Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Taking my Prejudice Pulse

I agree with Eric Holder that we're so afraid to talk about racism, we miss out on helpful conversations. So I'll throw out an inner dialogue from my life:

Crossing the parking lot yesterday, a car rolled up to me. "Can you help me?" asked a 30ish black man, in an well-worn tshirt and a do-rag.

"Yes," I said, not moving forward.

He held out a piece of paper. "Do you know where this is?"

I moved closer, so I could read it. It had the address of the hospital/medical offices I'd just been in. I gave what I hoped was a comforting smile (because it is confusing, it had stressed me out earlier) and told him it was right there; the offices were part of the hospital. He thanked me and drove off.

Walking away, I thought about the short interaction; specifically, my response to him.

The fact that I did not immediately get closer to the car was intentional. My children walk to school and this is something we drill into them -- if a car pulls over to talk to you, do NOT go closer to the car. Be wary, be alert.

I take the same advice. At a few of the grocery stores near us, women have been robbed in the parking lots. And in the past year, a woman was forced into a car; her body was found a week later.

I don't believe in living in fear, convinced that every person is ready to do you harm. My life is far more pleasant if I assume, until proven otherwise, that everyone is a friend. But I leave some space. And I tell my children to pay attention to their instincts. Especially as women, we often are taught to ignore our instincts. "Don't get off the elevator when your internal alarm is ringing. That would be rude."

"Would you have acted differently if he were white?" I queried myself.

I thought about that. I mentally saw a white guy of the same age, old tshirt, do-rag or gimme cap. No, I don't think so. Same wariness.

I mentally retraced my steps. The windows weren't tinted, so when I saw that he was alone, that was when I began moving forward.

Okay, class test. What if he were wearing a suit and tie?

Hmm. Okay, got me. Not sure I would have moved forward any faster, but wouldn't have been as deliberately wary.

What if he were old?

Guilty. Would have moved forward a lot faster.

Color matter?

Black man in tie and suit ... black old man ... no, I believe it would have been the same. No halo over my head, it's just that I have a different set of experiences. My favorite professor is black. The majority of my classmates are black. My pal R bears a startling resemblance in size and appearance to Michael Clarke Duncan. What if he'd been Mexican, in a low rider? Hmm. Not sure. I don't think it would have been different. I keep going back to the fact that it was a single person in the car. If there had been a woman in the car with him, probably not much change. If it had been two men, probably a little more caution. Three men? Probably would have had Danger Danger Will Robinson! in my head. I mean, why would three men be going to the doctor together? ("It's hard enough to get one man to go," she cackles, the sexist piglet.)

Even after going through the exercise, there is no final judgment. Just an urge to keep checking my reflexes.

It is a challenge, being a woman. So many of us are raised to be afraid. It is easy to turn your life into "Defensive Living." Watch what you wear. Where you go. Who you're friendly to.

So, I try to find a balance. Smile at strangers (this is what we do in the south), but keep my finger on the alarm button when walking to my car at 10 pm. Be equitable in my caution.

So, I may need to be a little more cautious around those suit and tie types. It could be the Preppy Killer. Or, you know, an insurance salesman.

Lizard Eater apologizes to the insurance salesmen she has made fun of. And men who don't go to doctors. Speaking of, Husband, have you made your appointment?


Alex said...

I'm not sure that we're afraid to talk about racism, the conversations rarely seem to occur in the first person. It's usually "they" or "you" or other generalizations which are unhelpful.

kimc said...

It's sad, but it's also not unreasonable that we most fear young men. Young men commit most of the crime. (Except for white collar crime, maybe.)
My friend, the forensic psychologist, says that when men get to be about 35ish, they get a spurt of brain growth. Then they look at their behavior when young and say, "What was I thinking?"

the change said...

I realize that this post was more of a commentary on race and other physical factors upon which we might make judgements and alter our behavior, but I wanted to comment on the safety issue. Your comments about not ignoring that little voice and the pressure that women feel to be polite made me think about the books "The Gift of Fear" and (as it relates to keeping kids safe) "Protecting the Gift" by Gavin DeBecker. My husband and I actually have changed some of the things that we say to and teach our kids about interacting with others. I highly recommend it, it sounds like you are in line with his way of viewing the world and I know that it has helped me make decisions that I think are better for me and my family.

Masasa said...

Have you been over to as well? That blog is one of my regular reading stops. There have been some interesting conversations on the intersection of race and class issues.

Lizard Eater said...

Masasa -- love that one and racialicious.