Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why can't we all just get along?

Living in a city exposes you to all kinds of crazy scenes and situations that can entertain, shock, or pain you, depending on your point of view.

In the past two weeks I’ve witnessed three fights at a club (all in one night), a woman having a seizure on the sidewalk, a man yelling at and attacking a metal sign outside a cafe, and an unfortunate, movie-like altercation at the post office yesterday. A woman was trying to mail a package, but the clerk said the ZIP code on the package was invalid. The woman insisted it was correct, and became increasingly agitated when the man refused to accept the parcel.

Her protests grew more shrill, as she first contended that a man would get better treatment, and then, being ignored by the clerk, wailed “What is wrong with you people!”

Yes, the clerk, and his coworker, were black.

Several people in the long line ooohed, and I knew what was coming next.

“What do you mean, you people?” the second clerk asked. But the delay of his response, as well as his tone, made this reaction sound almost perfunctory, as if he was just saying it because people (those in line, society, et al) expected it.

Fortunately it did not escalate from there, as a supervisor came out to help the woman. Still, I couldn’t help but shake my head. That line has become such a cliche, beaten into our heads in movies like Tropic Thunder, that people drag race into disputes in which it really plays no role.

This woman, living in the most liberal city in America, likely an Obama voter and one-time hippie, almost certainly was not making a statement about black people with her comment. Yet the man felt obliged to make that boilerplate retort, as if the two were playing out a scene in front of the line.

At this point it’s probably impossible to separate the “you people” expression from its racial connotations, but it’s a shame the two ever became so intertwined in the first place. Although racism is surely still a problem--especially the subtle, suspicious-of-Others kind--comments like these should not be taken as racist.

Given what came before the phrase in question, it is more likely she felt mistreated as a woman, not a white person. And given the long history of difficulties with gender relations, that is an issue that will be much harder to solve.

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