Tuesday, April 8, 2008

the clouds roll in

Today on my way home from class I walked from windy cold into cloudy-wet-heavy-angry sky. The rain--just this moment--has begun bullying my windowpanes. The thunder began with my key turning the lock.

I will make tea. I will work on tomorrow night's presentation.

Another aspect of the walk home was a smile from a firefighter, out the side window of a firetruck turning right. He did not leer or gape: he smiled.

I am forever exploring, forever wondering, on these walks home, about how I interact with men in public space. To them, I am a body, a white girl, with a lazy ponytail and wind-flushed cheeks and a heavy backpack, incogruously dressed. I am a composite of my gender, my race, my size, my class, my education (emblamatized by the sagging Jansport). African American men, Hispanic men, Eastern European men, Asian men, Caucasian men, of themselves so much more than the races and cultures apparent in their faces, look at me, and I look at them. They have personalities, stories, families, complexities. And we share the same sidewalk.

I'm thinking of this today especially because of an incident that occured a few blocks before the fireman smile. Walking quickly to beat the rain, I passed a group of young African American men, probably on their way home from high school, sauntering in their oversized hoodies and weaving a wide path on the sidewalk. At this point, a middle-aged Hispanic man exited a building on the sidewalk a few yards ahead, and I saw him take in this picture: solitary white girl being followed by group of black boys. He didn't say anything, didn't gesture, but his face registered concern, or maybe it was just keen observation.

Did he feel himself my protector? Did he identify more strongly with me, in this complex web of cultural and racial prejudices, than with them? The boys weren't following me maliciously--I'd passed them. Moments before, I was following them: would this scene have arrested the older man in the same way?

I'm not saying I resent being looked after. In fact, I think we'd all be better off if everyone kept their gazes a little wider on the streets. I'm thankful for kindness from any sector, and I'm thankful that most of my sidewalk interactions have been innocuous. I'm just interested in the complexity: how do our assumptions, prejudices, and previous experiences shape our social reactions? How are they harmful? How are they useful?

1 comment:

  1. some days I feel like I am constantly pressing up against my student's conception that I am "other." If I talk about my college education in an attempt to estabilsh they reject me as "thinking I'm better than them." One four foot something student yesterday, was up in my face about how "I from the HOOOOD, where you from? Oklahoma, I bet they don't even have BLACK people in Oklahoma. We got people gettin shot every day in the hood. YOU try walking in Bed-Stuy at midnight, white girl." He was obviously acting, being silly, and the class knew he was crossing the line, disrespecting me, he apologized later, but it was an interesting moment. He said what a lot of other people think.