And a covert racist.
This was my takeaway from a conversation the other day.
Then again, thanks to the transitive property, so was Rodney King.
Even worse, “Why can’t we all just get along?” wasn’t even my starting or main point.
This was all happening during a Lyft ride, too, so I’d inadvertently wandered into quite a minefield. I picked up this person at home and started chatting away by checking her destination: a coffee shop. I asked if she was going for leisure or work – a question I was actually invested in since she lives half a block from one of the best coffee houses in Portland but was going across the river for her joe.
It was work, a meeting. When I asked what kind of work she did, she simply replied that she worked for a non-profit.
Sidebar: my observation is that people who work for non-profits are the least likely to give you a descriptive account of their work. It’s curious.
She was actually my second non-profit rider that morning. In my head I made a joke about all non-profit people knowing each other. In real life, I joked by announcing that I am also a non-profit organization.
That actually drew her out a little and she volunteered that she worked for an organization that promoted racial equity. And I know that I just paraphrased that wrong, but I’m already allegedly going to hell so I don’t care.
But we’d just added Portland’s #1 Boogeyman to our chat: Gentrification.
Take a moment and shudder. God knows I should have. But no…me? I wade right in.
We chat vaguely and amiably about plight. Since it’s got a friendly vibe, I tell her about my old neighbor in NoPo. You can click the link to get the full gist, but long-and-short: he was the last black man on the historically black block I bought my first house on.
When I finished telling the story of my frustration that he wouldn’t budge on his anger, I realized her silence was drawing out and glanced in the rear view mirror.
She was smirking at me like I was some preciously idiotic child.
“Ok, let me have it”, I chuckled. She seemed to get that I know I don’t know anything but grasp the notion that I don’t know what I don’t know.
She wasn’t forgiving me for not knowing. But with her smirk, she was at least seemingly acknowledging that I wasn’t coming from a place of ill will. So, I’m not a horrible person, I’m just horrible at being a person, I guess.
We then had a pretty interesting conversation about understanding. Let me tell you, it had layers. Like, layers that I am only vaguely aware of and layers that I’m only guessing must have been there.
But my big takeaway from this moment was a reminder that in order to understand, you have to set your own situation aside. One of my old co-workers used to tell me to get out of my own way, which seems like a pretty good way to put it in this case. The Angriest Man In NoPo didn’t care whether I was trying to be nice or build friendship bridges. I was a symbol of a perceived wrong. I chose to be offended that he didn’t even bother to ignore my neighborly overtures. Ignoring them would have acknowledged them and he didn’t even deign to give me as an individual or my hapless acts that much recognition.
Like I said, the conversation was a good reminder about the first step in understanding. I told my passenger that I was glad I’d had the chance to meet her, and I meant it. The look she gave me could have been the very same she’d give me if I told her I planned to BBQ inside because it looked like rain.
Still, as I drove away I indulged in a little future-play fantasy. Recently, I heard a statistic that I can’t quite recall, something like by the year 2025, 50% of all babies born will be of two or more races. You know that statistic isn’t moving backward. When will we become so blended that racism becomes a ridiculous thing of the past? I imagine that when we finally count the majority of our population as multi-racial, my old neighbor’s obstinance will look anachronistic.
Sadly, I doubt we’ll be able to look back from that vantage point and see the point in our history where minority people like my neighbor were satisfied that the situation had been rectified. While today, they force the racial majority to broaden their view of a situation, I worry that some will never put away their hurt, just like many older generations of white people never put away their racism.
Looking back at my neighbor, as far as I know, he died with his anger still in full disdainful glare mode and in the middle of his struggle to be seen. Just as I’ve wished racism could die with the older generations that can’t set it aside without infecting younger generations, I hope someday that people who are symbols of yesterday’s and today’s racial injustice can take their anger to the grave and let us call history, history.
That’s not 100% true. I hope that we can get to a point as a blended racial culture where we can talk to people who hold so fiercely to that tether to the past and help them accept that that future’s reality has changed enough that it’s safe to rejoin the present instead of persisting in the past.
I’m sure I’ve said all of this wrong. But maybe you can understand the spirit of what my meager words cannot express.
And let’s all just try and get along, please?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to buy a BBQ, even though it looks like rain…