Wednesday, July 9, 2014

White, Middle Class and Middle-Aged

Hi. My name is Chris. And by some accident of fate and genetics, I was born a white male, into a world that gives us more breaks than it gives to many others.

This week, I fell into an unusual routine, as I alluded to in my last piece. I have been riding a crowded commuter train, into Philadelphia, to teach a writing course at The University of the Arts. This means walking through stations, standing on both crowded and semi-deserted platforms, and sitting next to strangers.

Looking around me, I am realizing that being white, middle aged and middle class is a pretty helpful thing, in terms of other people's perceptions of me, in a world where perceptions are filtered through so many presuppositions. I'm safe in a way that, say, African American guys never are. Prejudice can lead to hard fate for, especially, young men of color, as Brent Staples once pointed out in his brilliant essay, "Black Men and Public Space."

If I walk onto a train platform and a white woman and I are the only two there, she will look at me and probably think: "Well, he's over forty; he is dressed okay so he has at least a job; he is carrying an academic-looking brief case and" -- sadly, this may often be true -- "he is white."

She's not likely to panic, like this young, white woman in Staples's piece:

My first victim was a woman--white, well-dressed, probably in her late twenties. I came upon her late one evening on a deserted street in Hyde Park, a relatively affluent neighborhood in an otherwise mean, impoverished section of Chicago. As I swung onto the avenue behind her, there seemed to be a discreet, uninflammatory distance between us. Not so. She cast back a worried glance. To her, the youngish black man--a broad six feet two inches with a beard and billowing hair, both hands shoved into the pockets of a bulky military jacket--seemed menacingly close. After a few more quick glimpses, she picked up her pace and was soon running in earnest. Within seconds, she disappeared into a cross street.

Staples is being sarcastic and intentionally misleading: he was a young graduate student at the time, out for a walk to clear his hear during a long study session. He later goes on to describe himself as a "softie who is scarcely able to take a knife to a raw chicken." She prejudged him, simply because of appearance...

No. in the minds of a still white-centric public, I am not a threat to those who still carry prejudice in their hearts. (Also, I radiate niceness. I dunno.)

In situations where I may be alone and looked-at by potential folks who are real threats, at six feet even, around two-hundred-forty pounds, I am also not exactly a guy who comes off as the weakest antelope in the heard. Taking me down might be more work than the average thug wants to put in. They'll move for the little guy or the old woman -- someone they can knock over in one try. 

All genetic accidents. I'm no Adonis. I'm not Jim Thorpe as an athlete. But Nature decided to make me a white male with some decent physical size and it serves me well in public encounters in strange places.

Yesterday, I heard a young black man on the train talking to his friend. He was complaining about how hard it is for him to shop for clothes. He is constantly being approached by security. He sounded like an okay guy to me. It ain't right, but, sadly, it is so. 

People who are not "minorities" or who don't look different or who don't find themselves in unfortunate economic circumstances ought to consider this once in awhile: How different would my life actually be if I were a different shade? -- if I couldn't afford decent clothes? -- if I had beady eyes? -- if I were mistrusted before I ever spoke a word? 

I can take the train with relatively little fear, but it could have been different. And I need to be sensitive to the anger, sadness and...yes...persecution of those who have to walk platforms with wary care and hearts heavy with constant looks of fear and accusation or fear of victimization. 

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