Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Why Do We Do What We Do?: Collective Black Uplift or Individual Black Privilege?

This past holiday season I got a rare but needed chance to just rest, relax, and reflect. And I guess that because I am an intrinsically introspective person, one or two occurrences gave me occasion to seriously ponder and assess why I do some things that I invest a considerable amount of time in doing. I will present one today and one tomorrow with the hope that I might learn from your collective wisdom and experience.

The first caused my wife and I to have a short but intense quarrel; however, upon returning to the instance again and again in my mind, I suspect that she might be correct in her assessment. I will give you the details as I remember them. I will endeavor not to leave anything out.

We attended a nighttime charity Christmas function at an inner-city institution. As we were leaving, I found that I needed to stop for fuel. However, at the first station we came to I found the fuel cost two or three cents a gallon above what I usually pay. So, I kept driving, but at every station I came to, fuel cost roughly the same.

I muttered about a “poverty tax” for a minute before my wife pointed out that the further we drove out of the way, by the time we found a station with an acceptable price I would have effectively negated whatever savings I hoped to achieve. So, reluctantly I pulled into the next station I came to.

I got out. I tried to use my credit card at the pump. It did not work. I got into my car and drove to the next pump. I tried to use my credit card at the pump. Again, it did not work. I got into the car. I drove around the island. I tried once again to use my credit card at the pump. And again it did not work.

Just then my wife leaned out of the car and suggested that perhaps the pay-at-the-pump option had been disabled, and I should go inside and pay and not waste anymore time. Just then I noticed a disheveled, unkempt black man of about fifty sweeping the lot and emptying the trash. He confirmed what my wife said and directed me inside to pay. My wife decided she wanted some mints, so she accompanied me into the store.

Upon entering the store, I noticed the clerk who seemed to be of Eastern Indian origin thoroughly ensconced in a booth surrounded by about two inches of glass separating him from the customers. Now, I really, really dislike going into an establishment like this; that two inches of glass always seems to say to me that the person behind the glass does not trust me, fears me even.

I pushed my card through the slot in the glass and informed the clerk of the amount of fuel I would like to purchase. He picked up the card. He looked at it. Then he looked at me for a second. Then he asked for ID. I was somewhat taken aback because I was not used to being asked for my ID to use a credit card. But I acquiesced.

Then I remembered the mints, so I asked for a pack of mints since all the gum and mints seemed to be locked in the glass booth with the clerk. But he seemed not to understand. “Mints,” I repeated and pointed through the glass at the mints behind him.

He grabbed a package of small plastic bags from the shelf and held them up. Shocked, I repeated myself, and pointed emphatically at the shelf. “No, mints!” He turned, picked up a little glass tube with a rose in it and held it up.

Now, I was insulted. I tried to maintain my cool; I had no desire to quarrel with another person of color. I thought it might just be a language problem, but that theory was disproved when the disheveled, unkempt black gentleman from outside came into the door, and the clerk launched into a profane tirade against him because of something he had neglected to do. The black man simply looked down at his feet like a child.

At that point, I had had enough. I loudly and emphatically chastised the clerk for talking to the black gentleman in that manner. After all, he was a man? He was a human, right?

And I chastised him for using foul language in front of my wife. And then I chastised him for overcharging the people in the neighborhood and separating himself from them behind two inches of glass like they were all highway robbers and crooks.

Just then a little black lady who had come in after us and waited behind us in line urged me to just pay and go. She said she was in a hurry to get home. She said that no one had asked me to stand up for them and that the black man who still stood in the door staring at his feet was nothing but a crackhead anyway. But what she said next stung me—“You are not from around here anyway. Go on back to where you came from with that old bougie bullshit.”

On the way home my wife was uncharacteristically quiet, so I knew she was not pleased.

“You embarrassed me,” she told me.

“But,” I sarcastically argued, “I was just attempting to stand up for you and the rest of the black folk, but y’all seem less than pleased with my efforts. Maybe y’all like being talked to like a dog.”

Then she explained to me, “It was never about black folks. I was never about that black man. It was never even about me. That was all about you. You were inconvenienced, and that frustrated you.

She went on, “You expected, and you expect, deferential treatment because of what and who you perceive yourself to be, and when you do not achieve deferential treatment, you fall back on your blackness. You get extra black, and you pull all black folks into your fight with you. Most of the time, you are sincere in your efforts, but not this time. If everything had gone your way, if you had not felt as if you had been insulted and demeaned, you would not have said a word. Even when he cursed that man, you would not have said a word. You wish to claim the very privilege you decry.”

