About one year ago I wrote about an incident that happened at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). It was a cool after-hours event with my bestie, Mike, and we were dressed up and having a fun. At one point we were focused on our target — a set of stairs — and like normal urban people made a straight line for them. Without realizing it, we walked between a group of people posing against an elevator wall with art on it and the person who was taking their photo. There wasn’t another way around, only the option to wait, but I didn’t see them. However, piercing my urban fog was a Black woman who suddenly appeared, draped her arm around my shoulders, and said sarcastically, “Congratulations on your white privilege!”
One million thoughts fired through my shocked brain, including, hey, why aren’t you yelling at Mike? He walked ahead of me! (Love you, Mike!) OK, fine, maybe I’m the safer target. That thought was followed by the many ways I am a person who is more racially aware. And also, have been working on to improve. One of my best friends is Bla….Oh, crap. I can’t believe I went there.
OK, how about I’m naturally clueless? My college roommates short-sheeted my bed, and I didn’t even notice. Wait, do people even do that anymore? Argh! And why didn’t you also yell at Mike? Why am I being singled out because I’m white and female…ugh and Argh!
OK, all I got at this point is shock, and so I apologized verbally, and I also bowed with my hands in prayer — maybe they thought I was being sarcastic, or maybe the Japanese people can call me out for appropriating their thing.
This shit is complicated.
But I learned from the white privilege class I took earlier this year that I can be good and racist. Although a part of me insists I was just being my normal clueless urban self. This is what city people do to stay sane. We ignore each other.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I was walking with three members of my family, and I was telling them a story as we crossed a big wide open space in the Ruggles train station. It was a Saturday afternoon and fairly empty. Suddenly a Black woman appeared to my right and said loudly. “Excuse me!” She was trying to cross in front of us. Again, my first reaction was, we’re in a city! First come first serve, WTF? Also, there are four of us and one of you. Doesn’t that give us some sort of urban right-of-way? Is that even a thing? You know, democracy, majority rules, blah, blah, blah?
But I kept thinking about the woman at the MFA. Is being urban clueless a good enough excuse today? Was it ever? When I was growing up, people who had fancy boats with bathrooms could just flush their toilets into the water. That was OK then, and now it’s not. Sooo, where’s the line?
Not long ago, I was walking from one work building to another, and at one point the sidewalk narrowed to just wide enough for two people abreast. Two white people were animatedly talking in front of me, and suddenly (it seems I’m hopelessly not paying attention to people, and they are always appearing suddenly!) a Black jogger appeared next to me and behind the couple. He was speaking, but he had something over his mouth. All I can say was that it looked like the mouth part of the old timey World War II gas mask, but without the mask part. I was nearly next to him, and I was having trouble understanding him through that thing. But he must have been on repetition number 3 or 4, because he was mad, and yelling. “Move out of the way! Can’t you see me?” The white guy, on the narrow sidewalk ahead of him, said. “No, I didn’t see you.” The Black man answered, “What? Am I invisible?” Although it sounded more like, “WhamIibbibble?”
Oooooh, boy. I was kind of like, um this sidewalk is too narrow to see behind you and what in God’s name are you wearing? Is this a YouTube prank?
Was this about race? Was it about a narrow sidewalk? Was it about a weird WWII gas mask muffler thingy? Clearly Black people are pissed off, and have every right to be.
Within a few days of that encounter, I was waiting to cross at an intersection near my house. The cross walk is for pedestrians and bikes, and the three converging roads all have stop signs. I’m usually more in danger of getting clipped by the bikes than cars. This day I waited as the car came fast down the street and blew through the stop sign, only slowing down because she was turning the corner. A bike was also coming toward me and went into the street with nary a slowdown. The car jerked to a stop, and the guy on the bike pointed his finger at the driver, and yelled, “Stop sign! Stop sign!”
Now I know why we were told not to point. While it’s somewhat satisfying to point at others, it is also annoying to get pointed at. The bike passed, and the driver merely punched the gas and yelled through her window, gesturing wildly, “I’m driving! I’m driving!” Which I guess was her mistaken attempt to put herself in the right, even though, she so wasn’t.
So, both of them were white. Clearly everyone is pissed off.
It used to be that city people could just ignore each other blissfully, like at an Olympic champion level. We need to go from point A to point B with the straightest line possible. I cut you off, and that’s OK, because you will likely cut me off next time. It’s like an invisible contract we sign. I have lived here for 36 years, and I have not experienced this level of immediate reaction and being so pissed off about everything. And I’m not being all old timey and saying people were more polite back in the day. Hell no. We were rude then, and we’re rude now, it’s just that it took something really rude to get our panties in a twist enough to start yelling. Now everyone is on a hair trigger, and Black people are plain Fed Up.
A realization finally managed to penetrate my white privilege bubble: It’s not enough to look out and see Black people. I have to see everyone.
Of course, I did have my white privilege hissy fit: Why do I have to pay attention? I’m busy! I need to be places — important, urban places! Why can’t you just accept that me ignoring you is an urban thing? If you want to be treated like a princess, go live in the burbs or the country. I’m naturally clueless. Live in my head. Why do I have to change?
But I was going to have to do just that — the unthinkable. I was going to have to be calm, polite, and let other people go first. WTF?!? I told a friend my stories of pissed off people and how I was trying to be more aware in public spaces and let others go first. He asked me if it helped.
At first I said, well, I haven’t gotten yelled at lately. So, yes, it has helped. But then I realized, it also was making me feel better. I have a sensitive nervous system and can be easily be overwhelmed by certain kinds of stimulation, like talking to people, especially strangers. I thought having to always be aware of my surroundings, other than the usual woman ongoing, “strange man in vicinity” alert, would be exhausting. But as I began to do it, I noticed that I don’t have to pay attention all the time. Only at the essential times, such as getting through the train turnstile, or getting on or off the train. I’m not quite at the advanced level of giving up my seat, unless it’s really, really obvious the person needs the seat. I need to see fainting, blood, or obvious pregnancy.
I am making a conscious decision to see others and let them go first. I am trying to be extra nice to Black people — I try to smile in hopes of cancelling out any looks/comments they have gotten to this point in the day.
Is it helping improve this poisonous place we call the U.S. right now? Who knows? I have felt despair, and wanted to do some big grand gesture. That’s great, but it also smacks a bit of white privilege/white savior. It’s not one and done; it’s being there every day and being aware of others, whether I feel like it or not.
At least I haven’t gotten yelled at for past few weeks.