Former CIA Director George Tenet sits at a mahogany desk in the corner office of the appropriately secretive investment bank Allen & Company. A glass of scotch sits atop a granite coaster while a cigarette smolders in a nearby ashtray. He admires the many leather-bound books enshrined on his bookshelf. His personal assistant, Kenneth Bridgewater, enters excitedly.
Kenneth: George, you’re never going to believe it!
George: Kenneth, do not waste my time, for you know that I have seen all things and believe in nothing.
Kenneth: One of the rappers has put you into one of his rap songs!
George: Oh, for reals? Which one?
Kenneth: Kanye West. The song is called “Click,” sir.
He launches Spotify and hides his “Eagles Greatest Hits” playlist, embarrassed. After 5 minutes of searching, he discovers that the song is called “Clique.”
*Listening* Yeah I’m talking business, we talking CIA / I’m talking George Tenet, I seen him the other day / He asked me about my Maybach, think he had the same / Except mine tinted and his might have been rented
- In third grade, an older boy asked me, “What’s up, cuz?” I told my mother that I had a cousin at school that I didn’t know about.
- In fourth grade, we learned about Africa and thus Dahomey. The other students found “da homie” hiiiiilarious and paired the phrase with their best 90s rap hands. I was unimpressed.
- In fifth grade, Pete asked whether or not I would date the Filipino girl, Mary, if we never got any black girls in our class (Congrats, Filipinos! You are the next closest thing to black). I responded, “I guess so.” I should have acted on that quick because Mary is and always was awesome.
- I went to a corner store and was shocked by the price of the Marvel Comics trading cards and left empty-handed. The owner accused me of stealing from his shop. My mom talked to him and we settled on good terms.
- I too have endured a lifetime of people who wanted to touch my hair.
- A “friend” from church once explained the scar on his stomach by saying that he was stabbed. The detail that made it believable? A black guy did it. Because black guys. It was an appendectomy scar.
- Another “friend” repeatedly insisted that I join the church band as a rapper just because. “Come on, man. I know you’ve got that soul in you.” I never go to that church anymore.
- I’ve been told, “Of course you’ll get into University X. You’re black.” Though well-intended, my resume is strong enough that that the comment is meaningless.
- A woman in Squirrel Hill complained about the house nigger security guard at the laundromat for enforcing the rules as he is paid to do. One can assume that if he didn’t have a job he would have been a regular nigger (or a field nigger if you are concerned with completing dichotomies).
- Everyone assumes I can dance. Ask my salsa class about this.
- I once exited my college dorm on Forbes Avenue after a young white woman walked by. She ran three blocks in her jeans.
- An excited Vietnamese man in Ho Chi Minh City asked me if I was a professional basketball player. I am 5’4″.
- A dear friend assumed that one of my parents was white because that’s how you make me make sense.
- After a weekend of prolonged exposure to the sun, a woman I was dating told me that I was now too dark to meet her father. I think she was joking.
- Following that same weekend, a co-worker laughed at how dark I had gotten. She is a sweet girl, though not one knowledgeable of American racial dynamics.
- At the end of a company Christmas party, a co-worker’s wife said, “Good night, Carlton.” My name is Eric. I laugh about the nickname I had and didn’t even know about it. I may have others.
- I am the world’s most well-spoken man according to middle aged white men. This should probably feel comforting, but I fear that I’ve surpassed a low bar.
- A young Mexican girl came to my place of work and asked, “What kind of Black are you?” I told her what I knew of my family’s history. She doesn’t know her grandfather’s name.
I feel like I never respond to these situations properly. Sometimes I speak up and sometimes I say nothing. Laughter is my default response to things that make uncomfortable. Sometimes my blood boils, but I hold back for fear of going overboard. I ask myself, “Am I being sensitive? Sometimes people say stupid things. Are they joking? Are they trying to be funny and failing?”
And then I wonder am I failing?
Should I be angrier?
I used to be an angry guy. I’m not anymore. A lot of that is because I’ve divorced myself from “the small stuff,” among which many of the above incidents qualify. Am I being complacent to ignore them? Am I doing a disservice to the black and brown folks who are unable to ignore them? Have I abdicated my responsibility to be an agent of change?
I don’t know.