And I did protest. I did attempt to defend myself. But the longer the quarrel went, the more evidence she offered up to defend her position, and finally I could only fall silent and ponder within myself if there was any such thing as black privilege.


owlasylum said...

I can see why you would be pondering this. After reading it, I was forced by a wave of contradicting voices, vying for attention. My main concern is the need for black people to speak out, I get the argument your wife has presented, however, I'm conflicted by the phrase "Black privilge." For me, it casts a blanket that may blind one to the class distinctions that separate us, instead of opening our eyes them. All people should want the best treatment, the best of what a society's conveniences are, and the like. However, I too pull out my Malcolm X jinsu knife when the slight is against me, more than when I'm treated as expected in face of a black person who may not have. But that doesn't make you "bougie." Interesting topic to say the least, I'm still pondering myself. Thank you.

Max Reddick said...


Feeling your comment. And class privilege is what I am getting at. Are we angry because black people are being slighted or otherwise demeaned, or are we angry because once we have achieved a certain class, we demand and expect certain privileges.

Take for instance the whole "Skip" Gates episode from this summer. It seemed to me that Gates seemed to be angrier that the cop should question him. But then he threw in the race card.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't call it black privilege. Maybe bourgie privilege. After working hard, becoming educated and living a, at the very least, law-abiding life middle class black people expect to be treated with a certain dignity.

Surely all people should be treated with dignity but people of a certain class are speechless and even more hurt when it does not happen, particularly black people who probably feel like they did all they were supposed to do to be "accepted" and the football is snatched from beneath them like Charlie Brown.

I can't say for sure if what your wife said is true but it is possible. On the other end of the spectrum, different from how your wife described you, is what I call the Black Cyber Intelligentsia. They have the same feelings about poor black people as racists.

On the left hand side of my blog are a few posts about them.

Max Reddick said...


And I do understand the part about putting in the work to become successful, and then fully expecting to be treated a certain way, but shouldn't we expect everyone to be treated the same way, with dignity and respect, regardless of class?

Also, it never fails to amaze me what some blacks will accept from others, but when confronted with the same behavior from other blacks, somebody got to get stabbed or shot.

And we have spoke of the Black Cyber Intelligisia before. It too irks me when some black bloggers go out of their way to highlight the pathologies and problems that exist in our community, but fail to offer a solution. It is as if they are simply highlighting these pathologies and problems simply to underscore their own inflated sense of self-worth.

Anonymous said...

And I do understand the part about putting in the work to become successful, and then fully expecting to be treated a certain way, but shouldn't we expect everyone to be treated the same way, with dignity and respect, regardless of class?

Most definitely but sometimes we aren't as aware and compassionate of others and the treatment they receive. I say we to be as general as possible.

Good point about the horrible treatment we will take from others. So many people, including myself at times, have used poor customer service or something similar as reasoning for why they don't patronize black businesses. We get treated poorly too often from companies whether its based on race or not.

Asabagna said...

Greeting Max! This is my first visit here but it won't be my last. Very interesting and thought-provoking articles. Be Blessed!

Anna Renee said...

Max, my jaw has dropped!! This is too deep! Your wife is a purifying flame of fire! Black priviledge...
yes maybe there are some who expect "black priviledge". I think it has to do with the old idea that education would lift us up and "clean" us in the eyes of the Majority. We put all our stock in that education and we intend to get the "respect" that education implies. Maybe not black priviledge but respect for going through the process of being cleaned by education. When we realize that their are folks out there who give less than a damn that we have gone through the education hoops, and still treat us like the "uneducated" we can't stomach that ish! Oh Hell No! I'm educated! Respect me! Don't treat me like the "uneducated"! Then the race card come out automatically! It has proven to be a powerful weapon in our battles!! Who wouldn't use it? But maybe in this case, with an Indian man, it was overkill? Though the 2-inch glass is upsetting for us black folks, we know in truth that it's absolutely necessary. We know it in the back of our minds.
I believe that black pathos is not a result of some internal flaw in us, but is a result of our being in a pathological social condition--a racist oppressive society where so much is geared to press down our human spirits!! I think alot of black folks fear that those blacks that exhibit those pathos will expose us ALL as pathological. That's why I can no longer feel bad internally because another black person did something wrong--doing wrong is human nature!
But then from the other side of this thing, Max you should be able to be respected and treated correctly. In a utopia. Max it seems you were in the deep 'hood where the pumps are disabled, there's plexiglass, crackheads are hired to do little chores and Indian people are store keepers in very dangerous situations. I live in the 'hood and sometimes they ask for my ID and sometimes they don't. All kinds of hustles are going down all day long! Brother Max, the folks in the hood are in survival mode and are not necessarily paying attention to certain "priviledge" protocols.
I know that you know that. This post is even better than the previous one that I told you was hot fiah! Max, you have a really REAL woman! You are blessed and I told you this before! Now get back on your wife's good side so you can do some more pushups!!! Ha ha!
I love you soulbrother!

