Thursday, April 16, 2009

I Ain't Looking For Trouble

Seems like it finds me anyway.

I'm at the doctor's office with the spousal unit and the youngins' the other day, and...

Wait, let me give y'all some background. The wife and I are relatively attractive folks. We don't stop traffic or nothing, but we didn't get beat with the ugly stick either. We're...cute.

But, while our combined attractiveness quotient isn't ridiculously high, when our sperm and egg join forces like Voltron we make some pretty attractive babies. Some of y'all might think that's just paternal pride, but seriously, I got some beautiful babies. It's to the point where folks are constantly stopping my oldest boy on the street and complimenting him on his eyes. "Bedroom eyes" are what they call them.

Which brings me back to the original story. We're at the doctor's office and this nurse is trying to get my oldest son to give her a smile and some act right. My little man doesn't care for strangers, particularly fawning strangers who want to touch him and talk about taking him home. He likes his regular home just fine.

The entire visit she's talking to my little boy about his cuteness, and then, right before I take him to the car, she drops a bomb on me. I'm moving my little boy towards the door when she says "Yeah, I can never believe you're a (insert white color job here), you just don't look like a (job that requires a college degree). '

Scooby Doo voice: Huh?

First of all, I really can't stress too much the random nature of this encounter. We weren't talking about jobs, or my appearance, or anything. Hell, outside of thanking her for the compliments about my son, I wasn't talking to her at all.

When she decided to shake up my world, I was encouraging my little boy to walk faster, and trying to figure out how to get him past the lollipops without a tantrum. Then she decides to let me know that I don't fit her assumptions about somebody with the job I have. It was like that perfect blob of bird shit falling from the sky on a newly washed car.

Sudden, messy and frustrating.

Now, what do I do? As a certified "race man" it's pretty much my duty to give this woman an education on just how stupid and potentially racist her comment seemed. If I don't read her the riot act, I might as well shut down this blog. But, if I let her have it with both barrels, I'm guaranteed to make every single future doctor visit awkward. After all, once you give somebody a race lecture, they don't forget. And, if you happen to let them know that you think they might be a racist, well get ready for long pauses and sideways glances. So, I'm stuck in a teachable moment, with no incentive to teach.

Long story short, I punked out.

When she let me know that my appearance wasn't acceptable, it shocked me so much that all I could do was give her a wan smile and quickly move away. She must have seen something in my face, and in the face of the black nurse behind her giving her the stinkface, because she tried to clean up her comment with some bland, ridiculous explanation. I didn't bother responding, I just left the building feeling like somebody had pointed out that my fly was open, and the little soldier wasn't really ready for review.

It's not that I don't know how to handle these sort of situations. I regularly use this kind of stuff as a means to discuss race and race relations with white folks. But, in this case I was weighing out the benefits of educating this woman, with the potential drawbacks of letting her know she was ignorant. My wife would later tell me she was glad I didn't say anything because she doesn't want a bad vibe when she goes to the doctor, so I guess I should feel better.

But I don't.

I still feel a little angry, and embarrassed. Not only that this woman felt justified in telling me this, but in my reaction to her comment. I'm embarrassed that I actually wondered if I was dressed poorly, or if maybe it was time to cut my hair so I could look more professional. Hell, I even felt ashamed that the black nurse heard her say what she said. Instead of instantly realizing that this woman was slighting me with no provocation, I began to wonder what I'd done wrong.

Ain't it funny how the mind works? How easily people can make us doubt ourselves, how easily we can be thrust into uncomfortable situations despite minding our business and living our lives? That woman won't think twice about her comment, but for me, it made me wonder if it was time to make some tough choices?

It's these little interactions that define race relations in our country. For me it was a random white woman telling me I didn't fit her notion of a what a white collar professional looks like. For some white kids, it's the black folks at the park refusing to pick them up for a game of basketball because their color brands them as lacking game. Latinos get mistaken for gardeners, and Asians get asked about Chinese food. Little slights that grow into major hurts. We all bear our own burdens, but it doesn't make the load lighter to know that other people are heavy-laden as well.

It still feels like trouble.



Deacon Blue said...

Mrs. Blue would freely tell you that I don't always go out of the house with my best look. This is especially true when I drop the little girl off at daycare and haven't had the chance yet to shower and get the decent clothes on...or when I run a quick errand...or whatever else.

And I have been known to let the cheeks and neck go without a proper shave for a day or two too long or fail to trim my beard as often as I should.

In other words, it's probably pretty often that I look a lot like what people expect a guy who's blue collar to look like. The crew at the bank, or at the daycare or at several other places, see me often in relatively grungy mode.

And yet none of them bats an eyelash or skips a beat when it comes up that I'm a writer and editor. I have yet to have anyone tell me I don't look like a college educated white collar guy, even when I'm dressed counter to that mode.

Just another example of white privilege, I guess.

Don't be too hard on yourself, man. You can't fight every battle. Some days, people hit you when you're off your game or when it's not the best time for you to make a stand. I figure you've educated enough folks in the past on their wrongness and will do so in the future.

judyb said...

Deacon Blue is right, don't beat yourself up. But this woman's boss really needs to know about that comment. Unbelievable racism out of nowhere. I'd report her.
Just my 2 cents.

Big Man said...

I wonder if I should tell her boss?

Man, I'm torn. I honestly don't think this was something this lady needs to be reprimanded about, but I also think I failed by letting her slide completely.

I'm going to have to figure out a way to deal with this at the next doctor's visit.

Anonymous said...

I hate those moments, its an overall awkward moment and you just don't know what to say or do. Living in Maine, with the job I have as a Black woman, it happens with regularity. Some days like you I say nothing, some days I blast the fool.

