Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why is this okay?

Early in my first semester in college, fall 1996, I pulled into the Walmart parking lot in Auburn, Alabama. It was a good night to go grocery shopping. While searching for a parking space, I noticed a group of five young men about my age standing in a group, laughing and talking.

One wore a nice brightly colored plaid Hilfiger shirt. One wore a nice Nautica shirt. All were well dressed in nice shirts and khakis.  I parked on the same lane and walked toward them to the store. The one in the Nautica shirt was laughing. I remember thinking he had a nice smile.

They all turned to look at me. Then they turned to face me, and I aimed to go around them. But they dropped their smiles as one said, "Hey."

I was a shy girl. I glanced down and back up, and answered, "Hi." I kept walking. They didn't look so nice anymore, but I wasn't really worried about them.

They fanned out, blocking my path. "You scared?" Nautica had a challenging tone in his voice.

"No." But I was thinking, A little. Should I be scared?

"Where you from?"


They smiled a little. "Ah. You cool." Their posture relaxed. "What school you go to?"

"Lanier." Well, I went to the magnet program on the top floor, but they didn't need to know that.

They all laughed, went almost limp, and moved to let me by. "Yeah, you cool."

See, this was a group of African-American guys, and I am as white as a porcelain baby doll. I produce a glare, I'm so white. Lanier High School, however, was about 90% black at the time, though the magnet program was racially balanced.

These guys were hanging out in the parking lot, scaring the little white girls who came from lily white schools in lily white towns who believed racial stereotypes because they hadn't been exposed to any different. And they were doing it for fun. When I answered, they knew I wouldn't be intimidated just because of their skin color, and waited for an easier mark.

I gotta admit, as soon as I realized that they were just playing a game, I thought it was funny.

In fact, weeks later, during Thanksgiving break, I was at a party with high school friends, and we discussed how weird it was to be at colleges where we were in the majority. It was uncomfortable to not have many black people around. We felt like foreigners. (A few years later, I went on a business trip to Columbus, OH, and really freaked out because I didn't see any black people for days. It was the freakin' Twilight Zone! My boss saw a nice black couple at a restaurant on the last day of our trip and pointed them out to me to make me feel better.) We all had friends and neighbors of every ethnicity. It was is normal.

Now I live in a neighborhood that's pretty equally mixed. My kids don't know about the concept of racism except in the context of Civil War and Civil Rights. (We are in Montgomery, Alabama, after all.)

The stereotype's not true, not even among today's teenagers. I'm around plenty of them.

But I've had the same thing happen since then, except they guys were in gang colors and didn't just fan out, they approached. They didn't tease, they mocked. I was scared, but hid it. I turned around and got security to escort me to my car. Maybe they were playing the same game as the boys in Auburn. Maybe not. My reaction wasn't because they were black, but because they were thugs.

So I'd like to pose a question. Challenging stereotypes is funny and necessary. But why do people choose to reinforce negative stereotypes? Doesn't that breed racism? People don't want to be judged by how they look, but then they do crap like these young men did, and make people believe the stereotypes.

Why would anyone WANT to propagate hatred and racial misunderstanding? I really, really don't get it. And I really don't think the game is funny anymore. It just creates more tension and misunderstanding. Our politicians eat it up, too. Seriously, if it provides fodder for politicians, shouldn't people with brains avoid it at all costs?

So what can we do to counteract these idiots? I don't think a hug-a-thon would go over too well. But holding doors open, being nice to the cashier at the store, making an added effort to be friendly to a colleague you don't know well... it helps.

Or be just as much of a jerk to the people of your own race. As my brother said once so eloquently, "I'm not racist. I hate everyone equally." Words of wisdom to live by, bro.