Sunday, June 10, 2007

Whack Like Me

Wiggety, wiggety whack.

Just finished reading Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin--a real-life account of the author who altered his skin color through chemical and physical means in order to study racism in the south for seven weeks.

The book is anecdotal, told in the form of a journal. For the most part, the stories touch on something deep, and are interesting. However, by the end, a lot of them get repetitive (not through the writer's fault, but as a matter of circumstance). Still, it's hard not to be moved by the plights facing the characters in this book (not just by the author, but by the people he encounters). There is a family that Griffin encounters on his way from Louisiana to Georgia that gives him shelter, and the depiction of their children is amazing. Also triumphant is one brief story of a bus-driver that only says "Watch your step, please" to whites leaving the vehicle, and one woman's subversion of his hard and fast rule.

It's an interesting piece of journalism, but I think it loses a bit of its oomph almost fifty years later. In 1960, I'm sure that to many people it was a bit jarring to hear all the horrifying tales of utter hatred and segregation. Now? Not so much. Everybody knows about segregation, and knows that racism was rampant and horrible.

Obviously this kind of thing is still rampant, and always horrible. You have the Klan. You have any number of hate groups going from one part of the spectrum to another, leaving nobody unscathed. Color, creed, sexual orientation, weight, looks, ability, disability. There is mass genocide going on in countries across the world, and there are attempted genocides going on within our own borders.

I may have lived a sheltered life (as a white male), but I've never personally experienced the kind of utter hatred displayed by many of the bigots in the book--neither toward me or towards anyone else I've been acquainted with. Instead, the racism I've come across in my everyday life has been more subtle than anything else.

If you've peeped around this site long enough, you'd know that I work at a movie theater. It's one of those places that makes people want to stay at home and watch DVDs instead of going out. We have a terrible problem with noisy customers. Not necessarily teenagers, but more often than not. It's important to note that we get similar problems from other age groups, too--including people well into the late stages of life--but that our general problem tends to be among the teens. We couldn't control it on our own, so we hired some rent-a-cops. That did a whole fat lot of nothing, so we actually had to contract police officers to patrol our building on Fridays and Saturdays.

There are times when I'll have to say something to an unruly customer, or even kick them out of the theater. Sometimes they are white. Sometimes they are not. There are occasions when I've been called racist for ejecting a person who happens to be of a different ethnicity. My actions are not motivated in any way by race--at least not that I know of.

But are they wrong for making that claim?

There is an interesting demographic in our teenaged groups. Friday nights tend to see a lot of white teens (aged about 12-15), and Saturday nights tend to see a lot of black teens (aged about 14-17). Obviously we get a mix of both, but there is definitely a skew there, and I'm not sure how to attribute it. Both crowds are equally rambunctious--cell phones, loud shouting, and general disrespect for the movie experience and the moviegoers.

For some reason, our Saturday night crowd was always considered our "bad crowd." There are situations where a group of white teens will do something rambunctious, only to be laughed off. "They're just being kids," some would say. The very next night, a group of black teens will come into the theater, and they'll be watched like hawks until they get a little out of control, at which point somebody will issue a stern warning.

As far as I can tell, there is no rhyme or reason for this. Is it because our mostly-white staff is more "comfortable" around the Friday crowd? Is it an inherent distrust in black people?

Over six years ago, when I first began my job, every time I heard somebody make some weighted reference to race, my stomach would drop. At some point, my stomach stopped doing that. Whether I agreed with it or not, I became indoctrinated into this completely false ideal that "our bad customers" is synonymous with "our black customers." I was entirely wrong never to speak out about such things before. My silence implied (and continues to imply) agreement, or at least approval.

This leads me to wonder if I display some of this inherent bigotry on my own. Have I ever made a comment in regards to a societally-marginalized group that is unintentionally offensive? Attributed some stereotypical trait, even subconsciously? Or, something just as bad: have I ever treated somebody with a different lineage than myself more nicely--even patronizingly--simply to make up for the actions of "my race" or some hidden evil inside of me? It's very possible.

So Black Like Me was a decent book. Well-researched. While it didn't strike a lot of chords with me as a text, I never really think about issues like this anymore (and I really should). At this moment, I am thinking about things. For that, I'd recommend the book to anyone willing to read it.


Bananna said...

I definitely agree with you concerning the situation at the theatre. I had never truly thought of it as a race issue, but when I think about it I feel very cold. Is that the way most of our staff feel? Personally, I mostly saw our "Friday night crowd" on the same par as our "Saturday night crowd", but I know that I am guilty of being slightly more wary with certain customers. But I think it's more towards a type of person, and not a color of person. I do hope I'm not guilty of the same things that we read about.

Mike Spoodles said...

I don't think you're guilty of it. And it surpasses the Friday/Saturday night crowd thing, and falls more in line with other comments that I hear from time to time that make explicit reference to black or white. I didn't mention them because that would put the heft of it on one or two people.