Wednesday, August 02, 2006

a racial incident

Before I even get to the bus stop, I see the angry drunk woman in the street, staggering around, muttering to herself. Late 30's, maybe early 40's, stringy dishwater hair, white tank top. I immediately think "trailer trash" and try to ignore her. I don't know anyone's name here, so let's call her "Crystal".

There's a black couple at the crosswalk, waiting for the light. Crystal sees them, staggers over, and says something I can't hear. She repeats it a couple of times, and I still can't hear the words, but by the outraged reaction she's getting it isn't anything good.

The black woman angrily tells Crystal to never call her the n-word again, or else, while the man swings his arm around theatrically and dares her to say the word again. There's a bit of milling around as Crystal puts some space between herself and the couple, and keeps taunting them.

There are maybe 5-10 other people waiting for the bus here, including me. Everyone averts their eyes. Nobody says a word. The guy's pretty angry at this point and says something about us all being a bunch of slaveowners. Actually we're just Portlanders, and we don't want to get involved. I'm certain that if everyone involved was white, or black, or green, we'd react the same way. Have a loud argument in public about anything and we edge away nervously, just in case it gets ugly. We just don't want to get involved. With anyone, for any reason. Period.

Just then, the bus arrives, and I scurry to get on board, and I'm not alone. Crystal makes a break for the bus, but the woman intercepts her and slugs her in the face. By the time she gets on board, Crystal has a split lip that's bleeding all over the place. The bus driver hassles her until she takes a paper towel to stop the bleeding. He doesn't radio it in, which surprises me. I don't think he wants to get involved either. More than once he suggests she might want to get off the bus so she doesn't bleed all over everything.

Crystal sits up near the driver, and she's near tears, whining about how the [epithet] hit her in the face. I can't help but wonder what she thought was going to happen when she decided to use that kind of language. Was she expecting flowers? She tries to plead her case with the driver, one point admitting she started it, saying she called them the n-word because that's what they are. We all scoot back a few seats, because we're Portlanders, and we really, really don't want to get involved in this. We totally disapprove, of course, we just want to avoid personal involvement, inconvenience, danger, crazy wingnuts spewing scary bodily fluids, and so forth.

About ten blocks down the street Crystal decides to get off and transfer to another bus. Before we pull away, we see her standing on the sidewalk, nursing her lip. Just then, a bike flashes by on the sidewalk. I don't get a good look, since the rider was going really fast, but I could tell that he or she had a distinctly dark complexion. Crystal notices too, and hollers something at the receding rider, who is probably already out of earshot. She notices a bearded hipster guy at the bus stop visibly cringing as she keeps shouting at the cyclist. Which suggests that she's not angry about the whole riding-on-the-sidewalk thing. As the bus pulls away, Crystal is staggering over to hipster guy, wanting to have a chat about something or other.

Later on I think of a few choice lines I could have said to Crystal if we were in some other city where people speak up, and I was quicker on the draw. Something along the lines of "Go back to Idaho, you fat Nazi bitch", a line which is absolutely full of stereotypes of its own, but hey. I don't want to fight, I'm not a fighter by nature, but if I have to, I don't fight fair, or so I keep telling myself. Somehow that policy never actually gets tested in real life. Which is fine by me, really. I also consider tossing in an Ann Coulter reference, something like "I didn't know she was in town", but I expect that would've been way over Crystal's head, and most of the bystanders wouldn't have gotten it either. Which is a real shame.

We could speculate about what would cause someone to wander around town, drunk out of her mind, screaming at people. What's the underlying cause of her unhappiness? What's she really reacting to? There may be a really sad story behind all this. I just can't bring myself to take an interest, though. Maybe it's unkind and unfair that I won't offer a drop of sympathy to people who say stupid bigoted crap when they're drunk, but there you have it.

Before I get home, I've already decided to blog about the incident. It won't make the evening news, and there may not even be a police report about all of this, but I saw what I saw, and I want there to be a record of it. Bigotry still exists, right now in the 21st century, right here in the heart of ultra-PC hippie granolaville. We'd like to think it doesn't happen here, but it does. I think it's telling that all of those insults I belatedly thought up were variations on "leave here and go back where you belong", implying she can't possibly be from here. And if she is from here, she's got to be from the wrong side of 82nd, and from the wrong social class, one of those people we all knew were beneath contempt even before today's incident.

