Some time ago I saw a comedy sketch by Richard Pryor in which he held a press conference to announce to the police and residents of Beverly Hills that early the next morning he would be going jogging along the streets. Like much of Pryor’s humor, it had a sharp edge, highlighting the fact that a black man running in a predominantly white neighborhood tends to alarm people.
Is such a reaction racist? The Crommunist Manifesto reflects on this question using his own personal experiences as a black man who also has to take precautions so that people are not alarmed by his presence. Most people do not realize that black men routinely make an extra effort to make those around them feel comfortable in their presence. You can imagine how unpleasant it must be for people to feel that they have to constantly prove to others that their presence is benign.
It reminded me of an experience that I had written about a couple of years ago about the role of race and class in society, and how people like me benefit from it. Here is a pertinent excerpt from that post.
I recall once a conference presentation in a hotel meeting room that I made together with my African-American female colleague. After our session, we cleared up and took our stuff out to make room for the next presenters. I picked up what I thought was my colleague’s expensive-looking coat (she is always well dressed) but it was only later after relaxing in the lobby and getting ready to go home that she said that the coat did not belong to her and I realized that it must belong to the people who had been setting up after us. Her boyfriend was also present and he started to take the coat back to the room to return it, but then stopped and asked if I could do it because he said that it would be awkward for him to do so as people ‘might not understand’. The problem was as clear as it was unspoken. It did not matter that he is a very distinguished-looking and impeccably dressed man who could easily be mistaken for an ambassador or college president, while I was my usual nondescript self. The basic fact was that he is black and I am not, and that made all the difference in whether we would be presumed guilty or innocent of theft.
Crommunist’s post is very thoughtful and well worth reading.