History, Context, and the Benefit of Doubt

I was five when I learned that I had an uncle I would never meet because he was strange fruit on an Alabama poplar tree.

I was ten years old the first time the word “Nigger” was hurled at me with venom.

I was eleven the first time I noticed bias from a teacher directed at the only Black kid in the class.

I was fourteen the first time that I found myself on the thoroughly correct side of the law but the wrong side of a police officer who took me to the station in handcuffs because I had the “wrong attitude” and the temerity to be “uppity” when I was right.

I was sixteen the first time a store clerk not so subtly hinted that I couldn’t afford to shop were I was standing.

I was seventeen the first time I was stopped for driving a car in neighborhood where most people who drove there didn’t look like me.  “Failure to come to a complete stop” was the reason.

I was eighteen the first time I was advised by some Caucasian gentleman that I might need only a half tank of gas and should move on.

I was twenty the first time I was asked if I was an “affirmative action hire.”

I was twenty three the first time a grocery store owner asked to inspect my bag before leaving the store.

I was twenty five the first time I had a series of terrific phone interviews, but saw the change in an interviewer’s eyes upon first meeting, followed by the shortest interview on record.

I was twenty eight when a false alarm at my home led to the arrival of a couple of police cars, me being handcuffed in front of my then wife and neighbors, before I received an apology for the “misunderstanding.”

I was thirty the first time I began writing down the time, date, location, and taxi number of every working cab that passed me when I needed a ride home.  At the end of each week I sent dozens of incidents from the prior seven days to the taxi cab commission for investigation.  Eight months of letters, and nearly eight years later I’m still waiting for the call back.

I don’t know if it was the first time, but the first time I remember being told by a woman that she “doesn’t date black men” was when I was thirty two.

I was thirty four the last time I was confused for a valet, bellman, porter, busboy, etc. even though I was the boss*.

I was thirty six the last time someone asked for the manager and upon seeing me declared that they’d rather speak with someone in charge.

It was two weeks ago that I stood at the host stand of one the “best” restaurants in the city I was visiting when I was ignored by some past her prime flibidigibit.  A Caucasian couple entering after I did was greeted warmly and taken right to their table.

No one would call me a militant or an “angry black man.”** I have two advanced degrees from top universities, national recognition as an expert in my field, multiple publications to my credit, and am widely recognized in my city.  None of that protected me from all of the aforementioned slights and it didn’t protect Harvard Professor Skip Gates either.  There are two sides to every story, but history – mine, his, and the world’s – demand that the professor gets the benefit of all doubts.

* all of those jobs are noble and necessary occupations, and I wouldn’t be ashamed of any of them, but white guys in tailored suits aren’t often thought to work at those level jobs

** not that militancy or anger wouldn’t be a bit understandable

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24 Responses to History, Context, and the Benefit of Doubt

  1. Jo says:

    Wow. I know I shouldn’t be but I’m shocked.

    My parents raised me to not see color, growing up in Brazil that was relatively easy to do, the (black) woman we hired to take care of my severely handicapped sister when I was 3 years old (who stayed with us for nearly 20 years) I’m now proud to call my “second mom” and her son my brother. I honestly never really realized racism existed until I moved to the US almost 20 years ago, and it still shocks me because I genuinely don’t understand it. I’m sorry you had to go through all of that, and I’m sorry we live in a country that allows it to happen.

    Jo, thank you for writing. I don’t think a color blind world is the only goal. A world where we can see color, recognize that there are differences between us, but that those differences make us stronger as a collective, that we are all enriched by the acknowledgement and sharing of our experiences.

  2. This shit just baffles me to the core. Sex, religion, race, blah blah blah…. Aren’t we passed that? Shouldn’t we GLOBALLY be embarrassed as shit that we obviously aren’t?
    I just don’t get it.

    I understand the reasoning behind it and the irony is in the fact that it was Dr. Gates’ writings that have helped me understand. That he is the one at the center of this mess magnifies that irony exponentially… and sadly.

  3. ps- That was an extremely well written post. Had I been relaying those experiences as my own, profanity and kicking shit would have clouded everything listed.

    Thank you, and believe me that there have been moments, quiet and private moments when I have allowed myself the luxury of those profanities. Those moments are largely private because, as Franco.beans notes in a later comment, public reaction is tempered by a concern about the “ridicule of our anger.”

  4. rondamarie says:

    I met you at the blog meetup in January. I had no prior knowledge of you. When I got back home friends asked me about the people I met. I described you as a gentleman, the kind people are convinced no longer exist, an intelligent man who was chivalrous and had a great knowledge about the city in which he lives. It never crossed my mind to mention your ethnicity.

