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Thursday, October 06, 2005

What's your "Crash" moment?

Oprah's show today featured the cast from this summer's hit, Crash, which (I've read, but have not yet seen) presented an honest, discomforting look at how racism affects people from different walks of life. It seems more than coincidental that Oprah should feature a show on the subject given her own "Crash moment" with Hermes. The movie is now on DVD, and Oprah is imploring everyone that it is a must-see.

I don't really need to see the movie to know that I've had a few "crash" moments of my own. Well, not exactly crashes; more like fender benders. Like the time I was in law school looking through the aisles for a statute source and another student just assumed by looking at me that I worked there. Or the time when a "helpful" sales lady waylaid me to determine that I was indeed buying something. I noted later that she wasn't nearly as helpful with the other, whiter clientele. I didn't feel so much privileged as profiled. Also, there was the time I was taken for a saleslady in Lord & Taylor's even though I was trying on a blazer and wore no employee ID.

The first time I was ever called nigger was at an all-white Christian camp when I was about ten or eleven. I was the only black among both the kids and counselors. A "crash" moment to be sure, yet it really didn't affect me at the time because even though I knew the word was mean, I didn't understand just how venomous it was supposed to be. I noted that the kid who called me that didn't have any problem with me until parents day when the so-called Christian parents came to visit. Which is one of the reasons why the designation of "Christian" means little to me today.

But just as I deal with the racism that comes from without, I also have to deal with that which is within. Often than not, if I don't check myself, something - call it karma - nudges me. I recall an incident nearly twenty years ago. While watching a PBS show on lynching, I remember my boiling point rising as I mentally branded all whites as killers and determined to have as little to do with them as possible. Near the end of the program, the doorbell rang and my mother asked me to get it. I found my cousin-in-law standing there, dropping something off for my mother. My white cousin-in-law. One of the sweetest people you could ever meet. At that moment, I realized my mistake in branding a whole race because of the ignorance and hatred of a few. And I felt ashamed for my earlier hatred...because it had been hatred that I felt. Another "crash" moment, because it works both ways. (By the way, my cousin and her husband are still happily married with two grown daughters.)

I visited Oprah's website and took the featured poll, "Are You a Racist"? I fared well, I think, only because I knew that the questions were based on stereotypes and I gave politically correct answers. One of the questions was: "Have you ever crossed the street to avoid a black man for safety reasons?"

I can honestly say that I've never crossed the street to avoid a black man. If I've ever felt threatened, I've lifted my head higher and put on my "I dare you" look. Yet, I was mugged at gunpoint by a black man ten years ago come November. The day after, I gave evil looks to nearly every black man whom I thought looked like a thug. I stared down one brother so long, I could tell I gave him the willies as he peered back at me nervously (probably wondering whether I was going to do him harm).

Even though I've never crossed the street to avoid a black male, I wouldn't immediately label someone who did a racist (even though the racism expert on Oprah stated that an affirmative to this question pegs the person as racist). The issue is: when is it racism and when is it caution? Is there some truth to stereotypes? Yes, some black males are criminals, but not all. And since most young people think it's stylish to dress like thugs these days, how am I to know the difference between a thug and a wannabe? The dilemma: I could err on the side of caution and risk insulting an innocent person. Yet, the opposite might put me in harm's way. So, in the end, there's no easy answer.

Which shows it's easy to analyze "crash" moments in hindsight or hypothesize in the safety of an office. Yet, in reality, often you don't see them coming until it's too late.

Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 10/06/2005 06:44:00 PM Permanent Link     | | Home


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