Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Racist Face

Just so you know, some may find this particular post offensive due to the nature of some of the language.  I feel like the "oomph" of these situations is lost if I gloss over the words that were used, though.  It's like I tell my students when we read To Kill a Mockingbird--how do you expose the ugliness of something if you "pretty it up"?   Oh, and if you find this post offensive because I'm describing you, I wish I could say I'm sorry but I would be lying.  

Not even sure where to start with this. 
Over the years, I’ve periodically found myself in situations where totally random people have—without warning—made racist comments to me.  My reactions to these comments have ranged anywhere from “She’s just ignorant and/or doesn’t know better” to “Shouldn’t he be wearing a sheet?”  A few of these people weren’t strangers, per se, but people whom I saw only occasionally through work or social settings.  I knew their first names and enough about them to make small talk.  However, some of the individuals I’ve encountered were complete and total strangers—people in line behind me at the grocery store, spectators sitting beside me at ball game, guests at the wedding of mutual friend.  All of these particular people shared a common trait:  they knew absolutely nothing about me—my background, my husband’s race, my religious or political beliefs, and so on.  

So why on earth would they make such comments?

Let me start with what is possibly the best (well, worst) example.  When I was teaching in Memphis, there was a maintenance guy who sometimes worked at our school.  He was what some might call a “good ol’ boy,” but he was friendly enough, often making casual conversation with me when he would come to my classroom to replace the lights in the ceiling or install a new pencil sharpener.  He was also responsible for installing projection screens and for replacing chalk boards with dry erase boards.  This was especially crucial for me since I found out shortly after I began teaching that I have a sensitivity to chalk dust.  Irony, much?   It wasn’t until my 2nd year of teaching that I discovered it was possible to have my boards replaced, so I placed a request and waited.  And waited.  And… waited.  One day when Mr. Maintenance came by my room to replace some bulbs, he remarked that my dry erase boards had been approved and ordered and that he’d come by soon to install them.  I was terribly excited and could already smell the markers in my hand.  As he worked and I attempted to grade papers, he started chit chatting about a fight that had occurred earlier that afternoon in the hallway.  I politely nodded, commenting that unfortunately some of the kids didn’t know how to handle their problems without aggression or violence.  To which he replied:

                “Yeah, guess you can’t expect much more from a bunch of niggers.” 

I stopped reading the paper I was grading, hoping I had misheard him.  Surely, I thought, surely this man did not just say that to me.  He doesn’t even know me.”  I looked up at him on the ladder with what I can only imagine was an expression of total puzzlement with a dose of horror. 

“I’m sorry, did you just say…”       

“It’s true.  They ain’t got a clue how to act.”

It was so casual, almost nonchalant.  Like he was commenting on the weather or the price of gasoline.  I sat there a moment, not sure how to reply.  Those who know me can attest that I am rarely at a loss for words, especially when confronted with something to which I am vehemently opposed.    And that word is at the top of my list, along with any other language that is used to hurt or disparage people I love.  When my students step foot in my classroom, one of the very first things I drill into them is that I will not tolerate any type of language that is racist, sexist, or degrading in any way.  I have always made it a priority to create a “safe place” in the four walls of my classroom because I believe learning cannot take place when a student is afraid. 

So here was this man, standing above my desks, rather flippantly tossing out a word that—outside of a literary text like To Kill a Mockingbird—was and is completely banned from my classroom—and using it to describe students who sat  in said classroom. 

Completely oblivious to my reaction, he continued working. 

My silence lasted maybe a minute, but it felt much longer.  During that time, I’d like to say I was thoughtfully deciding how to approach his use of this word, devising some inspirational monologue that would both educate and transform him.  Instead, I was totally frozen and flabbergasted, which I guess explains my choice of words when I finally did open my mouth.  

 “I want you the fuck out of my room.” 

I didn’t yell it. I didn’t even snarl.  My tone was completely even and my volume much quieter than normal.

He stopped and looked at me, his turn, I suppose, to wonder, Did she really say that?

“Seriously, get out.  I don’t want you in here if that’s how you see my kids.  Any of these kids.”

He just stood there for a moment, possibly waiting to see if I was kidding.    He climbed down from his ladder and collected his things.  He was talking under his breath, but I couldn’t understand him.  He left my room and never stepped foot in it again. 
C'est la vie...

He also gave my dry erase boards to another teacher. 

After all was said and done, I questioned how I’d reacted. Definitely not my finest moment, and I felt I had wasted a chance to really engage this guy in conversation and try to understand—and possibly alter—his attitude and perception.  Instead, I’d resorted to using profanity and kicking him out of my room. 

What continued to bother me after the actual word had long since been uttered, though, was why on Earth he would use it?  If it had been a slip up—a word he used with friends but was “polite” enough not to use around strangers—then wouldn’t he have been a little embarrassed?  Maybe this word was such a “normal” part of his vocabulary that he didn’t even realize he’s using it.  But then how did he survive working in a predominantly African-American environment?  How did he work with mostly black coworkers if that word might fly out of his mouth at any time?  It just didn’t make sense.  So why did he feel so comfortable using a racial slur, this man who didn’t know enough about me to fill one side of an index card. 

