Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mirrors and reins

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.


Laura(southernxyl) said...

I tend to walk faster than everyone else, too. At a former workplace they called me "Speedy".

I don't know how much of a special effort a person has to make, not to be a racist, if the person simply reminds himself that other people are not like him and there's no particular reason why they should be. That's for you having to slow down and amble behind these people at their slower pace. For the woman walking the other way and having to fight her way through, it's possible that she was in a hurry for a reason, and also having a bad day (hence the no eye contact) and it actually is pretty rude to take up an entire sidewalk. Because just as they don't have to be like her, they also don't have to take over her world with whatever they have going on. It would have been very understandable for her to be annoyed about their rudeness, and quite sufficient to be annoyed only about that, without tacking anything on about race.

It is possible that she was merely annoyed about their not knowing how to act. You must realize that it's also possible that this group enjoyed pulling a white woman's chain by getting in her path, and derived pleasure from irritating her. Can't go the route of assigning either good or bad motives to people due to their race - either way is actually racism.

The thing that people do that irritates me - and it's actually usually young people, not people of any particular culture - is be unaware of their surroundings. So they'll stand in an open doorway staring at something rather than move a few inches one way or the other and let people get past. I just go to my zen place and stand there and wait with a smile on my face. And here I perversely get pleasure out of denying pleasure to people who might be deliberately trying to annoy me.
: )

theolderepublicke said...

Hi Laura,

Thanks for the comment.

I not only agree that the lady's annoyance was on some level justified, I also think it was presumptuous of me to claim to know what she was thinking. It is possible also,as you suggest, that this group may have been deliberately trying to annoy her.

I do, however, think that unfortunately, race is never entirely divorced from the equation. Although it was presumptuous of me to suggest I could read this lady's inner thoughts, I also know my own thoughts and know that race is never really far from my mind when these types of things happen. In short, if it had been a group of white yuppies, my annoyance with them would have been of a different quality.

At the same time, your suggestion about reminding myself that other people are not like me and there's no reason why they should be is as good a suggestion as any for a working strategy, and something I ought maybe to try to do more.

I like your strategy for dealing with annoying space cadets in public :)

Thanks, again, for the comment.