Last Thursday evening, I walked downtown to meet my girlfriend at her work, which I usually do on Thursdays. (Actually, that particular Thursday, I took the bus most of the way, but I still walked the downtown area.) While going south from Chicago Avenue toward the loop (Chicago's business district), I wended my way, as I sometimes do when I have free time, through the side streets to look at the shops and to people watch. (Sometimes, I drop into the Whole Foods and snack on some free samples.) I saw an interesting, and disturbing, scene.
I found myself walking behind a large group of African Americans who were probably part of a school or church group. They seemed out of place, both because they were black and because they were probably working class. That particular area of Chicago is not only very white, but also class-conscious: in order to belong there you have to look like you have enough money to patronize the shops, or you have to look like a "professional," or if you're working class, you have to look like you work in one of the shops or restaurants. (As a white person who is also a grad student who probably looks younger than I am, I have special status: I'm a potential customer and therefore am accepted despite, or because of, my backpack and worn tennis shoes. Besides, I can walk and talk like a professional if forced to.) I eventually found out that they were looking for Navy Pier, an amusement park area on Chicago's lakefront. I saw them ask someone: they had been walking in the wrong direction.
At any rate, I was walking behind this group of people who seemed out of place, and they were walking slowly. As a walker, I tend to go very fast, and most of my friends will say that I'm a hard person to keep up with when I'm going at a full clip. So in that type of situation, I have to reconcile my frustration at not going as fast as I'd like with my realization that we all live in a society and that it's wrong to be rude to other people. Because this group of people was so large, passing them without cutting through was hard, and cutting through would have been rude. Also, since I had a lot of time on my hands, it wasn't particularly important that I walk quickly.
Now to the point of my story: An older lady was walking the other way hand walked through this group, that is, she was walking toward me (and them). Because this group of people was lost, they probably, as most lost people do, paid less attention to sidewalk etiquette than they would have if they were confident they knew where they were going. And this older, evidently very affluent, lady had a hard time walking through the group. Maybe they should have made more room for her; maybe they did make room for her and she refused to make eye contact (which makes it hard to make room for someone). But she had a hard time walking through this group of people. And after she got through, I saw her mutter something under her breath.
I didn't hear what she said. But I could not escape what I sensed her to be saying from the tone of her muttering and from the look on her face: "These black people don't belong here." Perhaps I'm being unfair to her. After all, I don't know her and didn't hear what she said.
But like the Carly Simon song I blogged about recently (click here to see the post), this post isn't about her; it's about me. Let's operate on the assumption that she (not Carly Simon, but the older lady) really did mean something akin to "these black people don't belong here." I glimpsed what bigotry looked like, and I glimpsed what I must look like sometime. I do have those thoughts (e.g., here), and while maybe it's good that I am reflective and introspective enough to recognize that I do it and that it's bad, I still entertain them.
In Dante's Purgatorio, souls on each level of Purgatory, which dealt with one of the deadly sins, encountered what Dante called a "whip" and a "rein." I get the two mixed up (just like I'm mixing up metaphors in this post). But I believe the "whip" was the inspiration to the virtue that corresponded to the deadly sin (for example, "love" is the corresponding virtue to "lust"). The "rein" was the reminder of the bad consequences of the sin in question (for example, the "rein" of lust, if I remember correctly, is that lust subjects the soul to the whims of the body.)
I do not consider myself an "anti-racist ally," precisely because I don't do enough--that is, I do almost nothing--to challenge my own racism. ( I also have qualms about the term "ally"--click here for someone else's thoughts on it.) Still, this moment--the look on that lady's face--offered a time of reflection--a mirror and rein--a reminder of what bigotry can make me into if I let it.