Years ago, shortly before widespread internet, but long after the Civil Rights movement, I went to visit my mother in Seattle for the summer. The Bulls were playing Portland in the NBA Finals and I was an 11-year-old kid out of my element where she lived. The neighborhood was predominantly White; the two other Black people were also women dating or married to White dudes. Coming from the West Side of Chicago, I didn’t really see White people in my neighborhood outside of cops, but I went to school with kids from all backgrounds. All that to say, I wasn’t uncomfortable being around White people, except for the ones that were police officers and I was uncomfortable around Black police officers too, so that doesn’t really count I guess.
Back then, kids played outside all day and usually only returned for food, bathroom breaks or injury assessment. Which brings me to my first life experience with bigotry. I know, not what most people expect when you think about Seattle, which means land of Nag Champa, coffee, and hippie types. Yes, those stereotypes are mostly accurate, but the belief that those types can’t also be bigots is false. In this case, the proof of this came by way of the only other kid in my mom’s building. I saw him with his seemingly alcoholic dad a few times, he looked to be about the same age, turned out he was a year older, so I asked if he wanted to play, I didn’t care that he was White or that his dad looked crazy as hell. He was hesitant but eventually he came around and we played basketball, climbed trees, and played catch for a couple weeks. This was real suburban stuff to me.
One day in all this innocent suburban, land of the hippies play, he got frustrated with me hitting the ball over the fence and called me a “f*cking, chocolate nut”. I paused a second to process the intent behind his comment, then when that set in, I chased him in hopes to give him these “act rights” commonly referred to as hands. I caught him at his front door, he starts crying before I could really touch him up, then his dad opens the door, I say what happened, they went inside, and we never played again. His dad probably gave him a sippy cup of Miller High Life as a reward for talking crazy like that. I couldn’t understand why he cried when he was the one committing the offense, but it was effective for his needs. Messed up, but we still see examples of this today too.
Gotta Be a Better Way
“Offense is an event. Offended is a choice”Steve Furtick
I look back on that moment as a grown up, especially these days and think I could’ve done better. Granted I was eleven, however, my response to the offensive comment was not the correct one objectively speaking. I have no idea what that guy is doing with his life these days, but I doubt he learned anything from that incident. If anything, he walked away potentially feeling justified in his opinion of Black people based on me trying to beat his face in over a comment. Don’t get me wrong, it took me years to come to that realization, but I truly believe there was a better way to handle it. Not because he could have become a potential ally or any of that flowery stuff, but because the comment didn’t truly bother me like that. I took offense to his desire to offend me, I grew up on the West Side of Chicago, I’ve heard worse.
Later in life, this White guy I worked with who is from Texas caught me on a bad day. I was going to grab something out of my car, and he said, “while you’re out there, get my bag Toby”. That situation went from 0 to 100 immediately. Again, I was in a setting where I was the only person of color. Half of the people in there had no idea why I was begging this guy to step outside. My supervisor saw Roots though, and he knew what was up. He told me to take off and he’d handle it. That weekend the guy called me up and apologized for his actions. The following week we went to lunch, and I told him why it was offensive, gave him the “imagine being in my position” talk and so on. He got it. We became cool, not really friends, but I don’t have anything against him at all.
Advice you didn’t ask for
Sometimes the first reaction to offense is the wrong one. Especially if that reaction is retaliation. Even when it is blatantly obvious, losing your cool because someone else decides to be an idiot towards you is giving them too much power. Just think about how you feel after someone says or does something stupid that you don’t appreciate. It can change your mood and everything, even if you were having a great day. The younger me fell for this often. Now, I barely even budge with the stuff. These folks only have the power I give them to be able to offend me. Knowing that, I casually dismiss most things that are intended to hurt my feelings.
If it’s worth it to you, engage with the would-be offender and help them understand why their actions are detrimental to their lives. If it’s not worth it to you to engage in that level of dialogue, it’s not worth it for you to feel offended either, because that’s not a relationship you value anyway.