    People are idiots. I’m sorry. You deserve better, and so do others that are unfairly judged for ridiculous reasons.

    Thank you, it was a pleasure meeting you at the Bloggerational Ball. That we are still dealing with this in 2009 saddens me to no end.

  5. Christina says:

    It goes to show you how certain times and incidents are burned into your memory. It is sad that it is still pervasive and it is something that some people can’t move past.

    It doean’t matter what race, gender, nationality one is but rather the fact that they are a human being.

    I hope we will get there to see the day when that is our reality.

  6. justjp says:

    Great post my friend. I could never begin to understand, but I have seen it happen. Damn shame on this country is what it is.

    Thank you, and thank you for recognizing the shame, but I hope that you feel more optimism than anything else.

  7. This is beautifully written, and incredibly tragic. Racism is so below the surface, sometimes…it amazes me sometimes that people think that just because Ku Klux Klan memberships aren’t as active anymore and just because we have a Black president, that racism has somehow ceased to exist in this country. I remember seeing it for the first time when I was a child, when I was eight years old and living in Alabama – and I remember realizing, even then, how much it is unfortunately taught, and learned (it became more pronounced among classmates the older we got). Unfortunately, attitudes and stereotypes don’t leave overnight, and it’s most certainly not *just* the South that has this problem, as the shit that the poor professor had to go through clearly displays. I hate how fucked up the world can be.

    Thank you. As you so poignantly noted, among the saddest parts of racism is that we inject children with this awful disease.

  8. jamy says:

    Thanks for this. I think many white people think overt racism doesn’t exist anymore–but that is so far from true. But if you don’t believe it exists, you are implicated. (I am white.)

    Also, I had no idea you were black. My bad for assuming…anything.

    “if you don’t believe it exists, you are implicated [in it.]” – Thank you for writing that accurate and succinct declaration about where we still are.

  9. Lemmonex says:

    Fucking hell.

    I am sorry.

    You know it is out there, that it still happens but it is still shocking. Hell, until recently the prom was still segregated in a small Alabama town. And those kids that were turned away from the pool in Philly because the club didn’t want to “dirty” the water? So awful.

    But…we have to be better than this. I have to believe we are getting better as a nation every day.

    We are getting better everyday despite the battles of our nation’s demons against our better angels. I am sure that the angels are winning.

  10. brookem says:

    i’m so sorry that you’ve had to deal with this first hand.

    it’s interesting, all the talk about this harvard professor. more and more is coming out regarding the whole situation this week. that this isn’t the first time this man has been in trouble for the same issue, that there was (allegedly) some negativity spoken on his part towards the officer as well. who knows what’s what, but like you said, there sure are two sides to every story. and i totally believe that he should get the benefit of the doubt, innocent until proven guilty, etc.

    It is not something that I discuss easily or often, but this was something I felt compelled to write. I would be willing to bet that if we could hear the report from the fly on the wall it would say that this had at least as much to do with somebody mouthing off to a cop.

  11. Titania says:

    Shit… I am sorry. I read about Prof. Gates story, and the more I read, the more I believe his story over the officer’s. Also about the kids in Philly’s pool and some “white men” gold clubs, it is so hard to believe it still happens, but it does. This is so foreign to me, and still have a hard time digesting it, I guess because I grew up in Chile and being part of the “privileged” group. I am always impressed on how sheltered I have been all my life… I am still to face something like this for being a “Latina”, which I assume will eventually happen, but it hasn’t yet.

    Privilege is a funny thing. By all accounts, Skip Gates is a member of the privileged class, as am I in many ways. It insulates until it doesn’t.

  12. Gilahi says:

    This is one of my all-time favorite poems, and it doesn’t even apply to my life experience. Maybe that’s the sign of a good poem.

    “Incident”

    (For Eric Walrond)

    Once riding in old Baltimore,
    Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
    I saw a Baltimorean
    Keep looking straight at me.

    Now I was eight and very small,
    And he was no whit bigger,
    And so I smiled, but he poked out
    His tongue and called me, “Nigger.”

    I saw the whole of Baltimore
    From May until December;
    Of all the things that happened there
    That’s all that I remember.

    –Countee Cullen

    Sorry for the long comment, but it seemed appropriate to your post. Well written and thought-provoking, as usual. Thanks.

    Just like you are always welcome to my scotch, you’re always welcome to leave long comments… especially really thoughtful ones like this. Thank you.

