About two Thursdays ago I found myself in line waiting to get in to a bar, when a few pivotal things happened in the span of about 10-12 minutes that struck me very deeply. For most of the people in that line I believe the interrelation of these events went unnoticed, much like the interrelation of many of the happenings in this country and around the world. People, myself included, often fail to connect the dots to see the larger picture and instead remain, to some extent, willfully insulated, ignorant and absorbed by their own issues.
Concerning yourself with issues that affect you is natural; those are the problems that most readily present themselves and are the most apparent in your everyday life. I think in reflecting on why we can’t let our own issues be the stopping point, the words of Dr. King may be more poignant now in this climate of subtle oppression than when he first spoke them at Oberlin College, saying, “ … All mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” More often than not when quotes of socially significant historical figures are tossed around the reasoning tends to be cliché, relevant in a roundabout way, or far worse not relevant at all. But that night these seemingly separate incidents showed the interrelation of a much larger issues, issue of equality and justice, and the sentiment expressed above could not be more relevant.
The bar I was waiting to enter has historically been one frequented, almost exclusively, by white patrons. It has only been in the last few years that the patronage included black people and others of color, and this was relegated to a college crowd one night a week. Subsequently, a dress code was now routinely enforced. The dress code did not allow for any excessively baggy clothing, sagging pants or plain white tee shirts. It was this dress code that led to the first incident. A young black male having waited his turn in line was told when he arrived at the front that his pants were too baggy and he would not be allowed to enter. He became understandably upset, given there was no objective standard to measure the rule he had supposedly violated, but left without too much of a fuss. The crowd outside the door, predominantly black, voiced their displeasure with the decision in the common fashion, disembodied comments hurled at the bouncer from the security of their position in line. Some accusations of unfairness, but overall the crowd remained unbothered despite what they appeared to feel.
After another minute or two, a young man rushed out of the bar clearly upset, followed closely by another young man very visibly upset with the first. They were white. Stopping to have it out verbally at the curb immediately outside of the bar, their conversation was easily overheard and listened to by most of the people waiting to get inside. What became apparent very quickly was that the argument was between two people who were romantically involved. They yelled a bit, an apology was issued, some crying ensued, and quite naturally an embrace was offered as comfort. An embrace which for some of those standing outside lasted longer than their proscribed “tolerance” (a word I HATE directed at People, but that is for another post) allowed for.
Immediately following the realization that the two men were homosexual, the crowd began to murmur about the public spat, as if relationships of that kind should be kept, like so many other things of which the majority doesn’t approve, closeted; as if their right to emotional expression was trumped by social stigma and the feelings of the mob. I call the crowd of potential patrons a mob at this point, because that was the fashion in which they acted. They allowed the bigoted opinions and courage garnered by inhabiting the numerical majority to aid them in oppressing and ostracizing fellow human beings.
Behind me was a group of six, two men and four women. Among that group was one of the ringleaders of the heckling, and much to my surprise a young woman in the group initially quieted her friend saying, “Love is love y’all,” I supported her assertion raising my voice a bit louder expressing that we should all let them be. As one of the men on the curb began to cry during their altercation it seemed to breathe new life in to those in the crowd inciting yells and torment for his emotional display, especially in such a public place (due much more to his clear inebriation, than his sexual orientation). I still attempted to quiet and admonish those closest to me. When the crying was met with an embrace though, it seemed that what very small support for these men to carry on in public as they saw fit dissipated. There was a collective sigh from the crowd at that action, the heckling reached an uproarious level, the young man behind me gaining confidence and volume as his unacceptable jokes gained recognition through laughter. Even the young woman who had quieted her friend initially expressed that they had in fact gone too far in the embrace, showing a look of at least discomfort on her face. I probed her thinking, saying I thought that “love is love?” to which she sheepishly replied that “yes it is, but you know … ” And I did know.
I knew at that moment precisely what she was feeling, a sense that what was happening to these men was wrong, on so many different levels, but a certainty that I or she, despite our supposed convictions, would not be the ones to stop it. The heckling continued, insults were hurled, opinions leveled, threats were even made (none violent that I could here) that if they kissed that would simply be too much, and some would leave the venue. I convinced myself in that moment that it would in fact be condescending to take some grand stand in their defense, that they were adults and could handle themselves. That ignoring the crowd and boldly living as they saw fit was their way of saying all that needed to be said. But that untruth was betrayed by the sinking feeling I felt in the pit of my stomach and my inability to shake that this display far from hurting them had damaged me, possibly irreparably.
It isn’t correct or genuine to call Them a mob on that evening, for by my silence it became We. I hid, as a disembodied voice, an unsupported conviction, behind the strength of the crowd just as the other patrons did when the young black man was turned away at the door because of his dress. As I paid my money and walked in to the bar to quiet my conscience with drinks and mindless dancing, I could not help but feel there was something else simmering beneath my shame and it was realization. I realized that there was in fact a link between these two incidents, a historical and social link.
There was a time not so long ago when this bar, and many establishments and spaces with in these united states were off limits to people that looked like me, regardless of dress, how much money one might own, how articulate you might be, or even who you knew. Black bodies were simply not allowed and did not belong in certain spaces, because that was the way it was, and for many there was a hope, belief, and fundamental expectation that that was how it would always be. This was reinforced at every level from the legal, to the social, on up to the religious. (Sound familiar?) More important than this enforcement was the belief of the black minds being told that they were less than, and how it is still manifesting itself today.
I realized that there is something psychologically sick about the fact that a group still regularly subject to subtle forms of bullying and oppression would in one breath cry foul, and in the next use that same voice to reinforce that same type of oppression, and psychological violence on the next available minority group. I realized that my fear, my unwillingness to go against the grain and stand up boldly for what I believed in had contributed that night to a vicious cycle. I realized that even in my own realization not everyone would connect these dots as easily or as willingly as it had hit me that night. We must as human beings be willing to step outside of ourselves and our particular concerns to address, along with our own ills, the ills of humanity that lead to these types of cycles of oppression and violence. We must always seek to connect the dots. We must truly and seriously take in the wisdom Dr. King gave us when he expressed our interdependence as common members of humanity or fall subject to his warning that “If we do not learn to live together as brothers, we will perish together as fools.”
It is my sincere hope that I never again find myself without a voice in the face of injustice, and that this post will help others to look inward at themselves and outward at the world in which we live and give to daily to better connect the dots, see the larger picture, and decide how we want that picture to look. As members of a community striving to make it better for everyone or contributors to strife and divisiveness that will continue to lead to violence, chaos, and the breakdown community.
Image of busy restaurant and bar scene courtesy of Shutterstock