31st May2006

The Racial Incident

by Will

“An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us. I know every inch of this cell. This cell knows every inch of me. Except one.”

This is my 500th post. Normally, when a blogging milestone comes along, I try to see what kind of adventure life will throw at me that deserves documentation. I look for crazy people on the streets, weird pop culture references, or just hidden stupid tales from my life that might give you a chuckle. Well, this is not that post. This may be the most serious post I’ve written. It’s something that I need to share, in print, because I really haven’t been able to vocalize it properly. So, please bear with me, and then we can get back to the regularly scheduled programming.

In the 70’s, Bill Cross created the “Cross Model of Minority Identity Development”. I’m not going to give a lecture, but he basically said that minorities lived in a cocoon until they experienced an encounter which changed their worldview. This encounter is different for each person, but they’re never able to look at the world the same once it happens. I’m sure that the people in the Africana department, who always joked that I was “so white”, would be glad to know that I’ve had my encounter.

Recently, I accompanied a friend as they visited with family. Now, I was apprehensive because I knew that one relative would be present, and this particular relative has never been even remotely welcoming to me. In the past, I would vocalize my apprehension beforehand, which would result in a possible argument, and more unnecessary tension. But this time, I decided to keep it inside and hope for the best. It was all in my head, right? This guy didn’t dislike ME. He just disliked everyone because he was an old curmudgeon. My friend even told me this. So, I figured I was the victim of a sense of age discrimination. Mr Smith was too old to learn new people, so I had missed the boat. That’s fine. But there were too many clues that he was going out of his way to dislike me. Especially when I’d see him meet other people, for the first time, and be friendlier than a whore on payday.

I met Mr. Smith over a year ago, and I can say that the “relationship” has degenerated from “nothing” to “malice”. When I first met him, I went to shake his hand, and he just kind of grunted at me. “He’s losing his hearing,” my friend reassured me. It was a lot of work for him to interact with people. Umm..OK. I grew up with old folks, so I could understand that. But then, for the first time, he used what would become his signature move: the disappearing act. Whenever festivities end, he has to go to the bathroom. And he pretty much stays until he thinks I’m gone. Oh, it’s all in my head, you say? Then, why is it when I leave, he’s peering out the window at me, sullen? He ain’t my daddy, so I know it’s not him longing for missing out on my childhood. I turn and wave, but he continues to glare. I’ve put up with this on a handful of occasions, but recently, he upped the ante.

Recently, as I was saying, I went with my friend to visit with Mr. Smith. We entered the house, and I immediately felt uneasy. Mrs. Smith was there, and she was quite friendly. I reached to take her hand, and she kissed my cheek. “This might not be so bad,” I thought, as my anxiety slightly waned. Then, Mr. Smith appeared in the doorway. I let him greet my friend first, since they were relatives, but I was determined to make this guy like me. I stepped forward, extended my hand, and asked, “How are you, Mr. Smith.” His mouth kind of twisted as he looked at my hand. Now follow this sequence. He hesitantly shook my hand, wiped his hand on his shirt, and proceeded to go wash his hands in the bathroom. He shook my hand and washed it off. HE. FUCKING. SHOOK. MY. HAND. AND. WASHED. IT. OFF.

I have NEVER…I’ve been all over the world, and dealt with a lot of things. I have a house in Alabama, I grew up in a white Republican church, and my fucking college essay was about my experience being black in the former Soviet Union, but I have NEVER encountered an asshole such as this man. And what gets me is that I can’t even begin to describe what he truly is. I feel almost as if there is no word to describe how this man has treated me. I didn’t want to “play the race card”. Maybe the earring scared him. Maybe my goatee threatened him. But I never wanted to zero in on it being about race.

The worst part, and the reason I have difficulty discussing it, is that it hurt me. It didn’t anger me. It hurt me to my core. I have never been shone as “dirty”. I have never had the most self-esteem, but in one gesture, I was made to feel like half a person. And it hurts. I can’t even be mad because there’s too much emotion for it to be simple “anger”. For years, I’d think of J and wonder, “Why is he SO mad? What could have him so angry?” But, not to put words in his mouth, but maybe he’s NOT angry. Maybe he’s hurt. Maybe he’s seen hands washed so many times that all he can feel is hurt. It’s worse than any break-up, worse than any mourning.

Mr. Smith doesn’t even know me. I am an Ivy League graduate, who’s never done drugs, never been in any sort of trouble, and I’m good to my friend, his relative. But instead, I’m just some dirty nigger. “Why’d you say ‘nigger’, Will? Why not ‘black person’?” Well, I ask you, is there a distinction to a racist? I could go off and defend my country, something that I know means a lot to him, and I’d still be that dirty nigger.

So, I’m sure you’re wondering, “What happened next?” Well, nothing. I mean, I wish I could’ve done something, but it’s one of those “hindsight is 20/20” moments. You’re so stunned by the sheer audacity, that you kinda have to catch your breath. Minutes later, we left. My friend apologized for Mr. Smith’s actions, but it wasn’t their place to apologize; they didn’t do anything. I’m sure they were embarassed and whatnot, but they were not to blame. Nor could I convey what I was feeling. Nor would an apology even suffice, from any party involved.

I’d heard these people were out there, but I wondered “why?” What makes a person so nasty? Sure, you may not care for people. Hell, I dislike everyone every now and then. Sadly, it’s human, but I make sure they never know it. Feelings pass, but this gesture was uncalled for. Would it have been so hard for him to grin and bear it? I’d have been gone in minutes. Is that the legacy he wants to leave behind? Most of his relatives seem shocked by these actions, so what is it about me, what do I remind him of, to make him act this way? Am I worth him ruining the positive image that he’s cultivated amongst his loved ones for so long? Mainly, where does something like this come from?

I don’t mean to be melodramatic. Most of you who know me know that I can be quite the drama queen. But in all honesty, my world hasn’t been the same since that day. It still hurts, but it also doesn’t. I kind of can’t feel. I try to put on a happy face, but it’s forced, and the people close to me keep asking, “What’s wrong?” The problem is that many of them would not be able to handle the truth. And I can’t really discuss the matter without wanting to cry. Sure, not very masculine, but you have no idea what that’s like. And if you do know, then, I’m sorry. I never knew. But I know now.

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