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.”