Watchful Eyes

Perhaps nothing makes  a Gen-Xer like myself feel more unenlightened than having to confront my own racism.  Generation X was came of age in a time when the word “tolerance” became part of our every day language.  So what do we do when we discover our view may be less than tolerant?

A couple of days ago, I picked my kids up from my in-laws house.  They live at the end of a cul-de-sac, backing to an open space.  They have trail access about fifty feet from their house.  My mother-in-law and I were strapping the boys into their carseats when a car came to the end of the cul-de-sac and turned around.  I didn’t think much of it until the same car came back a minute later and parked near the trailhead.

While there is trail access, it is not widely used.  I have never seen anyone park there, so I was curious.  A man in his late twenties got out of the car.  He was wearing jeans, a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, and a black do-rag.  I knew he was not going hiking because he was wearing flip flops, so I wondered what his purpose was.  He was African American.

He sensed me watching him.  He walked over to my car and introduced himself.  He said he was teaching his daughter to drive, and explained he’d be driving up and down the road.  I felt like a complete asshole.  In my mind, I immediately equated it to race.  I thought he must have known that a white woman saw him and wondered what he was up to, and that he should explain himself.

Was I right in that assumption?  Perhaps he was just polite.  Perhaps he would be curious if he saw a stranger parked in his neighborhood.  I began to question the whole experience and more and more assumptions began to follow.

I made the assumption he explained himself based on his racial background because I do not know many white men who would have taken the time to make an introduction.  Is it entitlement?  Lack of manners?  I have three brothers who look like bikers.  Hell, one is a biker.  They are used to being watched when they do something, but they take an attitude of “fuck it, let them watch.”  Why did this gentleman introduce himself?  If he had kept to himself, would I be writing this essay?  It is strange to think it is his manners that caused me to ponder, and not the other way around.

I began to imagine different people in that scenario and my reactions to their appearances.  I would have been curious regardless of the individual, but would I have felt nervous?  If an elderly woman got out of the car, I would probably wonder what she was up to.  If the individual got out and was wearing running shoes, I wouldn’t have given it a second glance, regardless of race.  And finally if a white man had worn the same attire, I most likely would have still felt ill at ease.  That just speaks to a different type of prejudice.

Of course, I think it is smart to always be cautious about your surroundings and changes within them.  I read Gavin de Becker’s “The Gift of Fear” when it came out, and it made a lot of sense.  We do have instincts for a reason, and we should not choose to ignore them simply to be politically correct.  If your instincts are telling you to be careful, you should be careful.  How do I balance that without suspecting every stranger I run in to?

I could rationalize it a hundred different ways, but I still had to question just why this incident bothered me so much.  I am thinking about it days later.  There has to be a reason.

Part of it is old habits die hard.  If you’ve read my blog, you know I may be a Gen X-er, but I was raised in a small, rural town with an extremely limited minority population.  I remember moving to “the city” after high school and trying to negotiate this new social landscape.  I was describing a girl to a friend of mine, and I said she was “colored,”  not knowing that was an offensive term.  In the town I was raised, if you weren’t using the N-word, you were marching with Martin Luther King Jr.  He was kind enough to explain that the term was not acceptable.  From that moment on, I have been almost obsessively diligent in my efforts to not be offensive.  Sometimes I succeed, others I commit yet another faux pas.  But I am always conscious and trying.

Maybe that’s the problem.  As long as I feel the need to constantly monitor myself, it means things are still unbalanced.  If I can’t move forward from my past, I’ll never truly be color blind.  I think that is the case for a lot of people.  It is a great notion to view people for who they are and not how they look, but we need to make that idea a reality.

I don’t know if I can ever truly change my thinking. There might always be a part of me questioning “am I doing the right thing? Saying the right words?”  But I hope my kids never know that as their reality.  Once again I look at Liam’s preschool environment, and how as simple as it sounds, it really is a model for everyone else.  They don’t see color or differences, only play mates.

It’s a complex situation, but maybe the answers are simple.  Try harder, do better, examine more.

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