As I hurried my way down Santa Monica Boulevard this afternoon on my way to the gym trying to beat the after-work rush, just before I reached the crosswalk that regularly sees standoffs between absent-minded drivers and aggressive pedestrians (which, while I understand, in the end, in a fight between you and the car, the car does have just the slightest advantage) a male voice grabbed my attention as it loudly announced, “You folks don’t look like you hate African-Americans…” The speaker was a tall, somewhat unkempt black man, addressing me and I’m assuming the short girl walking almost beside me. I simply replied, “actually, I do,” as I passed without stopping. The man had barely paused, and he continued, “so would you help out a homeless African-American man…wait, what?” The last part was delivered to my back as I stepped into the crosswalk.
There are two things that contributed to my rapid response. (Okay, three if you count the fact that I can be kind of mouthy.) First, I am the kind of skinny that makes complete strangers feel comfortable mentioning it in passing, so I have grown used to passersby addressing me and responding easily in the moment. Second is a story with a similar theme.
Several months ago, I was house-sitting for a friend in Hollywood near the Hollywood Bowl. At around eleven o’clock I was lounging on the couch watching what I’m sure was some trashy bit of television a la The Real Housewives of Somewhere, when there was a rapid and loud knock on my friend’s front door. I’m kind of a weenie, so I jumped. When I stood up, I looked out the windows at the top of the front door where you can clearly see who has approached. I said, “can I help you?” through the door to the man standing extremely close to the window as if peering in. Before I could even finish my question he sneered, “Nevermind, you seem like the kind of person that is afraid of black people like everyone else that lives up here,” and he turned and headed back down the steps.
I was shocked. Yes, he was African-American. Probably late forties, broad-chested, likely 6’2″ or so with a beard. At first, I was completely offended. He didn’t know me. How dare he accuse me of racism and lump me in with “everyone else that lives up here.” As I returned to the couch, I thought about for a moment. Was my response racist?
Let’s consider the facts. In my favor there is the fact that it was not my home. It was late at night, I was not expecting any visitors and I was startled by the door knock. My friend is not the type to have people drop by unannounced, I know most of his friends and he lives near the dead end of a steep hill so there is very little foot traffic. So from the get-go, this was definitely a stranger.
I thought into it further. I am not inherently suspicious, and I had the advantage of glass to look through to see the identity of the visitor. I stewed on it; if there were no windows, would I have just opened the door, or would I have used the peephole? If there had been a peephole, if I had seen the man I saw through the window, would I have shouted through the closed door, ignored it or opened it to see what he wanted? I’m not completely sure. It’s been years since I lived in a situation where I could be answering the front door alone with no one home.
Back to the “afraid of black people” part. Was I? In that moment – some part of me said not to open the door. It wasn’t a conscious thought, but I did not open it. So, I considered who else for whom I would have opened or not opened the door. In the “of course I would” category I put children up to the age of 15, women of all ages, races and sizes, and obviously gay men. Okay, so that narrowed the field to essentially straight-looking men older than fifteen. I tried to narrow it further. Men shorter than me, probably most of them would be fine. What about appearance? If they looked clean-cut, bookish or wore glasses, I would probably open the door as well.
Now we’re getting close to the meat of it. I realized that essentially it came down to men that seemed older than me, or larger than me that I would not be able to overpower (which essentially includes all men over the age of fifteen or so, who are near my height, hence the previous age determination.) There is definitely stereotyping involved in the subconscious decision, and even in my conscious consideration of appearance, but it’s not inherently race-based. I’d be just as unlikely to open the door for a white guy wearing a giant jersey with his hat pulled to the side who was tall with broad shoulders as I would for an African-American or latino man wearing clothes that looked like they didn’t fit. On the flip side, a black guy in glasses and a blazer, or a hispanic man in a tie or a white guy in khaki paints – it’s possible that regardless of age or size, I would at least open the door to hear what they had to say.
In the end, I determined I was definitely judgmental in my instinctual decision, but it was not a judgment based on his race, but the circumstances and the class-level his appearance projected. In subconsciously considering my personal safety in the situation, visual presumptions based on appearance and demeanor apparently do factor into my decision-making in some circumstances. So, it was definitely stereotyping my part, which easily leads to assumptions that could definitely be false when applied to an individual, but in the end my self-determination led me to feel that while it was rude, it was not inherently racist.
Then I was angry at him again. (After my thirty minute internal debate to assuage my liberal guilt at being accused of racism.) I had time to consider his assumption and how readily and easily he leaped to call me racist like everyone else he apparently had encountered on his door-to-door quest. After the fact I realized he tossed the accusation out so quickly, it could not have been his first time saying that.
And that sucks. Because in the ongoing discussion of race relations in our communities and our country, the inability to distinguish between someone being an asshole and someone being racist seems to be growing. This man “playing the race card” as it seems to be called, although almost always when that is not what is actually happening, is one of those distractions that pulls focus from the real discussion.
As a result of my navel-gazing on the subject, when the incident occurred this afternoon, I made a rapid in the moment judgment of what I believed was occurring and slapped back at it. Again, the man’s approach was, “you look like the kind of folks who don’t hate African-Americans.” The implication is that, if that is true, then you will agree with whatever I am going to say next. That was to ask for money. If you don’t hate African-Americans, then you’ll give me money. So, I flippantly neutralized this particularly disgusting sales tactic he had chosen. And it shocked him.
For those who may not know me well, this is the part where, as a white man, I feel the need to tell that when I answered his question with, “Actually, I do” obviously I was kidding to point out what I saw as an offensive race-baiting attempt to play on my, I don’t know, “white guilt,” I guess. Also, because every time someone uses race to play on someone’s guilt unfairly, it builds an unnecessary barrier in the other person. Like the boy who cried wolf. Or what Jodi Arias has done to women who actually have had to maim or kill a man in self-defense because there own life was threatened.
Before I escape to far down another tangent, I’ll just add that right now I have three really close black friends. I’m working on figuring out how to get more. It’s actually four people, but one is a halfsie and another is really short, so they kind of count as one. Still, I have black friends, so I can’t be racist, right?