The dark hand of racism

I’M SITTING IN a coffee shop, alone, at a table for four. Normally I take a smaller table but this is the only one unoccupied. I see a grandmother and her grandson, about four years old, come to a nearby two-person table that has just become available. They are carrying their drinks and grilled-cheese sandwiches. The grandmother is looking around with a pained look on her face and, after a while, asks if she can have one of the chairs at my table. I realize that her party is larger than just the two of them so I ask her if she’d like to switch tables.
 
She is grateful, very grateful, and tells her grandson that the nice gentleman has offered to switch tables and isn’t that nice, and so we begin the big switch. As this is going on, the woman’s daughter or daugher-in-law arrives carrying her sandwich and drink. The older woman tells her that I offered to trade tables. The younger woman says nothing, and instead begins to move my stuff out of the way so she can make room for her food and stuff. Because I was trying to hurry, I leave the black plastic coffee cup lid behind. She picks it up and unceremoniously drops it on my table.
 
I look up in disbelief and see a face that shouts out, “I’m entitled! Get over it!”
 
It’s a face I’ve seen many, many times in my life, and almost all of them have been white faces.
 
I’m entitled to hog this sidewalk or this hallway, and it’s your duty to move out of the way.
 
I’m entitled to get on that elevator and it’s your duty to hold the door open for me.
 
I’m entitled to get in front of you in this heavy traffic and it’s your duty to make room for me.
 
I’m entitled to walk through this doorway and it’s your duty to hold it open.
 
I’m entitled to have this last grocery cart and it’s your duty to wait for another one to come along.
 
I’m entitled to be waited on next at this coffee shop and it’s your duty to be patient while I get my coffee.
 
I’m entitled! I’m entitled! I’m entitled!
 
Several years ago I decided that I’d had enough and I forced myself to not hold doors open for white people even though not doing so went against all that my parents and my grandparents had taught me.
 
I decided that if I was walking down a hallway or a sidewalk and a white person came straight at me, I would hold my ground and force that person to detour around me.
 
I decided that if a white person near me accidentally dropped something, I would keep on walking and not pick it up for him or her.
 
I decided to not do all those nice things I had been doing for people because that is what good people do for others. I didn’t like it and I felt bad but eventually I began to get over it.
 
Sometimes I fail and forget my resolve, as I did today, and I do the right thing, only to get that putrid air of entitlement blown into my face.
 
I realize that a good percentage of the white people who read this won’t understand and might even be offended. I fully expect them to give me examples of how they have been treated similarly by Mexicans or blacks or other minorities. I will accept those examples and believe them because I know there are a lot of very angry/frustrated/fed up/etc. Mexicans/Blacks/Asians/Native American/etc. out there. They have had it with those airs of entitlement and have decided to fight back. Screw manners. Screw kindness. Screw love they neighbor. Screw turn the other cheek.
 
I also expect that some white readers will give me examples of how they too have had to move aside to accommodate other white people’s sense of entitlement. It’s not a race thing, they will assure me. That woman who wanted my table might have treated a white person exactly the same way, they will say.
 
Maybe. But when you grow up in a deeply racist society in deeply racist times when it seemed that the whole world conspired to make you believe that white people were indeed entitled to have what they wanted, when they wanted it, and it was up to you to step aside to let them have it, it’s very difficult to believe otherwise.
 
It’s very difficult not to rant.
 
I don’t expect you to understand. If you didn’t find yourself nodding in understanding when President Obama talked about walking into an elevator and seeing white women clutching their purses, you probably won’t understand what I’m talking about here. That’s OK.
 
I have been very fortunate in that I have many, many white friends and I have known many, many white people who have treated me with dignity and respect and have not let the color of my skin influence them. I appreciate them very, very much. It is because of them that I was able to temper much of the race-related anger and resentment I grew up with. But every once in a while something like this happens and a dark hand reaches down deep inside me and pulls at those painful, humiliating memories, making me want to scream. 
 

