The following paragraph is going to come across as excessively self-congratulatory. I suggest you buckle in for a brag-fest of epic proportions.
I am well above-average in the success department. By age 25 I had two science degrees from universities that are among the Canadian “Ivy League”, was running a scientific journal, was full-time employed with lots of prospects ahead. Since then I’ve been accepted for a third degree at a third Ivy-league school, fronted a successful indie rock band, and was plucked out of relative obscurity to write for one of the largest independent secular thought platforms on the internet. I’m a classically-trained violist whose resume includes two seasons as a semi-professional player. I am widely-read and conversantly eloquent enough to be comfortable hobnobbing with the upper crust when the situation demands.
I’ve got it like that.
So here’s me, accomplished and talented, sitting with my also accomplished and talented friends at a local bar enjoying ourselves. Not obtrusively, but in the normal way for people our age. Up sidles a young gentleman, drunk and friendly, who began chatting and joking with us. After 5 or so minutes, he leans in and asks me if I can sell him some cocaine. Baffled, I told him that if he was pulling some kind of gag, I didn’t get it.
His response: “C’mon man, you know. Big black guy… you’ve got to be selling drugs right?”
The table fell silent immediately. I pride myself on being pretty quick-witted, but I just stared at the guy, struck dumb. I could tell by the look on his face that he knew he fucked up, so he started trying to explain himself. “Walk away from me,” I heard myself saying. When he tried to press his explanation, I stood up and repeated my advice, with some strong language to accentuate the fact that it was definitely in his best interest to be elsewhere. He left.
I sat back down, my mind swimming. Had that really just happened? Had I misread the situation? I don’t sell drugs – we weren’t even talking about drugs. I stood up abruptly and left the table, knowing that I needed to be by myself. There was something happening inside me that I didn’t quite understand, but I knew that if I sat there listening to the cajolings of my friends to “just leave it”, I’d throw something across the room. It took me about 5 minutes of pacing outside the bar to locate my calm enough to go back inside.
It took much longer than that to figure out why I was so upset. It’s not as though I hadn’t been called things before. It’s not as though I hadn’t heard much worse from people with far more ill intent than someone mistakenly trying to score an 8-ball. It’s not as though I don’t spend my slack time wading through the muck of some of the worst racism I can find. There’s not much under the sun that I haven’t seen, and certainly nothing that makes me react the way I did. So what was different this time?
I guess this time I was riding pretty high. Surrounded as I was by my friends, feeling confident and happy. When I go looking for racism, or when I’m expecting racism, I have my guard up. I can detach myself and at least feel like whichever asshole is offering hir learned opinion on the demeanour of the Negro isn’t talking about me. They’re talking about some caricature of black people cobbled together from rap videos and Glenn Beck segments. And when confronted by someone like me, they’ll quickly retreat into the confused mutterings of “well, you’re not really black” or “I didn’t mean all black people” or something of that like.
But when it’s to my face, when it’s in front of my friends, and when it happens without any warning, my shields are completely down. I’m not Ian Cromwell the anti-racist crusader, full of quips and witty observations, with the Buddha-like patience necessary to handle even the most committed race trolls. I’m Ian Cromwell the human being who lives his life occasionally unguarded – who, when he is with his friends, doesn’t obsess about race quite as much and just tries to exist like a human being.
But not that day. Not at that moment. At that moment I wasn’t that Ian Cromwell. I certainly wasn’t Ian Cromwell, MSc, writer, speaker, scientist, thinker, classical musician, crusader for social justice, and insightful, creative mind. I was Ian Cromwell: drug-slinging nigger. Not because of anything that I’d ever done or said – just because of a single physical attribute. An attribute that, for the most part, I take pride in. An attribute that should tell him absolutely nothing aside from the fact that a recent ancestor was African. Out of the 9 or 10 other things that he could tell from the way I looked, he zeroed in on the one he assumed meant he could score dope from me and let that one shine through.
He took something that I thought was beautiful and used it to pull the rug right out from under me.
It’s not fair, I think, that some random drunken asshole can completely destroy a foundation of self-confidence that I’ve built through years of hard work with one stupid question built on an even stupider assumption. But with that string of words, and the thoughts behind them, he stripped me of any kind of self-respect I might have garnered for myself. He destroyed my comfortable shroud of lies that let me believe that if I worked hard enough, set a good enough example, got far enough ahead, I’d be able to show the world that its conception of black men is as wildly inaccurate as I know it to be.
And maybe I have – this was certainly only one isolated incident. I get e-mails from people all the time telling me that I’ve helped change their mind on race, or helped them see things in a way they’d never considered before. I have no doubt I’m making a small difference.
But at that moment, for those 5 minutes, and every time I think about those 5 minutes, all I could think about was what my father told me when I once (angrily) told him that I was “half-white” as much as I was “half-black”. He told me that nobody was ever going to see me the way I saw myself upon looking at me – they were only going to see one thing. And, on that day, he had never been more right.
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