I recently ran an errand to Wal-Mart, done more out of convenience (the store is a few-hundred feet from my gym) than affection of the store or corporation. (Both literally and figuratively smell like farts.) I stepped behind two men in the customer service line: one of them, probably a teenager, had music loudly playing on his cellphone; the other, older one, was talking on his Bluetooth headset. As I waited for what felt like hours, the younger guy occasionally broke into a spinning dance, rapping along to the music while he blocked shoppers trying to get by in the bottlenecked aisle. This was interrupted by random conversations with the elder of the two, who intermittently point with his thumb in my direction.
I was annoyed by their behavior for several reasons. The kid’s actions would be judged by normal social conventions as rude, nonchalantly getting in the way of people while distracting others with his music. The elder’s acceptance of the teen’s actions made him complicit, and the finger-pointing was disrespectful. If I were a sadistic person, I would have said something, but I accepted that it was the cost of being at Wal-Mart on a Saturday afternoon.
But I was more concerned with how other people–shoppers, employees–were judging these dicks and me, for they and I are black. Like much of my life, I’ve battled with the notion of being judged against others based on my skin color and race. The fact that I could cure cancer, end poverty and bring about world peace by shooting a mind-numbing, cancer-eradicating money gun from an airplane would still pit me among murderers, domestic abusers, criminals and O.J. Simpson (alleged murderer, abuser AND convicted felon!) because my skin color and facial features bear a small resemblance to the negative examples of African-Americans they’ve witnessed–the only examples of African-Americans they’ve witnessed.
I was called over to the cashier to exchange my returned item. The two guys had already been dealing with the other cashier, trying to return their goods. As my transaction was made, a security employee came over to the other cashier and asked the two men what side of the store they came from. I wondered whether they were being profiled or if the cameras caught a suspicious event and wanted to see if they were in the same area. I sympathized with the situation; when I was 12 years old, I faced questioning at school from a police officer about my whereabouts when something may have happened. Given that my chubby exterior included a Kid-and-Play haircut long after it was unfashionable, an orange safety patrol smock, and a puffy green winter coat, I probably matched the description of one or two other black nerds (or “blerds,” as the media is stupidly trying to get to gain traction).
I left with my deal done, wondering whether I should carry the guilt for what transpired minutes before. Should I continue to feel responsible for the thoughts and preconceptions of others based on factors I couldn’t control? I know that it is wasted energy to be concerned with things beyond my realm of dominion, as I am ultimately bound to and liable by what I can do and say. The unfortunate thing is that I’ve felt that guilt for years, well before Chris Rock shed light on such arguments in his famous Bigger and Blacker performance. But to carry the weight of more than 30 million African-Americans because a bunch of bigots can’t and/or won’t separate my individual actions from the majority is as ridiculous as the thought process of a racist.
So I’ll be selfish and stop being a mental martyr, and I hope that American society can get to the point where I’m not thought of in the same way as Carlton Banks and Chris Brown. We have a black president that’s seen by some as a Socialist and Communist, right? Better those names than the N-word? Progress?