stop the presses

23 February, 2007

Last night I saw a young black man hail a cab.

Now, there were Circumstances. It was at the northbound corner of CT and Q, where the 42 bus stop is. He was light-skinned, wearing very expensive shoes and was otherwise extremely well-dressed, and was in the 25-35 age range. He was bald-shaven and had glasses, and although they were plastic and not wire-rimmed, they sent the same message*. And there were a string of cabs stopped at the light, and he was impossible to ignore; that is, the cabs were trapped, and couldn’t speed by all “oh I didn’t see him.”

I was sensitized to this fact of life early on, when a (white) friend gave me a mix tape with the Lenny Kravitz song “Mr. Cabdriver,” and growing up in a major city with lots of cabs and black men I got to witness it firsthand. DC is not too different, and I see it closest-up when hitting the town with i495blues, who, having grown up in the non-cab-oriented Orlando, was more new to the behavior. We developed a nice little joke about “letting the white girl hail the cab.” Ho ho ho! Ain’t racism hilarious?

Actually, this joke got me in trouble recently. Last Friday night I stood on the corner of 18th and Columbia at 7:30 PM and COULD NOT GET A CAB. None were stopping for me. 18th and Columbia! Friday night! Cab after cab, not all full either, passed me. I could sympathize before with black men’s frustration, but now I was empathizing. Finally one stopped, and I got in. “Library of Congress” I said, for this was where I wished to go. “I’m not going over there,” said the cabbie. Uuuuuh. ?!! Got out of the cab. Two guys on the corner who’d witnessed the scene and I laughed about it. Finally another stopped for me, an older black man. I established that he would travel to the LOC, and, still in surprise, shared my story of the recalcitrant cabbie with him. He seemed to be listening — when I take a cab as a single woman, cabbies ALWAYS start conversations with me, so I was expecting the same here. Continuing about the earlier part of my efforts, in an un-thought out attempt to convey the sentiment “now I know what black men mean when they say it feels like you are invisible,” I put my foot in my mouth and mumbled through it, “Couldn’t get a cab! And I’m a white girl!”

You may laugh at me now. **

I felt bad about it the whole trip, imagining the many ways I could be misunderstood through this one comment, but he was very nice to me at the end, charging me only two zones when he coulda worked me on three, and after I paid I clearly didn’t know where I was going and he pointed me the right way.

There’s a post in here about if/how to talk about race across the boundaries. IME, it’s not possible unless there is a level of social trust, beyond mere acquaintance. Maybe that’s just true for me, though. And I don’t have the post in me today, because 1) I should be working and 2) I’m totally expecting to get flamed for something or other here, and want a read of my audience before I say any more.

* From a debate about some famous racism studies on Malcom Gladwell’s blog a few months ago, I found this, which is such a great observation I reprint it here:

I think it would be good for society if whites become more aware of black social class markers. Something that drives black anger is when a young black man with a college degree is crossing the street and he hears from inside all the cars at the stoplight the “ka-chunk” of white motorists locking their doors to keep him from carjacking them.

For about a decade, I’ve assumed that a younger black man wearing those small, typically round wire-rimmed glasses is making a statement about his social class and aspirations, indicating something like “I’m no nerd, but I have definitely been to college. I’m hip-hop, but I’m not ghet-to. I’m cool, but I’m a thinker.”

The first celebrity I can remember with this look was John Singleton, director of “Boyz ‘n the Hood,” back about 1992. Laurence Fishburne’s guru Morpheus in “The Matrix” (above) is another example. (The head doesn’t have to be shaved and the lenses don’t have to be tinted, but that doesn’t hurt the image). You often hear a particular accent from wire-rimmed glasses wearing black guys, too: it sounds both black and educated, but rugged, not prissy.

In the past, the educated black man would adopt a white accent and white visual styles. But, the more recent generations of college-educated black men don’t want to do that. They want to assert their blackness. On the other hand, they also want to assert their social class. So, they’ve adopted some subtle clues that other blacks can easily pick up on. Unfortunately, the little glasses and this new accent are too subtle for many whites to notice.

**Flame me about how racist I am, though, and I will delete your post.*** Unless you can prove to me that you are not living in a glass house. If you want to have a civilized discussion, we can do that.

***Actually, since it was i495blues who was all “[laugh at me a long time] You have to blog that!”, I’ll just forward all flames his way. 🙂

****What is up with me and the footnotes? I started doing it when I was writing my paper, to be cute, but now it seems to have stuck. It works well for how I think, though.  At my thesis defense I was told, re my writing, “More Hemingway.  Less Faulkner.”


8 Responses to “stop the presses”

  1. furcafe Says:

    But is racism per se the best explanation of cab driver behavior when a majority of the cabbies (@ least the ones I seem to encounter) are immigrants from (East) African countries?

    Also, BTW, another name drop: The Ian Ayres who authored the car salesman study referred to in Gladwell’s blog was my antitrust professor in law school.

