When I was growing up in Wisconsin, my family lived in largely “white” neighborhoods that my parents felt comfortable in. They were, after all, born and raised in the western, “butternut” part of Pennsylvania, the social attitudes of which the late Rep. John Murtha once described in somewhat disparaging terms that some took self-righteous offense to—and where Hillary Clinton thought making a “real Americans” crack would “appeal” to that constituency. The Catholic school I spent most of my pre-high school year was also all-white,” at least in my eyes. It took me a long time to realize that I was “different” from other people by “appearance.”
I didn’t really have any negative interaction with strangers I met—which wasn’t difficult, since I pretty much kept to myself; there was little opportunity for other people, regardless of race, to do anything that would allow me to form stereotypical ideas about them. Of course, that doesn’t mean to say that people who encountered didn’t have stereotypical ideas about me. Things did change when I enlisted in the Army, I was forced to interact with a lot of people at close quarters; my previous tendency to look at people as if they were all “the same” took a great deal of hard lumps, especially when some people took my natural tendency of standoffishness as “personal.”
Looking back, during my youth I think that some people were “friendly” but not friends because of their attitudes about what they—but not me—saw. My “culture” and thought patterns were the same as theirs, but I was still “different.” The attitudes I might encounter ranged from “empathy” for my “condition” to “concern” about slipping into supposed genetically-ingrained anti-social—i.e. “criminal—behavior. Once one becomes an adult, this “empathy” and “concern” usually turns into things like paranoia, fear, prejudice and even “hate.”
Not that this attitude is always equally defined. I recently found myself in a Kent Safeway store on Mercer and Washington Street. I usually dislike going there because I always get the feeling that I am being “spied” on because I look “ethnic.” On this occasion, no more than 30 seconds after my arrival someone over the intercom stated “Security—Skittles Zone.” One thing I noticed was that there were a number of black employees roaming about—apparently Safeway had a new hiring policy, or at least this store did—that it was going to be “different” and become a model of “diversity.” Of course, I didn’t see any Latinos in the place, although there used to be one or two in the deli department years ago.
After I picked up the items I wanted, I proceeded to pay for them using a self-serve check-out machine. While I was scanning the items and placing them in a bag, one of the employees pretended to be checking on something that was allegedly “malfunctioning” which I did not discern myself. Instead of waiting until I was finished, she rudely shifted my bag so that it would open wider so she none too subtly peer inside it. I gave her a “do you mind?” look, and she sort of shifted away, but she wouldn’t leave until I was finished. At least the machine was more polite than anyone human in the place.
What was going on here? I have been in store plenty of times before, and no one could claim that I had ever stolen anything. What was this “Skittles Zone” business when I first walked in? Was this a code word for “Hispanic”? I’m sure someone would have called it “racist” if it was a term was intended to denote a black person, and it was obvious that the term was concocted by someone who wanted to a make a political “point.” I’m not ignorant about the world I live. Nor am I a thief; that was Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown (a judge recently denied a St. Louis newspaper access to Brown's juvenile criminal record--apparently extensive--claiming it was only "pertinent" if he had committed a murder). But apparently it is “OK” in this society to conceal racism, stereotypes and prejudice when cloaked behind the mendacity of “ethnicity.”
I can’t do too much about bigotry like this, but there are occasions that I can make people feel uncomfortable when they exposed in what they “see.” The morning before, I had finished my business at a self-serve Laundromat and was leaving. As I was passing a Shari’s Restaurant just across the parking lot, I noticed some tall blonde female who was about to enter the place when she appeared “uncertain,’ and then beeped her car twice, which just happened to be parked right at the front door of the restaurant. I knew that a “red flag” had been hoisted in her mind when she saw me, and it “concerned” her, even though it should have been obvious by the heavy load I was carrying and the proximity of the Laundromat that I wasn’t there to break into her car.
I wasn’t going to let her get away with this, and called out “Adolf.” Apparently she understood the reference, as I had hit some kind of nerve. The tall blonde hesitated, knowing that her prejudice and stereotyping had been exposed. Then with some amusement I observed her walk back to her car. I just stood in place watching her, and obviously in guilt and personal discomfort, she decided that she was going to get into her car and drive away, because she wanted to show me that she wasn’t prejudiced; she was just “beeped” her car and looked “concerned” because she preparing to “leave.” Or perhaps she decided she should leave now, because having just aroused the ire of a “minority,” he might actually carry out the action she feared.
I walked a few paces further so that she wouldn’t see me, but I was curious about what her next move was. I observed that the car backed up about two feet, and then reversed course and parked in position as before; she apparently assumed that I had walked on, and it was now “safe.” But I had not moved on. Having observed her pathetic action, I decided that she needed one last demonstration. When I saw her get of the car again, I moved back into her sights and assumed the “Heil Hitler” pose, which appeared to discomfort her immensely. I’m certain it wasn’t very often that she—and other allegedly “tolerant” and “unprejudiced” people like her—encountered people who employed cultural and historical references of hate to expose them. But I’ll give this person some “credit”—after all, she did display a certain degree of self-consciousness; many of the local rednecks and Nazis don’t have any self-consciousness about their bigotry.
In the end, however, this all about what people “see,” not what the “know.” As I’ve said before, you only have to be racist against one group to be a racist—even if you try to conceal it behind the hypocrisy of “ethnicity.”