Thursday, December 10, 2009

Welcome to Post-Racial America; I Live There

I think the most culturally significant piece of media to come out of my childhood was Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. No matter your color, shape, or brand of religious superstition, if you lived in New York, this movie hit you in your face, your gut, and then stomped on you for good measure. (I'm sure if you lived other places this was a meaningful movie too, but hot damn if it wasn't like looking in a mirror and realizing just how fat and ugly you'd become as a New Yorker.) My brother still hasn't gotten over it, and he's nearing 30 (though this speaks volumes about what our parents considered appropriate material for the 8-12 crowd).

And we came from the most stereotypical pinko commie liberal family you could imagine. There are racial epithets I didn't even hear until I went to college - I was like the Skinner Box liberal kid. I remember in school there were countless discussions about race: "would you cross to the other side of the street if you saw a group of black teens heading your way? What if the teens were white?" and frankly, I didn't have much of an opinion either way, if the white boys from Collegiate were coming down the street towards me shouting, "I'm gonna cut a bitch," I would consider taking another route to my destination, and likewise couldn't see the logic in crossing to the other side of the street when faced with a group of black kids who, you know, just seemed to be walking.

But still, for all my pretensions of total blind equality, I never told a black teenager who was playing his music loudly in the subway to sit the eff down and shut the eff up. Why? Because the statistical possibility (or so I was told) that he would have a weapon he would then use on me was too high. The lesson was: don't tell the minority kids to act like civilized members of society, they might have guns and knives.

I officially call bullshit.

Yes, the Koch/Dinkins years were a trifle unsafe, but now that I have lived in a depressed neighborhood, I've learned something: it's not the extroverts who are packing. The loud kids on my corner were just loud. It was the quiet, stealthy, I've-got-business-to-conduct-here guys who were armed. And since they didn't mess with you, why on earth would you mess with them? Similarly, like with bullies of every stripe, chances are when you stand up, they stand down.

It's racist to assume that because a kid is black, or hispanic, or wearing a certain kind of outfit, that he's a potential violent offender who shouldn't be admonished for fear of bodily harm.

Fast forward to yesterday on the train home. A group of five kids sits down across from me. They are loud in the way teenagers can be (I recall several similar groups during my return commute). Generally, they settle down because it's a long train ride and no one can keep up that kind of prattle endlessly. Not these children, though. They were shouting something that sounded like "bunnyfuzz" over and over again, using their phones/mp3 players to audibly blast music, calling one another on their phones and speaking at the tops of their voices. I gave them two complete stops before I mounted my passive resistance.

I began to read aloud from my book. My theory on this is that if it's going to be noisy, the sound of my own voice is infinitely preferable to the sound of anyone else's (unless it's Tom Jones loudly seducing me). It was made better by the fact that I'm in the middle of some truly snotty essays by Umberto Eco. Nothing like a little lesson on the life and times of Hermes Trismegistus to enlighten a train.

My seatmates did not find this edifying. In fact they were astounded that I would have the gumption to confront them, albeit in a non-confrontational manner. I think they thought I was a little crazy. Which I think is good. But rather than get quieter, perhaps taking the hint, they got louder and crazier, until a train conductor came over to settle the matter.

Whom do you think he admonished?

Yes, the kids were black and I am white. But, lest it be forgotten, only some of us were being truly anti-social. I was reading aloud, it's true, but in my normal speaking voice, and only in response to the noise I was confronted with. The conductor made the additionally valid point that I had been sitting there first and that if they wanted to play music they could sit in the bar car or in the front of the train where there was lots of empty space. But these kids didn't like that. The conductor was being racist by calling them out over their intensely anti-social behavior. And me, I couldn't help myself. I had the biggest Cheshire Cat grin I could manage.


Because, dear children, I don't care that you're black, or Mongolian, or scientologist. I care that you're assholes. And you should start worrying that I'm carrying a knife or a gun and that anything you assholes do to upset me could set me off. I no longer want to behave in a racist fashion towards groups of minority teenagers, and ignoring, thereby tacitly approving, their inappropriate behavior because they might do me harm is racist. If the boys from Collegiate act that way, I'm sure as hell going to let them have it. Not letting you kids have it would be racist, and I'm a more enlightened person than that.

P.S. This is not the first time I've used this method of resistance. I was returning home on the subway last winter and a school group came in the train. Obviously this group was going to be loud - all school groups are. But the kid sitting next to me, obviously the Alpha, had some kind of form or questionnaire that he was loudly contemplating and then waving in front of people around him. When he finally had waved it enough in front of me, I started reading from Will Durant's The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage. This kid, maybe he was 11, immediately got the joke. He saw why I had done what I had done, and you know what he did? He played along. He started acting all interested, nodding and mm-hmming to what I was reading. After a page and a half I stopped and smiled at him and he said, "hey that's a real interesting book, what's it called?" His teacher offered him fifty bucks if he read the book and wrote a report on it; I scribbled out the name on a piece of paper and handed it to him.

What's the moral of the story: people are people; assholes are assholes.

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