Max Reddick said...

@ Symphony

I did not even think of the way we treat our businesses. We don't give black business a chance, but other businesses we go back to over and over again, even when the service is crappy. You are so right.

@ Asabagna

Well, I'll be looking forward to seeing you come back, you hear?!

@ Anna Renee

Yeah, she holds her own. And I fully realize that sometimes the 2 inches of plexiglass is necessary. And they have to ask for idea because folk be doing everything thats thought up, but sometimes you just want to get past all that, you know what I mean? Especially when that is where you came from. You want to forget. You want to simply shut it all out, but something always comes back to remind you. And appreciate the love sister!

msladydeborah said...

I had to think about this for a moment. I think that we do expect a certain level of given respect when we come from a good position in our personal and professional lives. I do not particularly care for it when people talk to me or treat me in a manner that I deem to be indifferent or demeaning.

I think the question that you have to answer is this. Would you have spoken up about the man being cursed at if things had been moving along smoothly? I have a hellacious temper myself. I am sure that I would of said something and probably have had words with the sista who spoke up too. Simply because everyone deserves respect.

I find myself focusing on the fact that your class was more the issue than your blackness. That seems to be a dividing point among us. There are Black folks who really have no holla for the middle class. On the other hand, it also bothers me that a sista couldn't wrap her head around the fact that not everyone appreciates listening to someone cursing someone else out. This indicates to me that this is a cultural condition that she considers to be normal.

I am not even about to try and decide which one of the two of you was correct in this instance. Only you can answer what would Max have done? I think that your spouse raised some valid points about expectations and responses. But-I also can appreciate the way you responded.

Lisalis said...

You are very lucky to have the wife that you have. You are very wise to have listened to her.

Denisha said...

I often read your blog via my phone than computer so my comment is rather late. I think once we have reached a certain level we do expect a certain level of treatment but I do not think it is always academically or economically related.

I go back to 'hoods similar to the one you wrote about and I "stand out" before I even open my mouth and utter a word. But, knowing where I am, I do not expect any different treatment although I know I deserve it and such behavior wouldn't be allowed elsewhere.

I get what I need and I leave. I cannot change the perspectives of those who have become used to it and think I may be boogie if I say something or think I am above the treatment they get.

It's a personal thing and you should hold your tongue next time because it solves nothing (although your intentions were good) when the mind is already gone.

Nia said...

I think your wife raised some valid points, but I don't think you were wrong altogether for speaking out, even if you were displaying a degree of class privilege.
Personally, I would not have spoken out against the plexiglass, but you were right to speak out against the other things. I am more taken aback and saddened by the elderly lady's response to the situation more than anything else.

Your wife said:"If everything had gone your way, if you had not felt as if you had been insulted and demeaned, you would not have said a word." I think she raises an excellent point, and that should be what we take away from this episode more than anything else. When we have class privilege (or whatever other privileges we may have), we must always be willing to speak up for others, not only when we ourselves are being insulted or inconvenienced in some way. It doesn't necessarily have to be by launching into a tirade then and there though. You can choose other more effective ways to try to change things.

md20737 said...

“You are not from around here anyway. Go on back to where you came from with that old bougie bullshit.”
This had my jaw drop!!

FORGET WHAT SHE IS TALKING ABOUT!! Her guilt trip is due to accepting the norms around here. If you want to stand up for you and anybody else that is your right as an American citizen. Its also her right to lay dormant and take what she is given.

If you go to a store in America the should be able to speak and understand English. That is a requirement to get my money. I am not falling for that you Bougie because you want decent service. You didnt ask for anything more than average service. How you going to sell something & cant recognize it when someone asks for it. What kind of sense does that make?!?! NONE.

So what if he was a crackhead does that mean he has to be embarrassed anymore than being known as the neighborhood crackhead.

When you never had nothing , you accept nothing as a way of life. Im more upset at the woman for getting on you about speaking your mind than I am mad about the store clerk acting up. It doesnt matter your motives on speaking out. The content you were upset about was real. The fact she accepted the conditions are troubling to me.

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