I had occasion recently to return to a city in which I had lived for a year, and subsequently had not visited in five years. The city had grown exponentially, so there was just enough of a mix of familiar and unfamiliar to make me doubt the directions my GPS direction provider, Waze, was giving me. You can’t rely 100% on Waze, or you’ll sometimes find yourself turning down a one way street into oncoming traffic. Hopefully lost, I did something which in retrospect I would not have, had I not lived in a village for the last five years. A couple was standing on the side of the road looking to hitch a ride, and I reasoned that I could help them get them where they were going, and they could probably give me directions.
Things immediately went differently than I had planned. The couple had rudimentary English, and I need some work on my Russian. Additionally, they had no clue of the neighborhood that I was trying to reach. At least, I knew where they were headed, so I began driving as they tried to make conversation. Eventually, I realized they were asking me where I was from. Before I could formulate a response, the woman made a guess. “South Africa?”
That was a new one. I had thought that my American-ness oozed through my pores like sweat. Most strangers that I came across have assumed this even prior to hearing me speak. I took a moment to consider why that was her guess. I’m Black and speak English. In Russia, maybe they only know about Black people in Africa? And the only Blacks in Africa with, if I may be so bold, perfect English are from South Africa? OK. I guess I can understand that. But why had that suggestion made me so uncomfortable. After a minute, I came up with the answer. In my head, I have preconceptions about how Blacks from South Africa should sound and behave, and I was unhappy that someone might have viewed me that way.
Politically correct? No way. I admit that I am not immune to stereotypes regarding people of all different backgrounds. I sometimes subconsciously clutch my purse a little tighter when I see a dark face I don’t know while I’m near the bus station. But since I am aware of this, I try to compensate by looking people in the eye and giving a smile. It’s not stupid to be aware of your surroundings in order to avoid the rare instances of crime, but it is a waste of both time and opportunity to give yourself over to fear which is almost entirely based on cultural biases.
I also try to point out when I see others making the mistake of substituting race for circumstance, in either a positive or negative capacity. For example, much of the difference in scholastic performance between Black children and White children is due to demographics and not genetics. And the circumstances that have led to high number of single parent families and teen pregnancies in the Black community in America are rooted in slavery and its aftermath. Those living in sub-Saharan Africa face many of the same issues, due to the pillaging of local resources by Europeans, in terms of both people and capital. There are still problems that are inherent to being Black in ways that cannot be experienced by someone who is not part of this group. Conversely, things like high athletic achievements are, for the most part, related to a lack of alternatives, rather than to innate skill. If you give a kid nothing but a basketball and an empty lot, he might get pretty good at playing hoops.
Generally speaking, I get the most buy-in regarding avoiding pigeonholing from those who are more liberal. I have it on good authority that liberals hate to hear about inequality, and tend to avoid labels like “Blacks act like this” or “Jews believe that”. One of the more liberal causes that I follow, if not exactly completely support, is the Women of the Wall, an organization dedicated to allowing non-traditional prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Last night, I had another one of my “Ask a Black Friend” sessions, all because of a blog post by Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman, one of the original founders of the group.
In her post, she likens women who seek to pray while wearing traditional men’s garments, or who wish to read from a Torah scroll, to the Civil Rights protestors who sat at segregated lunch counters throughout America in the 1950s and 1960s. I can appreciate the sentiment. While I myself do not participate in prayer services of this type, I do feel that having the government determine which type of service is acceptable, and which is not, is detrimental to the spirit of democracy. The problem with the blog post lies, rather, in the wording she chose for the conversations in which she imagined the lunch counter workers to be engaged.
The two egregious examples are as follows:
Four black students heading toward the lunch counter overhear the talk. They approach Hal and Joe —
“Lord o Lord, we diddin know we done offend you so awful bad.”
“Y’all dead right on. We ain’t bein right comin in y’alls places an doing thins like you – eatin n’drinkin, readin, prayin, swimmin, peein.”
“Wese really sorry we done hurt y’alls feelins, yeah. Wees gonna pack it all up and move directly on over to our rightful places. Thas where wees really belongin.”
Hey Joe, Hal, we done changed arr minds. Wees gonna sit usselves down right here, an have usselves the sanwich we deserve. Wees hungry.”
Really? Really?! Does Dr. Haberman truly believe that’s representative of how the Civil Rights protestors spoke?! Most of those who were sufficiently politically aware to participate in frontline activities were part of the Black middle and upper middle classes, and were well educated. So, that she would picture this kind of vernacular is both frustrating and offensive. The official leadership of Women of the Wall quickly made a comment on the post advising that the opinions of Dr. Haberman were not shared by the organization. And you would have had to be tone deaf not to see that coming. From now on, Dr. Haberman, make sure to have someone read your posts before you hit that publish key.
But there is a way to pull something positive out of an unfortunate mistake. Dr. Haberman represents the liberal intelligentsia, and even she seems to feel deep down, that Black leadership is likely to be pretty close to illiterate. This could be a good moment to invent your own imaginary dialog between two Black people. What are we saying? Are we talking about the stock market, or the best way to plant organic vegetables? Or can you only imagine us talking about baby daddies and welfare checks? Take some time to review your preconceptions. I’ll wait. I mean, I’m just here watchin’ my shows, anyway, and I’ve got some down time until the first of the month.