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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5 Responses to The dark hand of racism

  1. suzanne says:

    I hate the word entitled; I hate what it means.

  2. Chris in California says:

    OK, white woman weighing in on all matters Juan ticked off, so I won’t repeat. Knowing the author myself, I am shocked that he doesn’t hold doors or move out of the sidewalk or pick something up. It just doesn’t fit with his character, to me. That said, I can understand it. And I do identify with Obama’s anecdote about the elevator, and I’ve worked hard all my life to move closer to black men in elevators and elsewhere, purse swinging, or if there is more than one person on the street and I need directions, I’ll always ask the black guy. (Or woman.) One pet peeve in my life is that it seems when a white person is praising a black person, they often use the word “articulate.” I have never heard a white person describe another white person as “articulate.” God, does that bug me.

    But I also have to push the button that Juan offered to say that, in Oakland, Callifornia, something that does bother me is the way some people do two things: Cross streets, and park. When using a cross-walk (here in Northern Callifornia just about everyone stops on a dime when a person enters a cross-walk, except in San Francisco, where they accelerate) he or she will saunter as slowly as possible to maximize his or her crossing, causing drivers to wait for as long as possible. I’m not expecting them to run, but I’m not expecting them to go so slowly you think they might fall over at any second, then stop to check their watch in the meantime One day my windows were down and I actually heard a mother (or grandmother) scold her young son (so cute) who was jumping/skipping across to the other side. “Slow down!” she yelled. “You gotta learn to make these people WAIT!” I asked my passengers if they had ever seen a white person intentionally cross slowly. You can guess what they said. The other thing is parking. Things are tight in Oakland. So it drives me nuts when you get into a narrow parking lot, where you can’t go around another car, and land behind someone who will block a hole line of cars because he or she sees someone who might be heading to a car or about to get in a car to unload, get in, back up, so the person who is holding up the traffic can get that particular spot, when there are plenty of spots farther back. Grrr.

    I think both are examples of entitlement. Then one day, while waiting for a young man to take as much time as possible to cross, and who was seeming to revel in his contemplative stroll, I asked my companion why they did that. “That’s the only power he has, Chris,” was his reply. Oh.

    Oh.

    Now I get it. And now I spend my time waiting in those crosswalks to try and figure out how to help equalize the power shift, how to get white women not to clutch their purses tight in an elevator, how I might be some small cog in a big machine somewhere that would someday help that guy *want* to cross at a normal pace, to have (admittedly, to my white eyes) a normal life.

    So, Juan, I hope you will reconsider, and do as your parents and grandparents taught you. Open doors. Be polite. Wait patiently. Do the right thing. If you don’t, we’re all going to stagnate, at best, or go backward, at worst. You are such a wonderful person, a great artist, a great writer, with a great big heart. And you’re even pretty articulate. 🙂

  3. Sometimes, I feel the same way, but then I remember that I may help change the attitude of a white person, by doing those little things – holding the door, the elevator, etc.

  4. juanzqui7 says:

    Thanks, Chris. For the complements and for adding to the debate. The street crossing thing is very interesting and, like you, I can understand, even if it would irk me to no end. I share your distaste for the overuse of the adjective “articulate” when referring to African Americans. It also irks me when I hear someone tell a story and they speak of “this gentleman,” and not this guy or t his old man or this person. Nine times out of 10, they are talking about a black man, usually an older one. I have no idea why that is the case and I have no idea why it bothers me.

    • Chris in California says:

      DARN you are absolutely right about “this gentleman.” Now it’s going to bug the hell out of me, too. Thanks a lot….
      I try to make a point, too, when someone asks me to describe someone (like a manager asking who told me some information, or a government official asking who took my application, etc.) to say first, “well, the guy was white, with red curly hair…” because I hate it when someone uses “black” or “Hispanic” as the first clue to a person’s identity.
      Anyway, great to hear from you, and it’s wonderful being able to read you again.

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