Ironically, fittingly, sadly, I had spent my day reading the Race issue of New York Magazine before it happened.
Years ago in college, I unknowingly stumbled into a Black Studies class—the perfect 11 AM commencement and requirement filler—and found myself completely taken by a professor who changed the way I, an upper-middle class white girl from Marin County, looked at what it was like to really live with my privilege. But more importantly, what it was really like to live without it. I loved that class, that professor, and continued with the subject until I graduated. It morphed me into—annoying to many I am sure—that girl with a diatribe.
Everyone has their rant, when they’ve had one too many of whatever the night’s poison may be, and mine was race, racism. I am fully aware that I will never know the black experience, and that one can never generalize what that experience may be. But for some reason it became a part of me to argue that racism still exists, it’s institutionalized, despite what other white upper middle class people might like to believe. And we must be aware in order to one day move on. So it was refreshing to read these articles in New York Mag addressing my issue of choice to an audience that usually tries to avoid the subject—and in a much more eloquent way than my 3 o’clock in the morning drink-in-hand soliloquies. But little did I know that in just a few hours someone would accuse my very good friend of being, flat out, a racist.
Reading on the couch all day does stimulate the brain, but it’s also a recipe for cabin fever. So despite it already being 10 PM on a night before work, I convinced my roommate (well she didn’t need much convincing) to go with my stir crazy self to our local dive for a beer. But in proper New York form, a beer is never just a beer.
It was a weird night to begin with—one that makes you look to the sky expecting a full moon. As we perched on our barstools sipping our pints of Brooklyn local brew, a man approached us, a man that was quite obviously not from “these parts.” First off, his age made him stand out in a bar overrun with hipster Pratt students discussing the art project that kept them up all night and complementing each other on their latest vintage find. Not that he was ancient, but I couldn’t help but notice his aged, pink sun-stabbed, pocked leather skin as he leaned in just a little closer to ask me what we were drinking in a fading Southern drawl.
I thought he was just an out-of-towner surprised to see two young ladies enjoying drinks that weren’t a questionably bright color or garnished with cherries. But in fact, he was somewhat slyly buying us our second of many rounds. Also adhering to our New York style guide, a man buying us drinks within a minute of introducing himself (well at least where we hang out) caught us by surprise and initiated a conversation about male/female bar etiquette, in which we certainly came from different schools of thought. We soon learned that he had been working on a boat for the last three months surrounded by only men. Which, despite his argument that he was raised to be a gentleman and treat the ladies with respect, made us question his motives for insisting on more alcohol on his treat. But I am sure you are noting that my friend and I are at fault for never refusing.
Our talk quickly turned to politics – from Barack Obama to Bill Clinton’s oval office blow job and back. This of course is not uncommon in our current political climate, and anytime I’ve had a few drinks and am faced with an opponent that will surely lead me into my diatribe of choice. If I only knew. But anyway this man, all pent up, on land refuge, is just an accessory to my story—the fuel that ignited the bizarre fire.
So he followed us outside for our cigarette break and the debate continued. This odd pairing of a boatman from Jacksonville, Florida and two 20-something California born New Yorkers, talking a little bit above everyone else’s comfort level, may have been why my true protagonist approached us. We could have been the most intriguing, although most stupidly obvious, conversation to get in on that night. Or maybe he just wanted a light for his cigarette or to chat-up my pretty roommate. Who knows?
He was a good looking man—noticeably taller than the rest of us, with well-kept short dreads, and a smile that stood out from his smooth, dark skin. In contrast to our sugar daddy for the evening, we took him in warmly with ease on our eyes and our dialogue softened a bit. With a fourth character now introduced into our script, we had to take a step back to small-talk and introductions. The alcohol driven summer night setting seemed an appropriate place for informality, but when she said it, everything changed. I watched the words fall out of her mouth in such slow motion that I almost believed I could have grabbed each one, caught it and threw it away, before it hit the ground and exploded into sound—and no one would have noticed.
“Do you live in the ‘hood?” she asked, so innocently unaware that what she was saying was anything different than asking him if he lived around here—like we do. So unaware that this man would ever be offended by such a question.
I immediately went into lawyer mode, sensing by his facial reaction that those six simple words shot across to him like sharp little daggers into his skin.
We live in the neighborhood. This is our local bar. It’s not a destination spot, most people that drink here live in the vicinity. She would ask that to anyone (well except for maybe the boatman). I even went as far to say that she was just shortening a word, like you would say “bye” instead of “goodbye,” “night” instead of “goodnight.” Excuses, excuses.
