Thursday, March 22, 2007

Perhaps There Was a Zesta Rep Behind Me?

For the first time in my life I was just on the receiving end of racism, at least the old-fashioned, overt hatred type.

Background info: at least twice a day, I cross 2nd St on Massachusetts Ave coming to and from school (google map). Second is four or five lanes wide there including turning lanes, and is basically a dump-off from the I-395 exit. It's always busy. As far back as I can remember, a member of the Nation of Islam has been there for most of my crossings, handing out his newsletter. I always thought of him as just very dedicated to his cause, but nothing more. I'd never seen him talk to anyone other than black people in cars before. No pedestrians. No white people.

So today on my way home I was walking north on the east side of Second Street. When the light there is red, traffic backs up all the way onto the Interstate, and you can cross before the crosswalk by walking through the stopped cars, which saves me about a minute on a ten-minute walk home. I do this regularly. So I crossed the street right by where the 395 badge is on the map, and started walking towards Mass (there is no sidewalk on that side, only grass). I'm maybe 50 feet from Mass when he literally barked at me "YOU BETTER WATCH YOUR STEP CRACKER!"

I was too taken aback to even respond. I looked around, my jaw on the floor, and then turned back around and kept walking. When I was across the bridge, I looked back again and decided that I should have said something along the lines of "excuse me?" or "what the fuck?" but it was too late. I walked home shaking the entire way. I will never forget the contempt in his voice. And I will never forget his face, nor will ever look at that intersection, or him, or sadly the Nation of Islam, the same way ever again.

I know that I'm a suburban, white, child of privilege. So I don't have a leg to stand on in these matters at all. I’m also aware that this particular injustice is about 1/6 of a drop in an ocean exponentially bigger than the Pacific. And the “cracker” slur does not even carry a fraction of the loaded connotation or hate of the N-word or anything similar. But this makes our country’s history of race relations just that much more contemptible to me (if that were even possible). I had no idea how much something that simple would sting. The wound was still raw an hour later. I did not want to eat. I couldn’t think about much else—what would have happened if I responded? Where does he get off? Why does this bother me so much?

As I write this right now, I can’t sleep. I cannot pinpoint the reason (lots has gone wrong in my life in the past ten days or so), but as I lied there staring at the ceiling, this incident replayed itself in my mind more than anything that has been bothering me recently. I have always been fine with the fact that Chris Rock can say the N-word while I can’t, but this really drives home why.

I am aware that I have led a very blessed life, and believe me when I say that I am not trying to compare what happened to me today to what happens to countless people less fortunate than myself on a daily basis. In addition to likely not having to deal with anything like that again for a while, I came home to my nice apartment building with its wireless Internet afterward. It was a one-time insult, not an institutional bias that will keep me from getting a job or a promotion, and I was not threatened with bodily harm. I was able to vent to close friends about the experience. But even with all that, it hurt. A lot. And it probably will for a bit.

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