10.18.2006

a short play (probably about the problems facing race relations in Charleston)

as i walk home in my sweaty t-shirt and running shorts from this morning's jog, i pass a middle-class-ish, 50-ish black woman on the sidewalk. She is staring intently at a vacant, dilapidated house on the corner. Her arms are casually folded on the chainlink fence that surround the house. Beside her on the ground sits a large Target shopping bag. I look at this house every day coming back from my run. It's a cool house, in a nice location. I would like to fix it up.

ME (cheerily): Gonna fix it up?

WOMAN (she is startled): Excuse me?

ME: You gonna fix this house up?

WOMAN (laughing): Yeah, I've got my million dollars right now.

ME: Ohhhh...come on! It wouldn't be that much!

WOMAN: Well, I'm just here waiting on the bus and where i look is my perogative.

ME (taken aback): Excuse me? I...

WOMAN: I can look anywhere i want to. You just move on.

ME: I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. I was just being conversant.

WOMAN (agressively and afraid): Well, i don't feel very conversant this morning and i don't feel like being harrassed. So you just move on!

ME: (thinking i can redeem this conversation and saying with humble sincerity): Maam, i think maybe you're mistaking me for someone from Charleston.

WOMAN: I don't give a damn where you're from. You're harrassing me and i've had enough. Move on now!

ME (walking away. hurt and trying to hide some anger): I'm sorry. I was just trying to be friendly. I didn't mean anything by it. Have a good day.

I find that i really have a lot that i want to talk about here, but there's too much. I want to give you the details of how i was kind of afraid to say something casual to a strange black woman at a bus stop, but tried to do it anyway. (I want to address the possibility that my mere knowledge of this fact made it impossible for me to speak to her without giving myself away as a racist, therefore accounting for her fear.) I want to tell you about the teenage boy--also black--that was passing by just as i spoke to her and looked like he'd been shot. His look was similar to what I've seen in stricken animals. I want to know if this confrontation even had anything to do with race? Am i screwed up for immediately interpreting it that way? Hey, maybe she's just a really irritable person.I want to explain that i was in a friendly, talky mood. That i'd already spoken to two other black women on my way home from my jog: #1) So how is your son doing? I may teaching him at Burke next semester. #2) Wow, so like is this what retirement looks like?. I want to explain the complexities i feel about these tiny conversations. How i know that i'm a white man. How i know that they are black women. How i can only guess they're totally aware of the exact same thing--with race and gender flip-flopped. How i wonder if i come across as some kind of sad, racist emissary for civil whiteness. Wondering whether i actually am some sad, racist emissary for civil whiteness and should just keep my stupid mouth shut before i do even more damage. How i want so badly to mean well, but am left to wonder if i'm just evil inside.

Damn it.

10 comments:

Kelly Love said...

I think too many people (of all races) have given up and things are never going to get better unless some of us don't. You never know what's going on in someone else's head - that woman might have been yelled at from a car window by a white man before you came along (I've seen it happen), or maybe she was just having a bad day. And it's quite possible that she reconsidered her reaction after you walked away and will treat the next "emissary for civil whiteness" who comes along better.

I've lived here most of my life and am still shocked by racist action/reaction, so I don't think everyone has just accepted it as the norm. Don't keep your mouth shut, don't stop talking, and don't stop trying.

Conseula said...

You certainly aren't evil inside--but I can say that having been to your house, having shared a meal or two with you, having met other people who don't think you're evil inside. That said, I can understand where that woman was coming from. I feel my blackness much more acutely than I did in Louisiana, which certainly isn't free from its own racial drama; more than I did living in Seattle where my brown skin always made me stand out in a crowd. I find myself constantly assessing situations: am I safe here? Are these native Charlestonians? Are these stars and bars southerners or confederate battle flag southerners? Can I be just a random black woman in this situation or do I need to remind these people that I have a phd so that I can be treated with some respect and dignity? And sometimes I can't be bothered with trying to figure it out, with trying to navigate through my invisibility to get white people to see me. Then I get kinda bitchy and impatient. (As Ralph Ellison said, if you get bumped enough, sometimes you want to bump back.) Sometimes it's hard here to tell the difference between white people being sincere and white people using sincerity to lull you into a false sense of security. That woman at the bus stop probably just didn't have the energy to figure out on which side of the line you fell.

Kelly's right though--none of this means you stop trying.

Daniel said...

I love this post and just added it to the (previously published) daily roundup at LCB.

I grew up in the South and thought I understood race pretty well until I moved to Charleston in 1994. I found out pretty quickly that I didn't know my ass from a hole in the ground here.

The experience that opened my eyes came about nine years ago when I saw two guys under a hood in our parking lot and I did my usual thing and asked if they needed any help. I knew the white man but not the black man, but I didn't know whose car it was. Turns out the black man was the white man's mechanic, and he was immediately offended because, from his perspective, I'd seen a black man and a white man together and I was checking to see whether the white man was in trouble. I didn't figure that out until later, though. At the time, all I saw was someone accusing me of being a racist.

My white friend basically had to separate us, and I walked away absolutely shaken by the experience. I felt bad for offending him, but that emotion was mixed with self-righteous anger at being falsely accused. I may or may not be a racist, depending on your perspective, but the motives he projected on me had never entered my mind.

I didn't stop helping people with car troubles after that, and I didn't stop talking to black people. But when I meet a black Charlestonian -- particularly those who may have grown up during Jim Crow -- I am more careful with my manners and take pains to watch for signs of offense.

There is a generation of black people who grew up in a time when it was a safe bet that white strangers would treat them poorly. The mechanic who confronted me was from that generation. So was the woman you encountered. There's an extra barrier between us when we meet on the street. But it's better to accept some social risks than to just retreat into our separate corners.

Kenneth said...

No good deed goes unpunished.

Walter said...

Wow, Dan. Thanks for the kind words over at lowcountry blogroll. i'm touched.

Vera said...

Why do you assume the black woman rejected you because of race?

That could be the reason, but I'm not too keen on strange men coming up to me and speaking either.

I guess it's my New York City sensibility coming out.

Race releations are complex and crazy but aren't the reason for everything.

Walter said...

thought of something i need to add here:

during my little self-pity kick i forgot about something. something i've had the luxury to not have to think about for a while. That is, when i went to bed last night, i knew that i'd get to wake up white. i'd be "normal." if i so cared to, i could disappear into the sea of whiteness i live in every day.

On the other hand, if i were to wake up black, this story would become my life. E.g. Large, dark-chocolate brown guy (Conseula made me think about Brian) goes for a job south of Broad. There, in his sweaty t-shirt, he innocently says "ya gonna fix it up?"

oh katy! Bar the door!

Walter said...

jog.

he goes for a jog south of broad.

damn it. i've ruined the internet.

claire said...

So did you really say "ohhh....come one"? because that's the clincher, isn;t it? Whatever the racial dynamic (which there obviously was), whatever the gender dynamic (which there obviously was), whatever the class dynamic (which there obviously was), you said with "oh come one" that her ideas were wrong -- you challenged her -- not by saying "I disagree" but, in saying "oh come on" "you are wrong." So yeah, I would take offense if anyone broke my morning reverie and then added to that an insult to my ability to think about the world (no offense).

JanetLee said...

When I was poor, and I do mean poor, living in a scummy trailer park and eating jelly sandwiches and giving blood so I could buy vitamins for my child, nothing offended me more than some-one of better means assuming I could afford to partake in the world as they did. Buying a house, hell renting decent housing, much less buying and renovating a home was a dream so far away that it would have hurt to consider it. Perhaps this is what stung the lady you spoke with. Not race, but poverty.