  2. jamy Says:

    What difference does the race of the cab driver make? Black cab drivers can also decline to pick up black men for all the same reasons and it’s just as racist.

    I’ve had exactly the same thing happen to me at that intersection–including a refusal to take me to SE (when I lived quite near the LOC). I also had a bf whose best friend was black and when the three of us went out together, my bf would have me hail a cab for his buddy.

    My blog friend Mad Cabbie had a few things to say on this topic a while ago. He’s a black cab driver in DC. (I tried but could not find the post.)

  3. techne Says:

    I agree with Jamy, and add that FWIU, black immigrants are often just as racist or more than the average American towards American blacks. I think there is a perception of them as lazy, in contrast to the hardworking immigrant.

    The non-LOC cabbie was an African immigrant of some kind, and the one who actually drove me was american, fwiw.

    You and your name-drops, furcafe! Who DON’T you know?

  4. Reaganite Says:

    “Ain’t racism hilarious?”

    Yes… yes it is.

    Funny story while we’re on the subject:
    I was in a cab one Saturday night (yes, after a few others passed me by) and I decided to straight up ask the cabby what the deal was on DC cabs and black people.

    He was pretty forthcoming with his answer and didn’t beat around the bush. It basically came down to two things:

    1) On weekend nights (like this particular night was), if you’re traveling alone, you’re SOL (regardless if you’re a thuggish black guy or a preppy white girl). The cabs are on the prowl for those large groups to help secure that hefty tip. Fair enough, I thought.

    2) Yes, if you are a black man and it’s any other night… you’re still screwed. I was kind of shocked that he would come out and admit it, but he did (he was Indian himself).

    The reasons for this being A) they don’t want to head down to SE and in the cabbie’s mind, Black Passenger = SE, and B) he’s had too many occasions of black passengers who’s skipped out on bills. In fact, he said that he normally doesn’t skip black folks hailing cabs… but he usually asks for fare up front (which of course is within his DC Cabbie rights). Lucky for me, I had my “I went to college” black rimmed glasses, so he didn’t fuss to get the fare before hand.

    Now that I think about it… I’ve never been asked to pay the fare up front since being in DC. I think it is thanks to the ol’ glasses coupled with my snarky “Take me to Thomas Circle, NW (Bitch!)” reply when a cabbie hesitates to stop and let me in.

    Of course, being a board-certified Black man, I have many thoughts on the subject. But I can’t give techne all the gems for her blog. Guess you have to visit mine one of these days…

  5. hymes Says:

    No one should even *read* Faulkner, let alone write like him…

    I have had a lot of discussions about race across racial lines, but I can’t remember any that weren’t with people I knew at least somewhat beforehand. So I think it’s possible with some acquaintance, but not possible with a no acquaintance at all. My favorite experiences with this have been when I have been the only white person in a group and someone says something that makes it clear they either forgot I was there or forgot I was white–I like to think it’s the latter most of the time.

  6. furcafe Says:

    My point about the African cab drivers wasn’t that they don’t engage in discriminatory behavior & indulge in stereotypes (per Reaganite’s driver’s experience w/”deadbeat” black passengers), but whether it is correct to call their behavior “racist” when they are, @ least by the standards of many non African-Americans, the same “race” as the black Americans they don’t want to serve. I think the problem w/cabbie behavior, as w/many similar issues of “race” in America, like profiling by law enforcement & store owners, is the admixture of “racial” bias (which I define as xenophobic bias based strictly on physical appearance/ethnicity) & other matters of class, culture, etc. that aren’t necessarily linked to skin color. It is often easier to establish that people engage in discriminatory behavior (as in Ayres’s study) than to tease out the reasons for the discrimination.

  7. Dr. Birdcage Says:

    hmmm…. but I think that class in America (which tells itself that it is a classless society– I’m almost positive I told y’all– techne and furcafe– the story about the class argument that broke out in a class I was teaching) is very often read as race. I’m not sure that it wouldn’t be racist per se– the discrimination is based on physical appearance ethnicity– and what (class markers) they are linking directly with those physical characteristics. Reaganite’s cabbie’s assessment is an example– dark skin = SE; SE= poor/low class; low class = skipped fare. At base a lot of this stuff is class (the glasses and the differing reactions to them give lie to the simple race reading)– but I don’t think that makes it not racist… just not *only* racist.

  8. Xtreme English Says:

    i am a frequent cab user, and i’m here to say that here in DC my chances of getting a cab on the street is about economics most of the time–that is, economics or safety or both. there are some cab drivers in DC who will refuse to take me where I wanna go (which is against the DC taxi driving rules, if i’m not mistaken), but that’s because it’s out of the way, and a lot of people who ask to be driven to that destination are either very cheap tippers or give no tip at all. can’t say i blame the drivers for that, and usually someone will come along in the next 5-10 minutes who WILL take me there. i’m speaking only for myself, naturally. I’m an OWF (old white female), NAARODFS (not at all rich or dressed for success–gave that up 20 years ago). nearly all of the cab drivers here are sweethearts. i have no complaints.

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