In this case, it may have almost been better to say nothing since its a place you have a relationship with...yet that still doesn't stop the thoughts and feelings.

ch555x said...

Sometimes, it gets confusing in my neck of the woods (TN). You can't tell if they just don't know or too far gone to really matter. These days, I just don't take it TOO seriously...

the uppity negro said...

Well, I'm not gonna lie to you...

you do get a fat FAIL for that one.

It's not an EEEEPIC FAIL, but a fail nonetheless.

I learned last summer, as you know, with my internship that particularly with instances where you have nothing to lose (I mean just go to a different doctor), it's okay to have those conversations. I mean, all you had to say was "What do you mean by that?" and that would have shut her down and it would have let step ALL IN IT. Just by that one question, she woulda felt shamed enough and I woulda just given her the "Chile please" look like you did and walk on out.

I think what happened to you was indicative of black life in this country. Whereas she felt fully comfortable to say what she said to you, you didn't feel comfortable speaking your mind to her.

Am I guilting you?

Don't really mean to, but yeah, that's how I feel.

Don't be scurred.

Darth Whitey said...

You didn't go there looking for trouble, you just went to do the super bowl shuffle :-)

As a preamble to my comment, let me just say that I do think she probably said what she said because you're black and that it is indeed racist, even though she doesn't realize that herself.

Disturbing though is that people really think you should get this lady fired or reprimanded for what may have been an innocent comment? As long as she didn't use an epithet then you have no "legal" ground to stand on.

I think you did the right thing, it would have ruined your relationship with that office. The look you gave her was worth a two hour lecture on racism.

Refer to Dave Chappelle's "When keeping it real goes wrong" segments. Pick your moments wisely.

Imhotep said...

Brotha, I think you missed an opportunity to quiz the dunce. You should have asked her (non-confrontational) what does a so-and-so look like? After her bs answer, your follow-up question (make it personal) what is it about me that prevents you from seeing me in such-and-such profession? Be prepared for more bullshit answers.
Then your final question, it's not my color is it? Make sure everyone in the office hear that question.

She'll lie again, but will come correct in the future.

Esquire said...

I wouldn't be too down on it, but just because you didn't say anything right then doesn't mean you can't say something tomorrow. You could go to the doctor or you could just talk to her directly.

Sometimes, I take the uppity negro's right and just look them dead in the eye and ask them what they mean by that or shoot em a solid evil eye. Sometimes, I just honestly have better things to do and more important things on my mind and just keep rolling. After all, if you let people get to you every time someone says something stupid, you'll literally go crazy.

But since, this is weighing on you, I definitely think you should head back and address it with either her or her boss.

older_not_wiser said...

"Potentially racist"? You're too kind.

I concur with your reluctance to go off on this woman. Not only would it have made your (and your wife's) subsequent visits unpleasant, but you have to consider how much time and energy the fool (and the numberless others like her) is worth.

But you have to say something, mostly for yourself, but also as a teaching moment for your kids. Imhotep's dialectic is overkill, and even Uppity Negro's question might invite an actual reply. For a situation like this, I suggest you just give the knucklehead a bemused look and say, "what on earth would make you say something like that?", then walk away.

svejk said...

I am a white person, by just about anybody's definition, and I have been on the receiving end of such observations many times in my life. I don't know what white-collar job you're inserting, but in my case it's an (insert science PhD here). Many, especially people in positions such as the nurse in question, consider it a compliment. At least, I take it to mean something other than "but you look like such an idiot". Of course, only you can judge what she may have meant in context, but when the day comes that racism is no longer an option, such comments will likely still come.

Still, unless you'd just rather not hear the answer, I'd suggest an innocent and thoughtful "Really? Why?". The more comfortable she is, the more likely you'll get the truth.

Big Man said...

Thanks for all the new comments guys.

I'm still on the fence about how to handle this. It's not my doctor, it's my son's doctor. I've actually wanted to change doctor's to one closer to my house, so when I look back on it, I should have made a scene like my first mind told me to.

To be honest, I was being too kind when I said it was possibly a racist or insulting comment. Looking back, it definitely was. When she said it, she gave me a look that seemed to ask, how did you get that gig?

Anyway, I think I've decided to take some of the advice on her and say something the next time I see her.

Lady-Cracker said...

It doesn't make the load lighter to know that other people are heavy-laden as well. It doesn't does it.

Collect all the cool follow ups you been given, rank them in order of explosiveness and practice them a couple of times. Next time, you get hit with something like that you could have an appropriate response. You would certainly feel better, the fact that you let it drop is bothers you.

To you list I would add something like "You can't judge a book a book by its cover, can you?" with "that" kind of smile. I prefer to make encounters teachable moments, if I don't go all doormatty. There seems to be no limit to human stupidity.


How about treating the nurse like she is a person instead of the representative of something? That's what brought this on in the first place. The encounter brought up shame in you, and so you are advised to shame her and then walk out, or give her "that" smile, as a solution? When I got divorced , I felt so whipped that I apologised to everone about everything. I bumped into my closet door one day and apologised and realized where the problem was. Shame is not an effective tool for emotional change. It is the oldest power trip. It's o.k. not to respond every time. But you are upset, and now more of us are involved, so you have to deal. What did your followup phone call with the sister nurse tell you? Did the white lady have a history? She tried to make up for it, you said - could that be true? Could she have suddenly realized her words might be interpreted differently by someone who, unlike her, has to analyze every word in every conversation to see if racism is present? The nature of your profession matters, to weigh her statement. If she had said "I just can't see you as an accountant" maybe it's because you are lean and fit and all the accountants she knows are porky.
Don't talk to the boss - that's lame. (See svejk)
The teachable moment may still be ahead of you, but you might have to risk getting real with this white stranger lady.
Good on you for opening it up.

Raving Black Lunatic