As you might have heard, Portland is the whitest, least ethnically diverse major city in the country. The city's black community is tiny compared to most cities, and getting whiter every day, as less affluent people of all colors are rapidly being pushed out to the bad parts of the 'burbs (Rockwood, Aloha, etc.) by the city's galloping gentrification. There aren't any black neighborhoods anywhere near downtown, and there seems to be a prevalent notion that anyone who looks "ghetto" has no business on this side of the river. This is not strictly a racial thing. If you're dressed well, nobody will bat an eye no matter what you look like. But walk down the street in the latest BET fashions, and conventional wisdom says you're here to buy or sell drugs. Stagger down the street with stringy dishwater hair and a white tank top, spewing the n-word, and people won't think you belong downtown either. Some people will even name you "Crystal", a name which has distinctly poor-white-trash connotations in this part of the world. I think it's fair to say that hardcore racial or religious bigots are a small minority here, but as for the city as a whole, it's prejudiced against poor people, all poor people, of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

I'm absolutely not immune to that tendency. When I see a bunch of guys lounging around on the bus mall with baggy pants, baseball caps at weird angles, talking loudly, hip-hop blaring, not waiting for a bus, I inevitably draw certain stereotypical conclusions. When I see a huge dirty pickup truck with a Bush-Cheney sticker and a Jesus fish on the back driving around downtown, I also draw certain stereotypical conclusions. When I see an elderly homeless guy passed out on a park bench with a brown paper bag, yes, I draw certain stereotypical conclusions. When I see bands of street kids with their pit bulls blocking the sidewalk and begging for spare change, I draw all sorts of negative conclusions. In all these cases, I admit I find myself wishing deep down that they weren't here and I didn't have to look at them. On the other hand, if everyone needed the permission and approval of middle-class professional white guys just in order to exist and go where they pleased, this would be a terrible world indeed.

I don't want this to sound like a grade-school lecture here. The human brain is probably wired up to look at unfamiliar people, categorize them quickly, and draw conclusions about them, and sometimes those conclusions are going to be negative. It's probably been that way since we all lived in caves and swung around on vines, and members of other tribes were a constant mortal danger. All you can really do, all anyone can do, is recognize your own stereotypes, understand them, accept the fact that you have them, and try to get past them and do the right thing anyway. Or at least not do the wrong thing. At least think things through a little and not act on your base impulses and let them rule you. At least have the sense and decency not to act on those impulses, at least know when to bite your tongue and STFU already, even if you really do sincerely believe those crazy notions of yours with all your heart. Just shut up, already, it's easier than you think.

What I'm concerned with is how to have a reasonably humane society without insisting that everyone be perfect angels and go around thinking only good happy, societally-approved thoughts all the time. That Utopia will never arrive. As my wife always says, the mind is free. Uncontrollable, and free to think anything, at any time, and not have to answer to anyone for it, no matter how socially unacceptable, no matter how deeply irresponsible it might be. As a society we encourage people to "let it all hang out", and encourage people to say and act on any old notions they might have, in a misguided quest for honesty. This can only work if you then try to police people's thoughts and weed out antisocial ideas. You end up with a PC version of the old religious idea that thinking sinful thoughts is exactly as bad as going out and actually committing the sin. This is unreasonable, and unworkable. Crystal, above, tried to justify her verbal assault by saying "because that's what they are", in other words it was ok for her to say those things because they corresponded directly with her personal opinion, so she was just being honest.

Impulse control is one of the very few things that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Call it "being repressed" if you like, complain we already have too much of this if you want to, but I call it freedom, the inner freedom to think whatever you like without being afraid or ashamed of it or being obligated to act on those thoughts; and the inner freedom to choose exactly what you want the outside world to see, or not see. So you see, it really is OK to just shut up already, and not breathe another word about your nutty ideas. I'm not going to tell you what to think, and nobody should ever try. But just for chrissakes shut up about it already, dammit.

1 comment :

.sg said...

good story with interesting details.
i could see it all happening...

in almost any town.

i came to your site as i was researching one of the domains that kept spamming my blog.

funny how it all works, you know?