With my book hitting bookstores last week, I have started to get stories from readers about their own experiences shimmying through the subtler minefields of contemporary American racial politics, especially during everyday social interactions. Since I’ve been receiving these first-person accounts, I’ve decided to start a new feature on the blog—Racism? You Make the Call!
I’ll relay people’s tales (mine included) about negotiating these subtler forms of potential racism in contemporary America and allow other readers to weigh-in (if they'd like) on how they’d interpret the experiences depicted. The question is always the same, a version of what the Lebron James cover evokes: Are blacks being too sensitive, or are whites not being sensitive enough?
THE FIRST ENTRY:
I’m two miles through my usual three-mile treadmill jog at a posh gym in downtown Philadelphia when I spot one of the gym’s ‘fitness experts’, a red-headed twenty-something woman, handing clean towels out to every single runner on every single occupied treadmill in the entire aerobics area—everyone, that is, except for me. At the time, I happened to be the only Black runner in the bunch (even though the club has a racially diverse clientele), but I still didn’t automatically jump to thoughts of racism. At first, I was just confused. Did she somehow not see me when she walked right by—two feet from my machine? The more I thought about it, the more I got suspicious. I only spent a nanosecond at annoyed before finally getting downright angry, taking it all out on the treadmill and on my aching body, just about sprinting my final quarter mile.
As I ran, I desperately tried to come up with alternative explanations for the slight. Maybe she heard that Black folks were particularly fond of sweat and so didn’t want to be culturally insensitive by pressuring me into dryness. Or she could have imagined that I’d take it as some kind of racial insult: “What, you trying to say that I stink because I’m black?” Or did she think that I might read her helpfulness as flirtation and try to pick her up? So, she doesn’t date black guys, hunh?
But none of that really made sense to me. Clearly, I couldn’t really call it old-fashioned racism, and it wasn’t. I mean, they did let me purchase my gazillion dollar membership to the club in the first place. I could use any machine I wanted any time I wanted. The redhead and I sipped water from gym-supplied cone-shaped paper cups at the very same water fountain. That is the stuff of traditional racism. So, to make sense of what I thought had just happened, I started to think more creatively about things, very creatively: maybe she assumed that the whiteness of the towel would freak me out—that I’d think she was giving me some kind of subtle KKK reference. White towels…white sheets?
Or, instead of feeling like she didn’t want to give a black person a towel, maybe she was just intimidated. Afraid. She could have smilingly handed me one of those towels, only to have me scream obscenities at her for interrupting my running rhythm, part of the national imperative to fear black men and their penchant for violence.
When I exited the club that day, about 45 minutes later, the towel oversight was still bothering me. I looked all over the gym for that redhead before I left, just to let her know that in the future whenever I’m running on a treadmill on her watch, it was truly okay for her to give me a towel, especially if she’s readily dispensing them to everybody else in the joint.
Waiting for the elevator to the parking garage, I’m still trying to make sense of things, and maybe my puzzled look translates into an unapproachable snarl, because the three other gym patrons who happen to be departing when I do, all white, choose to take a different elevator from the one I get on, even though both elevators arrive at the same time and one of the guys, a blonde thirty-something man who didn’t seem to know the other two at all, is much closer to the elevator I chose than to the one he decided to enter.
So my entire empty elevator ride down, I’m trying to figure out why they all piled themselves into a single elevator when at least one of them could have had a much less cramped ride with me.