Sunday, January 19, 2020

Funhouse Reflections

I was riding the Blue Line L, back in the day, and a woman was standing near the doors. I didn't really pay much attention to her; I recall her as appearing to be an average commuter, but little else about her. At one stop, just before the doors closed, a young Black man, likely in is early to mid-twenties, walked in front of her, grabbed the necklace she was wearing, and slipped out of the doors. It was clearly a practiced maneuver; the doors closed immediately behind him, cutting off any chance of pursuit. Clearly pleased with himself, he casually strolled towards the platform's exit, while the train pulled away, and the woman whose necklace he'd stolen flustered about, attempting to call attention to the crime.

My initial response to this was one of anger. I was also a young Black man in my early twenties, and as far as I was concerned, this jerk was making us all look bad; cementing in people's minds the negative stereotypes of Black men. Stereotypes that I was going to have to deal with. Although, to be sure, I was already dealing with them, which was part of the reason I was angry with this guy. In the moment that it took him to snatch a woman's necklace and slip off of the L train wearing a self-satisfied grin, he had gone, in my mind, from just another young person whose idea of "the hustle" was petty crime to the personification of all of the lawless losers whose behavior I felt that I was constantly being held to account for.

Were it not for people like him, I "reasoned," I could open my interactions with the people around me without having to first prove to them that I wasn't one of the people like him.

I was in a stage of my life where the constant pushback against the stereotypes that seemed to define me in the eyes of so many people had left me tired of being angry with the people that held the stereotypes. Being angry with the people whose behavior could be used as justification for those stereotypes felt like a refreshing change of pace. And I cycled between them for some time; a period of years, really.

But eventually, the anger drained away. It left an emptiness for a time, but then I realized that it had served no real purpose, other than to perpetuate itself. After a few years of working with children who had been taken out their homes for abuse and/or neglect, I'd repeated the words "life isn't fair," often enough that I'd actually started to understand what they meant.

This guy was taking the best path he knew to making life better for himself. Maybe he'd pawned the woman's necklace; maybe he'd purchased some goodwill by giving it to someone as a gift; in the end, whatever the outcome, it had nothing to do with me. Just like my quixotic jousting with a few centuries worth of racial stereotypes and animosity had nothing to do with him. Likewise, the people who looked at me, and placed themselves on guard weren't escalating to DefCon 3 in order to injure me, it was those same centuries of race relations working through them. What they saw when I stepped into their field of vision was mostly out of my control, and nearly entirely none of my business.

I don't remember when I finally lost the ability to describe the guy. The episode in question took place more than a quarter century ago. The world has moved on quite a bit in that time, and I'm glad that I was able to do so, too. I now understand that I don't actually see anyone that I encounter for who they actually are. The snapshots of people's lives that are my fleeting interactions with them can't hope to capture the complexity and nuance of a life lived out of my sight. Instead, I see an image distorted by our own history, education and experiences. A smirking face watching the L carry the victim of his theft away from him was distorted by my life before that point into the sum total of the lived experiences and expectations of every person whose dismissal of me as just another potential criminal.. He had become curvatures of the mirror in which people saw me; mainly, I think, because as a single individual, he was a more convenient target for an otherwise unfocused anger at the world around me.

Being able to let go of that particular thread of Respectability Politics has been refreshing. Laying debts at the feet of people who didn't know me was fatiguing. Releasing them of those debts, which almost always went unpaid, became a form of self-care that was long overdue.

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