I stopped into my neighborhood pub last evening for a pint while my laundry went through its wash cycle across the avenue. The place is owned by friendly Brits with a penchant for soccer and rugby—a sport that seems to be about barrel-chested men getting filthy and giving each other cauliflower ears while engaging in homoerotic scrums.
I sat next to a chatty guy named Gary with the forearms of a lifelong manual worker. Turns out he’s working at Ground Zero—scheduled to open as Freedom Towers in 2037— as an iron worker, his father worked on the World Trade Center and his grampa on the Verrazano Bridge, an impressive structure that connects Staten Island to Brooklyn where we both live.
This is a pub in south Park Slope, which is dominated by Latinos, immigrants of every hue and nationality and a seemingly endless number of lesbians and gay men with their storied parade of strollers and gaybies.
Gary struck me as a pretty easy-going guy who was enthusiastic about the fact that hundreds of the 2,000 or so workers at Freedom Towers are women who’ve earned their chops and he even offered me a little history lesson on the 1979 origins of women in his local. I was starting to warm to the guy when he did that thing that strangers sometimes do which always depresses the hell out of me. He lowered his voice and said, the Black guys, you know the ones from the Caribbean, they’re the lazy ones. And then he affected a Jamaican accent to make his point about their slogan—”a thousand a week for hide and seek.”
Two things ran through my brain at that moment. One, why do white strangers assume that the white person they’re talking to agrees with this kind of sentiment? Two, how do I challenge this guy, who is not some crazed right-winger, in such a way that he shifts his way of looking at this and not just gets angry and walks away?
On the first point, I can only assume in his case that he’s encountered enough white people who do hold racial stereotypes like him that he hasn’t been called on it in the past. On the second, I just stopped him and asked him a question. Gary, what do you suppose that attitude has to do with those men being Black? And haven’t you ever met a white guy who was less than enthusiastic about working? That uh-oh look washed across his face.
We spent the next few minutes talking about all this and the African American guy who sat down on the other side of me got involved in the conversation too. It was remarkably unheated and friendly and had more of the feel of a Socratic dialog than an anti-racist lecture. Though I have no illusions that Gary will never again think or say racially biased things, I can’t help feeling that maybe he’ll roll this one around in his head for a while and think twice the next time.
I’m absolutely certain my instinct up until a couple of years ago would have been to go on a frontal attack with Gary, but somewhere along the way it struck me that I wasn’t getting through or changing minds that way, which is the point after all.
After more than 20 years of being a socialist and talking to people about politics I still find myself figuring out how to effectively tackle the casual racism of strangers. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all method, but given the racist crap flying around the airwaves, the classrooms and, as always, the bars of this country I have a feeling I’m going to get a lot more practice in months and years to come.
My next public talk is on Fighting the Right, Friday, TONIGHT, Oct. 15th, Rochester Inst. of Technology, Library’s “Idea Factory,” 7PM. I’ll also be speaking the following day, Saturday, Oct. 16, on Can the Working Class Unite? at 3PM, details are here.