. It was about noon or so on a bright, sunny weekday.

Walking towards me was a White woman, apparently somewhat older than I was at the time. I halfway noted her presence, but really didn't pay her much attention. After all, this was Chicago. It's kind of hard to walk even a block without encountering someone else who's also out walking. As she came closer, she reached into her purse, and pulled out a key ring, and turned to her left, towards the street. Again, I couldn't really be bothered to care. Okay, so she'd parked her car on the street. Not a big deal. But she kept her keys in her hand, and crossed the street. That got my attention. Once she reached the opposite sidewalk, she continued walking South until we'd passed each other. At which point I watched her as she put her keys back into her bag, crossed the street again, and walked on. I finished going home.

For a while, that incident kind of bugged me. I didn't like the fact that I'd been called out as a potentially dangerous person simply for being out on the street. As I grew older, however, the sting died down, and I became more sanguine about the whole affair. As far as this woman was concerned, I could have been a mugger, Schrödinger's Rapist or a violent gang-banger. As much as it had irritated me at the time that I wasn't considered worthy of the benefit of the doubt, from her perspective, passing me on the sidewalk was a much higher-stakes gamble than it would have been for me.

Looking back on it, both of us were responding, not to the other person, but to deeply ingrained patterns that were all around us. She saw what she had learned to see, a possible hazard approaching her while she was out alone at a time when most other people were at work. I saw what I had been taught to see - a White person presuming that I was an imminent threat simply because of the color of my skin. And we each responded accordingly. Whether or not she registered my reaction to her, I don't know. It's not as if we then went out for coffee and discussed the social conditioning that had just played itself out.

This memory stays with me, because at the time, it had an emotional resonance for me. Having been a Black person living in the midst of Whites for most of my life, I had been made keenly aware of the potentials they represented - from minor reminders of my supposed "second-class citizenship" to potentially deadly encounters with law enforcement - and the deep and abiding unfairness that underlay it all. And, having been taught that racial prejudice was always hidden out of sight, I'd been taught to look for it in patterns of people's behavior, and to assume that it was a 1 to 1 correlation. Now, in my old age, I realize that the whole world is simply one pattern overlaid atop another and hopelessly tangled. And so, this is the last memory I have of such a thing, even though I'm sure that I've encountered similar episodes in the intervening decades. And, it too, grows older and fades. Eventually, it will die, and part of the pattern will fade away. And the world will be a better place for it.


John McGuinness said...

Maybe what we need to do is be more internally vigilant, looking for signs of bias in ourselves, end less externally vigilant, looking for it in others.

On the other hand, without some people being externally vigilant and checking our assumptions on what's ok and what's not, it can be easy to fool ourselves.

I may actually blog about what I am seeing is our addiction to self-righteousness, which I think keeps us in the pattern. In short, I think many of us would rather people behave poorly, and then get to feel superior to them, then to have them behave well.

John McGuinness said...

I have a question that I wonder if you can answer.

In the news following the verdict, we read a lot about incidents like the one you describe, perhaps most prominently here.

It kind of spreads the guilt around a bit -- if you've ever crossed the street to avoid someone, if you've ever clutched your purse a little tighter, if you've ever given someone in a store a little extra attention because of the color of their skin, then you're part of the problem. This is the same impulse George Zimmerman had, and this is where it ultimately leads.


But maybe the problem isn't that Zimmerman had that impulse, but that he followed it to a homicidal end. Maybe instead of hating ourselves for being uncomfortable around people, we should instead demonize the notion that we are entitled to relief from that discomfort, regardless of the consequences.

I don't know, in a way, QuestLove is right -- in a competition with my own or my family's safety, his feelings, or the feelings of a stranger aren't sh*t. And compared to his personal dignity, my feeling of being unfairly accused aren't sh*t, either. Nor should they be.

But his life does mean something to me. And it's worth exploring the roots of "my" concerns for safety, and whether they're legitimate. This incident raises the stakes -- we're not just talking about hurt feelings, we're talking about a young life.

Part of why the targets of these types of incidences find them so insulting is that it seems they are being reduced to their race. But is that really true? As Scott Adams pointed out, while it may be true that Trayvon Martin would be alive today if he were white, it's probably also true that he would be alive if he were a girl, or if his age was outside of a narrow band. Those other two factors probably may have played a bigger factor than his race, and we seem to be OK with increasing suspicion in those dimensions.

We know what Zimmerman did was wrong. I think the question we need to determine is whether the fault is in the suspictions, the actions Zimmerman took because of those suspicions, or some combination thereof.

Would we accept unfair racially-based suspicion if it never led to violence?

Aaron said...

(Well for me, what Mr. Zimmerman did wrong was pick a fight, and then shoot his way out of it. But Florida law says that's legal, so he's in the clear. It's a bad law, and we're seeing where bad laws lead.)

But I think that we would be more accepting of racial bias is it were just about jobs, relationships, commerce and the like. It would be viewed as "no harm no foul." Now, I was brought up to expect, and be on my guard for non-violent bias as well. My mother used to tell me that I had to work twice as hard to be considered half as good - until I finally told her how demotivating that was. So I doubt that most African-Americans would see a huge difference.

But as far as I'm concerned we don't own up to our own part of the problem. As you've pointed out, and as I've realized, there are reasons to be suspicious of someone other than their race, for all that we're normally taught to believe that there aren't.