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When Ignorance Isn't Innocence

unobservant is irresponsible

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, June 08, 2005.

Nobody entirely believes me, but I’m quite sure this is true. I have as close to zero racial prejudice as a person can have.

I’ve worked at security and in positions of authority that required me to call the police on people. Police have asked for descriptions of problem individuals and I was dead on the money: clothing, dark glasses, shirt color, weight, height. I used to leave markings on doorways and other places so that I could adjudge the ID presented with the height of the creature before me, and it proved helpful in the enforcement of liquor laws lessening respect for authority as I speak. So yes, I cheated some. But still, I worked at being able to give good descriptions because it was my job and I knew I wasn’t naturally good at it. But on several occasions when I was asked the color of the perpetrator or person of interest, I realized I had no clue. I had no clue because I had no interest. “Oh come on…..” is the typical police response to my absurdly truncated descriptions. “You know the name of the family tartan on his plaid shirt but not whether he was black or white?”

So, yeah, maybe I’m just terribly unobservant but that’s not convincing. I’m good at women’s eyes, teeth, bust, and legs. I’m bad at their skin and hair color. I can often recall a name quicker seeing a woman from behind than I can greeting her face to face, and these days, it’s handy given the accumulated turned backs when I enter a public room. But, at best, I’m bad at names anyway, calling everyone Tiger, which goes over like a pregnant pole-vaulter, a phrase I picked up decades ago and need to retire. I’m rather hopeless.

I’m good at men’s clothing, teeth, and demeanors and hair style. I used to think I was good at accents, but this was abruptly killed when I engaged a guest at a facility where I worked and asked if he was from Sussex in England, because his accent was what I recalled and I’m good at it, can’t fool me. But he was from Wiesbaden in Germany, his passport with age and first stamps proved it, his English was totally a result of the German school system, and this was his first trip out of his country. No, he’d never been to England. He’d had good dental work and short brown hair and he was very nice and terribly excited to be here. I have no other memory but assume he was white.

I knew I wasn’t a racial bigot when I realized, cheerfully, that I lusted after what now must be called “women of color” as assiduously as I did white women. Color, what some call the secondary racial characteristics, just never entered into it, push came to shove. In my distant, very distant – okay, Pleistocene – youth, I never fully understood the anger and hurt that race engendered in bigots or their victims or people trying to recover from the tension. As such, I made many unfortunate, rather mind-stuttering …..okay, stupid ……mistakes.

When I had a bluegrass performing group, playing mostly in the South in the late Sixties, I had no hesitation about commenting upon some racial incident or horror in the news from the stage and not understanding the pained silence or worse that such engendered in a crowd of unrisen Southern dough. When I had black friends and neighbors, I was given to saying something like “…..don’t leave the keys in the car with Bernard, he’ll steal it…” which was terribly funny to me, given I was, of course, being ironic and knew Bernard and it was absurd that anyone would think that…..etc., didn’t factor in the fact that Bernard had suffered a fair, not awful, amount of white people saying just that and actually meaning it, generally talking to someone else right in front of him. You talk about your inferiors as if they weren’t there, you see. And in making an unfunny joke, I’d done it again. Bernard, bless his heart, apparently understood. He said he did, anyway.

Or really funny stuff like entering restaurants with black friends - or, worse, acquaintances who would never be friends - and mimicking Richard Pryor and saying, too loudly, “….where de white women…..” in places where not many years ago people died for just that. It’s funny, what’s the matter with everyone?

So yes, in short, I was a gaping sphincter and just tone deaf to real life and not fully appreciative of the emotional horrors beneath what I read about.

And when I read that a black kid, here in Boulder, walking down the street, got assaulted and beaten by some schmuck a few days ago, and it happened in my city and recently, on my generational watch, I get angry. I get really angry. I get angry because I know if I were a witness, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t recall the race of either participant absent memorable vocalizations, and the thug might get away with it. It wouldn’t be the first time naiveté and willing, almost self-trained ignorance wasn’t innocent but irresponsible and dangerous.

I see it in myself and I see it all around me. Here, in Boulder.