  13. kathleen says:

    I read an article on Gates, the title of which was something like, “Gates version of truth very different from police report” or something like that. The whole article pissed me off. I know I’d be screaming like a batshit insane woman if I got accused of breaking into MY home, and I’m just a renter! I’m sorry that _those_ kinds of firsts get burned into your mind at least as vividly as first kisses or whatever. My first hit of DC-racism was when I was advised to seat “those that were not fair skinned” in quiet corners of the restaurant.

    The really sad thing is that this was a drastically abbreviated list.

  14. Fearless says:

    I’ve told you this already, but I think this is one of the best things you’ve ever written on this blog.

    Thank you, that means so much.

  15. lacochran says:

    I’m sorry.

    I’m sorry for your experience and I’m sorry for Gates’ experience. Both should have never happened.

    It’s embarrassing but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve come to realize that white people and people of color lead very different lives in this country. White people have so much privilege that they don’t even realize they have. It’s insane.

    In defense of white people, it is really easy to not understand or see the inherent privilege.

  16. dan-E says:

    i can relate to this post in many ways. thanks for writing it, not just because you used the word “flibidigibit.”

    Thank you, and I am too fond of that word, the woman who taught it to me… not so much.

  17. Lisa says:

    Wow. This was powerful. It’s so shocking, although it shouldn’t be – these things happen all the damn time in the world. I always assume, though, that it’s limited to small, narrow-minded locales, and clearly it’s not.

    I think it would be so hard not to be angry. I get angry about sexism, which I experience to a less obvious, less malignant degree than you do racism.

    You are more familiar with sexism than I, yet I somehow doubt that when you experience it that it is any less malignant, repugnant, or odious than racism.

  18. I’ve caught looks from people who notice the well dressed black man with the tall, white woman. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Of course the reason they are staring is because we are the best looking couple in the room.

    It is always easier to assume the best intentions from others, isn’t it.

  19. f.B says:

    Brilliant.

    The familiarity bothers me. I don’t like that I understand wholeheartedly and that I have my own active timeline.

    I read the Gates story a few days ago and my heart dropped. Of course the incident itself is troubling. But what frightened me is that my expectation was that even with his status, the best we’d see as a resolution would be some inadequate formal “apology” that had no value as precedent to deter it from happening again. And the worst? The ridicule of our anger.

    Seriously, this comment is brilliant and more eloquent than the post that inspired it.

  20. Sara says:

    I wonder how many thousands of men and women have faced similar injustice with out the benefit of collegiate notoriety to amplify their voice. Thank you for putting a face to the often faceless and using your space to ensure one more voice is heard.

    Thank you for saying that, and I think that you touched upon the part that is so disturbing to so many people. If this can happen to a relatively famous, relatively wealthy Black man in his own home, how easily does it occur for so many others.

  21. Julie says:

    I got goosebumps actually..

    Nothing infuriates me more than ignorance and “ism”‘s.

    This is really, really, really well written.

    Thank you, that means a lot to me. While we’re on the subject of “ism’s” though, I will note that few things anger me more about my own community than the isms we often express towards women, gays, Jews, and others, in a seeming obliviousness to the cruelties of the irony.

  22. littlemsblogger says:

    This is a great post.

    I grew up in a household where my parents were of the depression era and when my mom would refer to someone as ‘colored’, my sister and I would look at each other and I’d promptly ask if they were orange or green.

    Personally, I look at the person. Dismissing a person based upon race, religion or body size is absurd and am sorry that you have met so many idiots in your lifetime.

    Thank you. I will say that I understand people being a product of their generation.

  23. k8 says:

    This is an excellent post. Thank you for sharing it. There’s inherent pain in it, but from reading your responses to the comments, you are on the upside of encouraging others to see how it’s better rather than focus on how terrible it has been. That is an admirable trait.

    When I lived in North Carolina, I was hired by an “African American” company (that’s how they referred to themselves) and was told in no uncertain terms that I was hired because I was white and a woman and that they needed to fulfill their quota. I will never forget that moment when all my education and experience meant nothing and the color of my skin and my sex meant everything. I’m not sorry I had that experience. I will forever carry it with me in an attempt to never treat people in that manner.

    My optimism is like a shield for me sometimes. I am an optimist because the alternative is too unpleasant, and I know sometimes my optimism is a triumph of faith over evidence.

  24. [...] when I am reminded that my tailored suits and fancy education don’t really make me immune to the everyday slights [...]

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