Thursday, April 2, 2009
Late to the Party Part 1: Racism While Shopping in an Upscale Store or My Dear Crying, Young, Well-Intentioned, White Liberal, There is No Santa Claus
Seeing that I was traveling last week, I was late to the party on the ABC News series, "What Would You Do?" and its feature, "Shopping while Black."
These types of exposes are underwhelming to me (you didn't know that folks are conflict averse--except perhaps the Brits in this video--and will choose to ignore racism rather than confront it?). Racism is not new. Racism is not going away any time soon. And we certainly are not living in a post-racial moment (as some on both the Left and the Right--for very different reasons--would like us to believe).
Sure, I could entertain you with my stories of being followed by clerks and salespeople around department stores. I could get a rise by conveying my experiences of being seated by the bathroom, also known as the black and brown section, in high-end restaurants--and the consternation when I complain and demand to be moved. Or, I could raise an eyebrow with my story of how I protested to the management of Urban Outfitters when I was singled out by a clerk who demanded my identification before allowing me to use my debit card to make a 2o dollar purchase.
Well, this latter story is actually worth retelling because when I asked said clerk why would they want my ID for such a small purchase (and not coincidentally why they did not ask for identification from the white customers in line ahead of me) she replied "for your protection sir, of course." I smiled and replied, "well, if I was going to use a stolen credit card and risk going to jail, why wouldn't I spend 100 or a 1,000 dollars as opposed to 20 dollars on a cheap throw for my couch?" Predictable response: "uhh, hmm, I am not sure." Her coworker's response: "This is odd, I never saw her ask anyone else for ID before." My response: "exactly."
I could cap it off with a story about being stopped for driving while black, or how my cousin, a very prominent DC area politician and attorney, was stopped and threatened with a loaded shotgun by a state trooper on the beltway because his car was "too expensive, and he had to be a drug dealer." Needless to say, being a respectable negro is hard work and all this stress can be detrimental to one's health. Ultimately, to me at least, these stories are anti-climactic, blah, tiresome, and oh so 'meh.
In my opinion, what is actually noteworthy and striking about the ABC News vignette is how the young white woman begins to cry when she witnesses the racist treatment of the black female shopper/victim. This is the real power of the "Shopping While Black" featurette. Here, the truth is not in the great reveal that black and brown folks are racially profiled. Rather, for those raised to believe in post-racial and colorblind politics, the cult that is multicultural America (where race no longer matters because hip hop is now "youth culture" and White kids can say "nigga" or that United Colors of Benetton ushered in the "cool" that is the marketing and corporatization of racial diversity in the 1990s), to actually see the ugliness of white supremacy is utterly shocking and painful. I smirk at these moments because in a perfect world someone would shake this young woman out of her Utopian, racially tinged halcyon dream and ask her, "how would you feel if you had to deal with this racist garbage--passive, secret, and often active, day in and day out?" I wonder what she would actually say? Would she deny this impulse as one born of paranoia and hypersensitivity, or would she simply stand mute?
Funny, in this instance our oh so upset young female protagonist somehow manages to become the "victim." White privilege wins again, no?
In short, her crying reminds me of the moment when one realizes that Santa Claus is not real, or that their parents still have sex, or even worse, that a teenage boy will tell any half-truth, at any time, to sleep with any given young woman (I call this one, the "I love you" lie or the "You told me you loved me!" tale).
My disgust is not limited to this crying, blubbering, sad, young woman as this is not a narrative only about race and white racial privilege per se. It is a broader critique. In this woman's histrionics I can imagine that many young people of color would act in much the same way. Why? because their parents have protected and sheltered them from the realities of a racialized world. This sickness is often more endemic among those folks of color where class privilege has allowed them to insulate (or is that protect?) their children from the ugliness that is racism. For this reason, I am an advocate of telling your children the truth, the whole truth, because the sacred burden of all parents is to equip their progeny with the necessary skills to successfully navigate a complex, and often unfair, world.
Am I cruel because one of my favorite moments is telling the most bourgeois and sheltered students born of the colored class about either the bloody summer of 1919 or the Tulsa Race Riots where material prosperity was no protection against White terror? Where Black success attracted White violence? Am I foul for smiling at these students in their moment of cognitive dissonance when the ugly truth, often denied or conveniently ignored, comes rushing towards them like a locomotive?
Moreover, the fact that is racial life in America is why I raise an eyebrow at those multiculturals, biracials, and others who want to raise their children to "decide their own race" because this "noble" choice leaves these young people without the necessary protective screen that comes with an understanding of the particular challenges that come with living life in a raced body.
Maybe I am mean. Or perhaps, I am cruel. But, I would like to believe that I am just committed to the truth.