Damon Young talks about a particular type of “race neurosis” that makes it difficult to see actions as separate from the color of his skin.
Three months ago, I moved into a townhouse complex in the Point Breeze section of Pittsburgh; a unique and somewhat under the radar community— I know a couple lifelong Pittsburghers who were completely unaware that Point Breeze even existed before I moved there — that basically serves as a conduit separating the tony Squirrel Hill and Shadyside neighborhoods from the decidedly more “urban” Homewood and Wilkinsburg.
Out of my 30 or so new neighbors, I’d estimate that 80% of them are the people Christian Lander had in mind when thinking up Stuff White People Like — generally friendly and well-intentioned gentrificationites whose love for Trader Joe’s, Priuses, and jogging are only exceeded by the near pathological infatuation they have for dogs. (Not just their dogs, but every dog.)
Yet, there was one neighbor who didn’t share this congeniality; a man who’d refuse to make eye contact with me and might reluctantly mumble a response if you said “Good morning” to him. To confound things even further, he was my next-door neighbor, so these situations occurred often.
There was even one notable time where he happened to be getting home from work while my girlfriend and I were grilling steaks. Now, as anyone who’s ever lived, well, anywhere knows, you’re practically obligated to say something when you walk past a neighbor grilling food. It could be weather-related “Sure is a great day to break out the grill,” food-related “Smells good,” lemming-related “I think I’m going to grill tonight myself,” or even slightly creepy “Man, that smell reminds me of my dead grandma,” but the point is that it’s near impossible not to say anything.
Anyway, as we sat there amused that the asshole neighbor would be forced to walk past us and anticipating what he’d say, he decided to play his trump card and just stay in his car so he wouldn’t have to walk past and speak. It was actually quite entertaining watching him fake fumble around in his car, pretending to feverishly look for something. After five or so minutes of playing this progressively weird game of cat and gentrified mouse, we went back inside to get some water and some seasoning for the steaks. We may have been inside for 45 seconds, but in that time the neighbor managed to “find” whatever he was looking for and sprint into his house.
Now, since this is a story about race, you’re probably waiting for the big reveal. Maybe something “Hollywood” like him moving out soon after because he couldn’t take living next to black people or me finding out that he was a founding member of the Point Breeze chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. I hate to disappoint, but neither occurred. He’s still my neighbor. And, as far as I know, he doesn’t belong to the Klan. In fact, he’s not a racist asshole or even just an asshole. After observing his interactions with other neighbors, I learned that he’s just very shy and socially awkward, a fact that tells you everything you need to know about the relationship (many) black people have with race in today’s America.
The overt and soul-crippling racism that plagued our parents and grandparents isn’t nearly as prominent today. Anyone who’d argue otherwise is a fool. But, this history has resulted in a collective neurosis whose symptoms are similar to how dealing with a crazy girlfriend or boyfriend for too long starts to make you crazy as well. You start hacking into their email account just to make sure they haven’t hacked into yours again. They accuse you of lying so much that you start to wonder “Wait, am I sure that happened? Did I really go to work today, or did I spend the entire day with my mistress?”
From a race perspective, a manifestation of this mindset is you wondering if all things that happen to you are somehow related to you being black; a too heightened racial awareness that makes it increasingly difficult to discern between legitimate racism and race-based discrimination — both of which definitely still exist — and mere happenstance.
If a new neighbor isn’t personable, he’s suspected of being racist instead of just shy. Your blackness decides your career path instead of your competence. Any non-black staunch Obama critic isn’t really all that concerned with his policies, and the fact that your last name starts with Y definitely isn’t the reason why your high school physics teacher places you in the back of the classroom. Positives aren’t immune either, as you begin to wonder if you’re legitimately smart and talented or just smart and talented compared to what society expects of you.
And, in a truly peculiar and truly sad turn of events, this neurosis has a way of affecting the way you interact with others; occasionally projecting your psychosis on to them. It makes you hesitate to help an elderly woman struggling with her bags at the supermarket because you’re aware that she might think you’re trying to rob her. It encourages you to create split personas — the “real” you and the work you — because you (rightly and safely) assume that the real you may not be completely palatable to the sensibilities of your co-workers and superiors.
Making this even worse is the patronizing insistence of (many) non-blacks that, since we’re not getting lynched in mass or legally discriminated against anymore, the neurosis is largely psychosomatic. Keeping the crazy girlfriend analogy in mind, this is akin to her throwing silverware at you at least once a day everyday for a week straight, and then feigning not to understand why you braced yourself when she picked up a fork at dinner today.
You know, if a person really wants to have a compressed (but eerily complete) understanding of race in America in general and this neurosis in particular, they’d have to look no further than the series of behaviors that contribute to Eating While Black (“EWB”) — a phenomenon that occurs when black people attend restaurants.
Now, one of the stereotypes about us is that, regardless of social class, we’re notoriously bad tippers. In fact, not only are we bad tippers, we’re generally unkind to waiters and waitresses in general. Whether this stereotype is true or not is debatable, but it’s not hard to understand how it could be. Just 40 years ago there were still places in the country that were legally allowed to bar black people from dining there, and there still are many restaurant managers and workers who cringe when seeing one of us enter their establishment and generally treat us like persona non grata while we’re there. Basically, we might be shitty customers because we have a very long history of receiving shitty service.
Today, though, the shitty customer stereotype accounts for the shitty service we generally receive just as much as (if not more than) actual racism does. If my 20 year-old server at Applebee’s is lax because I’m black, maybe she’s racist, and maybe she’s just aware that there’s a good chance I’m not going to tip her well, and it’s human nature and practical for her to focus more energy on other customers.
But, why is this — “there’s a good chance I’m not going to tip her well” — true? Because I usually get bad service, and her reflexive apathy — her reaction to my reaction to being black in America — will just ensure that the circle of neurosis will continue.