The Good, Racist People, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The New York Times
Last month the actor Forest Whitaker was stopped in a Manhattan delicatessen by an employee. Whitaker is one of the pre-eminent actors of his generation, with a diverse and celebrated catalog ranging from “The Great Debaters” to “The Crying Game” to “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.” By now it is likely that he has adjusted to random strangers who can’t get his turn as Idi Amin out of their heads. But the man who approached the Oscar winner at the deli last month was in no mood for autographs. The employee stopped Whitaker, accused him of shoplifting and then promptly frisked him. The act of self-deputization was futile. Whitaker had stolen nothing. On the contrary, he’d been robbed.
The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such. I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.”
The other day I walked past this particular deli. I believe its owners to be good people. I felt ashamed at withholding business for something far beyond the merchant’s reach. I mentioned this to my wife. My wife is not like me. When she was 6, a little white boy called her cousin a nigger, and it has been war ever since. “What if they did that to your son?” she asked.
And right then I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take.
I think about my future sons, and daughters, and I how scared I am for them, even though they haven't been born or conceived yet. I think about how it is always different for black Americans, and other nonwhite Americans, every day in the United States, the country most of us were born in, to feel like I am Other.
I think of an event I recently attended, where the stated theme of the panels was empowering other like-minded, educated, motivated women. Raising each other up. Rejoicing in our female strength. Women helping women with pride. From all accounts, it was supposed to be a good day.
During the catered reception portion of this event, I walked behind a buffet table to get a beverage out of an open cooler, and I was having trouble finding a drink to my liking. While I was digging through the ice, a woman, who happened to be white, came up to the table an asked me, "Are there any waters?"
I bristled, and replied evenly, "I don't know."
Now you may be thinking to yourself, "She just wanted some water, and she thought you might have seen them in the cooler. What's the big deal?"
The woman then said to me, "Oh, I thought you worked here."
(Okay, fellow colored readers, please let me know in the comments how many times this happens to you on a regular basis.)
Let me note here that the woman asked this question to me, a woman who was wearing the exact same conspicuous event badge on the front of her shirt as she was, and wearing the same business casual attire. Let me also note that the people who were actually catering the event were all wearing black vests, black pants, bowties, and embossed catering pins, and were all middle-aged men.
Nothing I was doing or wearing that day--a day for celebrating our fellow overeducated women--remotely suggested I was attending the event as a server whose job entailed fulfilling this particular lady's drinking needs.
So what could possibly have triggered her to think that I was part of the catering staff?
There's nothing that says empowerment like a white woman mistaking you for the help.
It would be easy to write off my incident as "no big deal" or "just a misunderstanding" or "at least you didn't get verbally abused and molested like Forest Whitaker." But it's not easy for me. It never is. I can't even go to a grocery store, or a mall, or a valet station without experiencing a valid level of anxiety that someone will ask me where to find the cereal aisle, or to hang up their unwanted clothes, or to park their car (twice; I'm not kidding).
Every time you travel outside of your home into the world as a colored person, feeling proud of your education, your accomplishments, your Oscar, there is always someone there to remind you that you will never truly belong.