A couple of days ago, as I was on my way to the polls to vote in our city’s primary elections, something interesting happened to me. Sort of a social experiment, if you will. This experiment – not even lasting a full five minutes – offered about as much exploration into race relations as any college course ever could.
As I was leaving my polling place, I was confronted by a young white woman in tears. I don’t know exactly why she choose that particular spot, an old elementary school doubling up as a polling location, as her place of choice for reaching out to people. While it’s true that I live in a pretty decent area (as decent as can be found in a place like Flint, Michigan anyway), it’s still not a place I’d imagine myself approaching random people. But, I digress. Appearance-wise, the woman seemed relatively together as far as I could tell. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say she was in her mid to late 20’s. She was attractive. She was wearing a Nike hoodie and track pants, had her hair neatly pulled back in a ponytail, and was wearing a hint of conservatively applied makeup. Minus the cigarette she was puffing (Smokers annoy me. Sorry, not sorry.) she appeared innocent enough. She proceeded in giving me a sob story about how she ran out of gas up the road, how her cell phone died, and how she didn’t have any money. She then asked to use my phone to make a call and for any change I could spare. Without hesitation, I allowed her to use my phone and gave her the $4 I had on me (I know, I know. Big spender, right?). Afterwards, she thanked me and started on — what I can only assume was — the trek back to her vehicle. After the encounter, I stuck my chest out in a self-congratulatory manner; praising myself for doing what I considered my good deed for the day.
In a world without race, that would have been the end of it.
But upon further reflection, I thought about how that brief, five-minute encountered had racial signatures written all over it.
(1) The most obvious thing to note was my own racially-motivated assumptions and behaviors. What if a young black man approached me with the exact same demeanor, telling the exact same story? I’d like to think I would have approached the situation the same. But I honestly can’t tell. Disparate treatment based on race isn’t the sole province of our white brothers and sisters. Sometimes, black folks are prejudiced against other black folks.
(2) If the tables were turned (I was the one in need and she was the one being approached) I’m not so sure the outcome would have still been the same. A black man in a hoodie approaching a white woman alone in an empty Flint parking lot asking for money and the use of her cellphone? Imagine how well that would go over.
(3) Obviously, her need to get a little help superseded the fact that she was approaching a black man; which should usually be the case when a person finds themselves in dire straits. But it did make me wonder how often we (black folks, black men especially) opt out of doing things like that for our own personal reasons like how we may look or how we may be treated. Meanwhile, this young, attractive, white woman had no problem at all approaching me, making it clear what she needed. Was she a beneficiary of a presumption of innocence, privilege is maybe the better term, which allowed her to approach me without coming across as a threat? Did her appearance provide me the assurance that she was sincerely in need and not just trying to pull a fast one on me? Would those same elements be in play if the roles were reversed?
(4) During the whole exchange, I tried to keep some space between us. As much as possible, I avoided too much conversation with her, stepped a distance away to allow her to attend to her affairs, and tried not to say anything that could be misinterpreted as an advance. I did so for obvious reasons, namely because I’m married with a family and wouldn’t be all that interested in her even if I wasn’t. But less obviously (more viscerally, perhaps), I convinced myself to be on guard, even as I was the one being helpful. If – heaven forbid – a police officer drove by and saw a black man alone with a visibly upset pretty white woman, could the cop have assumed something? Even though I was on my way from voting and headed to work and she was the one who came up to me, could I have been considered a threat from his distant view? Clearly, I’m not Emmett Till, and this isn’t the deep south. But still: in many circles, perception can become reality.
Maybe this whole thing can be chalked up to racially-fueled paranoia. Maybe I’m just imagining the worst-case scenario when, in reality, the entire situation was much ado about nothing. Maybe my caution was heightened in light of all the police brutality of late towards people of color, followed by their subsequent social crucifixion. I’m not sure. All I know is that being black in America carries weight I wouldn’t wish on anybody. In this particular situation, a person trying to do the right thing was still faced with a fear of the unknown.
Imaginary or not, this is our America.