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.