Monday, May 19, 2014

On Race and the Disconnect of the Modernity Paradigm



My co-worker, Curtis, said this to me while we sat in the pouring rain, waiting for the city bus. Students flapped their umbrellas and paced restlessly around us.

We were on our way to an end of the year party. As I looked through the plastic bag of food I had been told to carry, I noticed the big ziplock bag of baby carrots did not look quite right. They were slimy and matted together with soupy brown paper towels.

"Ms. Pam did that," Curtis told me. "She said the carrots were all wet, so she stuck them towels in there to suck up the water."

Curtis is black.

I don't want to brag, but I am pretty good with black people. The trick, I learned, is to not try too hard.

While other people strain to impress the black by acting foolish or talking about rhythm and blues standards, I hang back, looking disinterested, aloof.

It's the same method I use to get girls, only then I suck in my stomach.

With black people, I don't suck in, because they are really good at detecting when a person is not keeping it real, and sucking in your belly is a sure sign that you are unable or unwilling to do that.

Eventually, my aloofity paid off, and Curtis began to notice me. It was on the first day of work, right after I had gotten there, and I was standing in the corner with my hands in my pockets, looking down.

"You work here now?" he asked.

"Yes," I answered, but not very enthusiastically, ever aware of his invisible "keeping it real" feelers probing my aura.

"That's cool," he said. He sat down at his desk and began to play Candy Crush on his cell phone.

I had passed the first test.

The second one came a few weeks later.

Curtis discovered that I lived out in the country, and worse, in a township known to be well-endowed with yokels.

He didn't say anything, but I knew he was wondering if I was a racist.

I decided to put him at ease by making a joke that would demonstrate how cool I was with the role that race plays in our society.

In order to make my joke, I needed a very specific set up from him; he needed to unwittingly say a certain statement and then I could spring my satirical jab.

Curtis never said what I needed him to say, and after a month or so, I forgot all about my hilarious joke.
 

I have been accused of being a racist several times.

On one occasion, a friend of mine and I were driving at night, and I turned down an alley, looking for a place to park. My headlights lit up two large groups of young black men who were standing in the parking spaces. They were staring angrily at each other, but when I accidentally brighted them all, they turned angrily towards me instead.

"Park right here," my friend said.

As I reversed back onto the street and sped away, he accused me of being a racist.

I reminded him of how, when we were in Austria together, I thought every group of men we saw with close-cut hair was a gang of rampaging skinheads.

"I'm not a racist, I'm just very cowardly."

Years later, he grew a beard and bore a passing resemblance to a Middle Eastern person. One day, some black guys drove past him and shouted, "Fuck you, Bin Laden!"

He told me this story, and four years in the making, I leapt at the opportunity for vindication.

"Ha! So you're the real racist after all!"

He didn't remember what I was talking about, and as I began to explain it, I realized it didn't really make any sense. I let my voice trail off like people do when they want to be done talking because they are ashamed of how stupid and lonely they sound.

Another time I was accused of being racist was when I was walking to my car after a class. Some little black children standing behind a fence began yelling at me.

"Skinhead! Hey, skinhead!" I didn't know what to do, so I gave a warm and friendly wave while pretending to yawn.

Pretending to yawn is a good way to show people that you are casual and unafraid.

The children gave me the finger.

Ms.Pam always mixes Curtis and I up.

It causes a lot of problems, because she tells Curtis to do things that she meant for me to do, and vice versa.

After school last week, she came up to me, took my hand, and genuinely, emotionally, thanked me for helping out with "that tough situation."

The next day, I mentioned it to Curtis.

"I have no idea what she was talking about."

"She meant to be thanking me," he said. "I helped her out with that kid who been talking suicide. What'd you say to her?"

"I said 'You're welcome', and went back to checking my email." I wanted to add that she stood there for awhile, quietly, her belt buckle just an inch or so from my face, but I've noticed Curtis thinks it's weird when I point out lots of extraneous details.

One time, Ms.Pam complained to me that Curtis was always late. She likes to pit staff against each other for the sheer gladiatorial thrill of it. I knew she was mistaking him for me again,though,because I am late almost every day, and Curtis never is.

"I don't think he is late very much at all," I told her, but she nodded her head insistently, bugging her eyes out far enough that they pushed her glasses down the slope of her nose.

It occurred to me then that Ms.Pam was what all non-racist people aspire to be: truly colorblind. She did not see Curtis as black, or I as white; she only saw two interchangeable man blobs. Even our names didn't matter.

By the way, when I mentioned that I suck in my stomach to "get girls", I did not mean to imply that I am actively getting girls right now. I got a girl, and she grew into a woman.

I still suck in my stomach for my wife, but it does not impress her anymore.

She usually just says things like, "stop sucking in, I'm trying to see if these pants fit you", or, "stop sucking in, you always complain later that it gave you gas."

Sometimes I'll do the opposite, and stick it waaay out, and then waddle around pretending to be pregnant.

"Stop pushing it out, that looks terrible."

"Make up your mind! Don't suck it in, don't push it out-what do you want from me???"

"Normal! Just be normal."

But I can't remember what that is, and my belly flutters oddly, stuck in some frightening in-between state.

It was during a recent performance of my stomach when I discovered a startling new fact about my body: my butt is gone.

The operating elements are still there, of course, but the soft, resilient casing has mysteriously dropped away.

Where did it go?

I squeeze around back there, but come up empty handed.

My wife used to say I had a cute little boy's bottom, but, over the years, I've noticed her grow quiet on the subject.

I don't blame her: you can't lovingly pat something that you cannot see.

"Why do black people like big butts?" I asked Curtis. My fear was that, since my bottom had run away, no black person would ever like me again.

I whispered the question to him during an art class the students were taking at the community center.

The instructor for the class seemed very confused by the developmental disposition of her pupils. She kept hesitating and checking her phone, but finally, she got things underway.

"Welcome!" she said. Her hands folded and unfolded in front of her before settling in a tight knot behind her back. "Have any of you ever heard of Vincent Van Gogh?"

There were a few non-committal grunts, and someone muttered, "No, not really."

"Well, he was a painter. An Impressionist." The teacher lifted up a painting she had done herself, a hurried copy of a A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. She kept smacking her unruly brown hair back into order behind her ears as she talked. "A lot of Impressionism is round dots. Well, really, it's whatever you want. Just dots and then you draw on the dots."

Each of us had a little workstation at our seats, with canvas paper, brushes, markers, stickers, cotton balls, and some glue.

The instructor grabbed a handful of cotton balls and stuck them to her painting.

"And glue on some cotton, that's the clouds."

Most of the students were staring at her kind of blankly, and this seemed to irritate her. She wasn't getting through to them.

"Inherent in the dots are shapes. Shapes!" She peeled off a sticker of a feather and jabbed it onto the picture.

"This is multimedia!" she yelled. The room was dead quiet.

Eventually, some of the aides started puttering around, lamely encouraging different students to get painting.

I noticed that, beneath her frilly blue and white lounging pants, the art teacher had the same absence of butt as I, and this thought had prompted the question I put to Curtis.

"Everybody likes big butts," he answered. "You telling me you don't like no healthy butt?"

"I don't know what I like," I said. It seemed like a safe, neutral thing to say, given that the passionate truth was that, yes, more than anything, I wanted a healthy butt, I wanted it in my pants.