Friday, March 18, 2005
Try This At Home

During my trip down from Vermont last weekend, a funny thing happened. I was in Virginia having spent the night, and I was going into a local diner to get some breakfast before I got back on the road -- breakfast is cheap, and since I don't do the fast food thing, stopping somewhere for pancakes is usually my best bet for a hot meal during a traveling day.

By chance of timing -- actually mostly because I paused to hold the door open for them -- two black men came in directly behind me. We approached the hostess' station as three people, and that's when the girl behind the counter sneered at me.

"Table for three?" I cannot express the disdain that was dripping from her voice.

"Uh, no, just one."

"Oh." She smiled, and led me to a booth.

And that was it. She went back and seated the two black men a few tables away, and I got on with my breakfast. And I didn't think much about the exchange during my meal (I was too absorbed in a newspaper), but once I was out on the interstate in that meditative state that accompanies long-distance driving, it started to bug me.

I've been there before. Here in Memphis I have a number of African-American friends, all fine people; of them, the two I feel closest to are both gay men (well, one's gay; the other is officially undetermined, but seems currently to be most interested in other boys.) Suffice to say, in these particular situations, our relationship is buddy-buddy, not romantic. And sometimes we go out together... out for a drink, out for a quick dinner, the usual out-with-friends kind of thing. And whenever I'm out with a black man, this same thing happens: I'm treated differently for being a white woman in the company of a black man.

American race relations, especially in the south, are obviously a complicated matter, and I certainly don't claim to have especially deep insight. I'm a white woman of middle-class bearing who lives mostly around other white people; for me, the world is generally a respectful place. Both black men and black women obviously live in a completely different world where getting pulled over seemingly at random is a common occurance, being followed in stores is just part of how things are, and having certain kinds of people make snap assumptions about you and your life based on your race is, doubtless, taken for granted. For me, though, it's an unusual sensation.

Because the thing is, if black men are on the bottom rungs of society, the only people lower (in the eyes of conservative white Christendom) are white women who consort with them. And when I go out with a black male friend, or even find myself in proximity to black men without an obvious white partner of my own, that label gets stuck to me regardless of reality. I assure you, people treat me much differently if they think I'm connected to a black man than they do normally.

It doesn't make me angry -- this is an insight into society I'm granted, even if an uncomfortable one, and something that most of the population of this city has to live and deal with on a constant, ongoing basis -- but it makes me very sad. Who we are as individuals makes no difference in this situation -- that I'm smart, that I'm educated, that I'm polite or respectful, or that the men I'm out with are good, caring, honest, active citizens working hard to make a life for themselves. For this period of time, they're niggers screwing a white girl, and I'm a white trash slut, nothing more.

I can't imagine living with that kind of judgement being made of me by strangers who know nothing about my life and circumstances every moment of every day for my entire life. It could easily become, I think, a crushing psychic weight.

I dare every white woman reading this -- if you haven't already found yourself in this situation (in which case you already know what I'm talking about) -- to go out to lunch or dinner with a black male friend and observe the reaction for yourself, especially if you're someone who has pre-formed ideas about interracial relationships yourself. Expose yourself to that which you impose on others -- it's a simple experiment, and very enlightening. (And if you don't have any black male friends, make some, then try this out. It's doubly important for you.)
11:21 AM ::
Amy :: permalink