Maybe I should have just shut the fuck up, let her speak for herself. Was I in fact the fuel that started all this, because of my stupid liberal SF State white-privilege need to make things right. Weren’t the justifications I was spewing against everything that I had ever been preaching? Didn’t I always say that we need to admit that racism still exists in order to move beyond it—to maybe one day not have it. But I didn’t want to admit that my friend had made a racist comment—and, I honestly didn’t think that she did. But I wanted him to not to think that either.
And although in our minds, there were no purposeful connotations, insinuations or assumptions in those words she uttered—he did. And without putting it so simply yet, we began the journey toward his statement.
The situation was quickly getting out of our control. The kind of alcohol induced conversation in which everything is a fight to get a word out before or louder than the other one—just a struggle to grab on to that one chance for empty air space. No one is actually listening, except for maybe the people next to us wondering what the hell is going on. This was so different than me preaching to my friends of friends over red wine and too many cigarettes. This was actually happening.
We all had our arguments. My roommate believed that those words were just a figure of speech that had nothing to do with race and the conversation should not have been brought down to this level. Ideally, yes. But he said we had to no right to use that word, we didn’t know what it was like to grow up in the ‘hood, and we never will. True, yes. He also argued that she only chose that word because of the color of his skin, and again only chose that word because we were in a black neighborhood. No, not true at all. The boatman—yes, he was still there—sided with him.
So as many a night in a New York bar, people will go in and out of the same conversation. And in correct NYC form, this one, despite its intensity, also had it’s lulls—but still continued throughout the rest of our alcohol-bought-by-the-boatman-fueled evening. My roommate had escaped for a bit, but obviously while she was gone, smoking or whatever, continued to assess the situation. She didn’t do anything harmful—those words did not come from a bad place. This was what was wrong with the world. We should be able to treat everyone equally. This is why things are still fucked up…Then she came up to us again and began to speak.
“I don’t understand. I say that word all the time to my friends and people I work with and they are all different races. I say that to white, Asian, Latino people… Am I not allowed to say that to you because you’re black?”
And this is when he said it, four words that stung just as bad as any muttered before. But these ones I didn’t think I could stop. They were already out of his mouth before I had a chance to blink, let alone catch them in the air.
“You are a racist.”
And she was gone, out that door, so fast and so mad. He had taken it too far. I could have followed her, maybe I should have. But I wasn’t going to let it end like this—her mad, him mad, and all of us in complete misunderstanding. She’d be okay, remember, we do live in the neighborhood. I’d see her at home in a second. I wasn’t giving up that easy. I wanted this to be resolved. I couldn’t believe that someone was looking at us like this—accusing us. I wanted to show him who we were. I was the girl with the race diatribe. God Damn It! I wanted to tell him about my Black Studies classes, and that I was in love with a black man for years of my life and that my roommate had been too, and that she works for two amazing black women—but oh don’t worry, I am not dumb enough to play those cards. And as he spouted out more and more against us, I began to question if I was actually equipped to be the girl trying to convince him of anything, and especially, if I was equipped to be the girl giving everyone else a race lesson. He said using the word ‘hood was like saying the “N” word. That thought never even crossed my mind. Maybe we weren’t going anywhere.
And then he came back, the man from the sea with his sun-burned face, slurring voice and acidic breath. I watched him approach us, his stumbling gait, spewing his new bar buddy’s argument.
“You’ll never know what it’s like to live in the ‘hood, girl.” As the words came sloshing toward me, so did his out-stretched leather hand aimed directly at my ass. The slap hit me, like my roommate’s words hit him, like his words hit her, and it was my moment of shock and my turn to head for the door.
Yes, I do not know what it’s like to have grown up in the ‘hood. But you, my friend, obviously have no idea what it’s like to be a woman. And I am sure if I had decided to stay, we wouldn’t have talked about your inappropriate gesture for hours on end. It made me think about Hillary and Obama—although I am 100% Barack—anything that could have been construed as racism within their run for candidacy was thrust into the spotlight, while all those sexist comments made by the media were pushed under the rug. But that is a whole other story.
So with those words, that slap…Maybe we all just exist on parallel planes and will never really know or accept what it is like to be someone different than ourselves. But just because I will never know what it’s like to be a black man and he will never know what it’s like to be a white woman and so on, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of our actions—we were all victims and culprits of something that night.
So I went home, went to bed, a little too drunk, a little too baffled—and got up the next morning to go to work. The strangeness still lingered in the air. Did that all really happen? And as I sat in my cubicle, drinking my coffee, checking my morning email, the IM orange light began to flash.
-How was last night?
-It was ok
-What did you guys end up doing?
-Went out for a beer
-Nowhere really, we just stayed in the hood.