The only conclusion that seemed semi-logical was that he made an assumption:  my skin is white, so I would not be upset by his language.  He felt he was with “one of his own” and that we would be in agreement.  It wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to assume this was his reasoning since I’d spent a decent chunk of two years on the receiving end of insinuations and accusations of racism from both students and teachers.  It wasn’t because I did or said racist things; it was because they too saw my white skin and heard my accent and made an assumption, just as “Mr. Maintenance” had assumed he and I were of the same mindset because of our shared skin color. 

Over the years there have been other incidents with strangers, though none quite as appalling as that one.  Sometimes the comments are so offhand, I wonder if people even realize how bad it sounds.  At other times, the comments have been so blatant that my jaw has ended up in my lap.   I’ve learned to better handle people’s comments and to be more reasonable and less reactive.  What has continued to bother me, though, is why people make these comments to me.  Every time it happens I replay the episode in my head, trying to figure out if something I said could be misinterpreted as racist.  
Me (standing in check out line):  “What is going on up there?  It’s taking forever.” 

Random Customer in Front of Me: “She’s probably got a bunch food stamps.  You know most of those people live off the government.”


Me:  “I’ll bet Elin Nordegren gets a fat chunk of money from Tiger Woods.”

Friend of a Friend I’ve Just Met:  “I don’t feel sorry for her.  What did she expect marrying him? They’re all gonna cheat.”

Me:  “Yeah, those professional athletes don’t have the best track records at fidelity.”

FOAFIJM:  “Well, that, too but I meant a black guy.” 

                Me: “I taught at a Memphis City high school for four years.”

                New Colleague I’ve Just Met:  “Weren’t you scared teaching all those blacks?”

Got this in an email from a relative. 
She said, "Guess I failed the racist test
because I sure didn't think 'nuggets' ha ha
I guess I can see how someone could take what I’m saying and assume I’m racist, but only if they are racists themselves!   You can take almost anything and twist it to line up with your opinions and beliefs, which I have to believe these people are subconsciously doing when I talk.  They are taking my words, running them through some prejudice generator in their brain, and then spouting off a response without even stopping to consider whether or not I might be offended by their assumption.  What if I’m on food stamps?  What if I’m married to a black man?  What if I had a biracial child or had adopted a black child? 

Does it even occur to them that they could be saying something terribly hurtful to me?  

Recently there was another incident when we took Peanut to see Yo Gabba Gabba Live.  We ended up sitting next to a woman and her young son.  She was pretty friendly, though she overshared quite a bit of personal information in a very short period of time (including that she and her husband were in the middle of the divorce which was “for the best”).  We would occasionally make comments to each other about the show, and I took some pictures of her and her little boy since she didn’t have anyone else with her to do it.  At one point in the show, a group of children who had won a contest were allowed to come onto stage to dance with the characters.  During the last couple of minutes of the song, a father on the front row walked to the edge of the stage and deposited his maybe three-year-old onto the stage to join the fun.  I couldn’t believe someone would (A) have the audacity to do that in the first place and (B) allow such a small child to go onstage and be out of his reach completely.  I nudged the lady beside me:

Me:  “Did you see that?  I can’t believe he just put his kid on the stage like that?

Lady:  “It’s because he’s black."

Okay, I thought, she didn’t say that.  The music is loud and I’m partially deaf and I heard something else.

Me:  “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.”

Lady: “Black people always think they can do whatever they want.

I then found myself semi-defending the father on the front row, even though I completely disapproved of his actions. 

Me:  “Ummm… I doubt it has anything to do with him being black.   A lot of parents just have problems saying no to their kids. His little boy was probably begging to go up.” 

Lady:  “No, they just do whatever they want.”

I couldn't hide the disgust on my face.   I took a breath, ready to set her straight.  At that moment, though, I decided that having a good time with my family was more important than attempting to correct this twit beside me. I didn't want to risk getting us thrown out of a kid's show.  This was my daughter's birthday present.   I started singing along and dancing with Amelia, hoping the woman would not say anything else.  After a few minutes, I leaned over and told John what she had said.  He rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“Why does this always happen to me?  Why do random people think it’s perfectly acceptable to make comments like that to me?”

John sat for a moment and then replied with a grin—

“Well, honey, I guess you just have a racist face.”

So there you have it.  I have a “racist face” that prompts certain people to consider me a kindred spirit to whom they can spew their ridiculousness.  Maybe it’s my big nose or imposing brow or the gap between my two front teeth.  Maybe it’s my actual whiteness, the fact that I could shave my head and pass for Powder.  Whatever it is, something about my face obviously screams, “I’m a racist, too.”

It makes perfect sense now that I think about it.  The resemblance is uncanny.

All joking aside (and I have to admit that we’ve gotten some mileage out of my husband’s comment), is there anyone else out there who experiences this?  Random acts of racial stereotyping or generalizations?  Or even just blatant, in-your-face bigotry from a total stranger?