I was working in the hood yesterday (for you white folks that’s what you might call the “ghetto”) and when I got out of my car a young man was standing there trying to get my attention. I knew right away that he was going to ask me for money, but I don’t have a problem with that. It comes with the territory, and I always have something I am willing to give people just because I believe that generosity is an important spiritual value. As an aside, if you decide to give money to someone who asks for it on the street you should just give it to them. Don’t ask them what they are going to do with it, just give them the money. Don’t say, “You aren’t going to use this to buy alcohol, are you?” If you feel compelled to ask people what they are going to do with the money you give them, the best thing to do is head on over to the pharmacy and buy a tube of KY jelly. Go back home, cover the coins in KY jelly and shove them up your ass before you leave the house. That way, should someone approach you and ask for money, you can honestly answer that you don’t have any.
But I digress…
Getting back to my story, the young man asked me for some money and I gave it to him. What he did next both surprised and saddened me. He thanked me for not being afraid of him. I said to him, “We’re both just people, right? Why would I be afraid?” He just kept thanking me and gave me a hug, shook my hand, told me how it meant a lot that I wasn’t afraid of him, and so on. I couldn’t help but wonder how many white people had been afraid of him just because he is black. He certainly wasn’t physically imposing, and he was a nice looking guy – it wasn’t like he had a scar across his face from a knife fight or anything, and the ever so slight aroma of alcohol seeping through his pores was a pretty good indication has wasn’t a threat.
We need to come to understand that racism wounds over and over again – to borrow an expression usually reserved for STIs, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. I’m certainly not advocating that everybody run into the higher crime areas in their town and indiscriminately walking up to strangers and asking them for a hug. I am saying, though, that we all have a responsibility to confront all of our fears and ill-conceived behaviors and beliefs. Many times my friends of color will complain that they have been the victim of subtle racism – and their complaints are certainly justified – but since they have decent jobs and are well put together, I can’t imagine many of them have had people literally flee when they appear! That kind of behavior reflects both a racism and a class-ism that I am afraid is only made worse by our current political climate, and that is a sad commentary about politics in America. It’s also a sad statement about Americans, because we allow it to happen.
Make no mistake about it. Politicians conduct class warfare because there are Americans so lacking in moral integrity that they support politicians who do so. Politicians from both political parties cater to corporate interests and continue to look the other way as corporations destroy our environment for the same reason – Americans are not insisting on sweeping change, standing up to say they will no longer tolerate such behavior. White people continue to be afraid of people of color because those of us who know better aren’t forcing the issue enough.
I’m here to say I am forcing it, starting now.
2 thoughts on “What Have We Become?”
A few months ago my partner and I stopped for gasoline in a poor urban area. As I was pumping gas, a woman approached me. She was white, not black. She asked me a few strange questions about my relationship to my partner “Is he your husband?” before getting to the topic of why she’d approached. I expected she would ask for money, but she wanted a ride. She offered, though I didn’t ask, that she had not been drinking. I suspected this wasn’t true. She said she didn’t have enough money for a bus, but she would pay me for gasoline. (A seeming contradiction, but not important) I told her we were going a different direction. Then she asked me if I’d give her a dollar for the bus, which I did. Where she wanted to go was not far, but I have to admit that I was afraid. I can’t put it down to race, though perhaps to social class, or maybe just to all of those crime dramas I watch on TV, where normal situations turn into murders in the blink of an eye. I have wondered quite a bit since then if we should have taken her where she wanted to go. I had this uncomfortable split sense that she was just a fellow human being who needed someone to notice her and to care, to take a moment to respond to her need, and that I should let myself be that person. This was set against the other part of me that felt that letting a drunk stranger into your car might not be the wisest thing and that my Good Samaritan moment might have ended in an ugly situation. I don’t have any moral to this story, it’s just what happened.
Well, I do think there are certain red flags that indicated caution no matter the race of the person involved – or anything else, for that matter. Taking someone into your car is always a risk, even under the best of circumstances. A couple of months ago I took a young man into my car who was obviously very scared and claimed someone was after him to hurt him. I put him in my car because, quite honestly, he had already had the chance to hurt me if he had wanted to because I wasn’t being as vigilant as I should have been. Since he had passed on the chance to harm me then, I reasoned that wasn’t his motivation. Of course, I could have just as easily been wrong, but I saw genuine fear in his eyes and believed his story. Had the circumstances been different – as the time two prostitutes asked me for a ride, or the time another woman who was walking around in flip flops claiming her feet hurt because she was pregnant and needed a ride across town – I would have (and did) refused.
I think the real issue is how we react to a fairly benign person who approaches – or, to be more precise, do we perceive every person from another cultural background to be a threat – and would even if they were paralyzed and in a wheel chair. Being willing to hear what someone has to say is all any of us can reasonably expect from a stranger.