Pigmentally Challenged, or: Sometimes I’m Glad My Father Died

Dear Internet: you look like a thug.
Dear Internet: you look like a thug.

My father died of pancreatitis ten years ago this month. His death was sudden, and devastating, and heading into the holidays this season I was unsure how I’d feel.

Now I imagine him after the rise of social media as an 82-year-old. I envision him not only confronted by the coverage of the Ferguson verdict, but the Internet response which proves just how insular and unchallenged certain groups can be in our contemporary United States. I say “can be” because clearly not all people are exhibiting problematic behavior.

That said, my father endured a lot for showing up outside his home with dark skin, and as a pacifist who loved humanity despite his struggles the pain he would feel seeing the casual and instant dismissive belligerence, it’s hard to fathom.

Fact check: I haven’t examined the evidence presented to the jury in the Ferguson case. I do have access to the emotion, arguments, and memes of the Internet. What I write about does not stem from external resources, however, and instead comes from personal experience.

What is that experience? Let’s take a look at my socio-temporal context, that being I was born in the early 1970s and am derived from the Pennsylvania Dutch, Lenni Lenape, Powhatan, English, West African, and many more, in a region with a history of police brutality (read the link only if you want to be further discouraged by the state of things).

Fact check part two: as a biological male I profit from disparities in gender equality, meaning I don’t have it as bad as women of an ethnic background.

Now, let me tell you about the time a pale skinned member of the police force let me off the hook. I was driving consistently ten miles over the speed limit on Interstate 270. He pulled me over, and after speaking with me let go. Of course he was a county officer who had followed me into another county, so perhaps that influenced his decision. Also: I was once again in the company of Anglos which, in this case, might have worked to my benefit? I’m trying to imagine the car filled instead with the fellows I grew up with in the hood, those who went on to hold jobs, who behaved as though they had a lick of home training (i.e. etiquette), and it’s hard to imagine that crowd of dark faces coming away from the incident with smiles. Why? Read on…

Once, when returning from a ten or twelve hour shift at work I was in the parking lot of my family’s condo. Police cruised me as I walked, slowing down to glare at me with utter hatred. Then they stopped, shining their spotlight on me. Ever have that feeling when you know you’re about to be hit? Or that feeling when you know you’re about to lose everything? And, worse, there’s nothing you can do about it?

They started to get out, then stopped, hesitated, and drove away leaving me baffled. Maybe they were waiting for me to run like any self-respecting criminal would, or perhaps they got a call, or some other variable came into play. They made sure to get in a final sneer of contempt, leaving me with an unsettling mixture of anger and relief.

I had worried about the police catching me in a parking lot at night ever since an experience I had in the 7th grade. My mother had sent me to borrow a cup of flour from a family in the neighboring apartment building. It was after nightfall. While out I saw an Anglo boy whom I wanted to avoid, and hid behind a car to do so. While counting to thirty before I took a look to see if it was safe, police descended on me. They took my cowering for an attempt at breaking into the car. My explanation regarding the other boy–who was still in sight–did not seem to interest them. They kept me there for a while, grilling me and studying my school identification card. Then they spent some time laughing at me before sending me on my way, so I got off easy. They were not ethnic minorities, nor were those other police later in life.

Which doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. When discussing race and diversity at publishing industry events is I always try to point out that we writers should not depict some vague mass of “whiteness”–that is, people descended from western Eurasia all have their own cultures, traditions, feuds…otherwise known as identity. And there are plenty of villainous people of color out there. I have been the receiving end of their trouble making, just not when they were police or security guards.

Speaking of publishing industry conferences, one reason I enjoy attending them is that I am received as an erudite, articulate guy who will talk philosophy and science with you until the wee hours of the morning. All too often when I show up elsewhere I am Osama bin Blackman Do Not Approach Suspect Is Armed And Dangerous. From the security guards who so stereotypically have followed me around malls, to the store employees who made a point of following me around at an uncomfortably close distance with scowls and crossed arms, to cashiers who insisted I present a valid drivers license to pay with a credit card when other customers in line did not have to do so, to the Holocaust Museum.

Wait, what? Yes, my one trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC involved me dropping off my (Anglo) companions, then trying to locate parking. That took a while. When my (Anglo) companions continued on ahead of me as I had assured them they should they had an excellent experience–well, despite the subject matter, but you know what I mean. For my part I spent twenty minutes wandering the museum trying to catch up with them as a large security guard stalked me, drawing ever nearer and bolder with his unfriendly disposition. No sooner had I met up with my (Anglo) friends than–lo and behold!–the guard hesitated, stopped, and went away. I’m sure it was just a twenty minute long coincidence.

How does the TSA stack up? I was stopped every time I flew from early 2002 to late 2008. Strange how the end point coincided with the election of a president descended from Africans. Anyway, I was always taken aside for special attention in the form of frisking or the use of chemicals to determine if my carryon baggage contained explosive components. The closest I’ve ever come to a prison sentence was when, on the way to the AWP conference, my 18-month-old son was taken out of my arms and groped as well, including a thorough examination of his diaper. I managed to restrain myself and permit them to do this, but the memory still makes me ill and angry. From that point on I always ensured my wife went through security with our son, because she, being Anglo, never had him taken and searched for making the grave error of being seen in an airport with her. Of course, I could be grossly overreacting. I do not inhabit the skin of others, and as such cannot determine if they have gone through all the experiences I detail here. Anecdotal evidence suggests they really do not, though.

It doesn’t seem they tend to get surrounded by men in body armor with machine guns drawn, then forced to exit their vehicle as I have. There was an Anglo woman at the wheel, but with me in the vehicle–and another man of mixed ethnicity–it was only natural that we be removed to a detention facility when coming back into the USA from the desperately foreign land of…Canada. I think the entire detour lasted about three hours, during which time it dawned on me why we were singled out when every other car continued on its way.

While languishing in the detention center everyone I observed leaving the interviews appeared to be of Middle Eastern, Indian, or Pakistani descent. We never made it to the interview stage; apparently the German shepherds they brought out to the van cleared us of malicious intent. That, and the US Department of Transportation documentation I had for all the books we’d been selling at a convention in Toronto. Without spending that $500 at USDOT prior to departing, well, who knows what would have happened to us.

Ultimate FU to those who cannot pay their way out of tight spots: remember that first round of Catholic Church sex abuse scandals in the early 1990s? Well. By the mid-90s the Church had found a location for its rehabilitation facility. Apparently they were given authority to take molesters and rapists in their ranks and “deal with it” themselves? Twenty years later I’m still scratching my head over that one. Anyway, no neighborhood is going to want 500 sex criminals dropped into their midst. Everywhere the Church turned they were blocked.

Until it came to my neighborhood. Why? The extremely high rate of immigrants from around the world? The low income? The monastery right in the middle of it all that could easily be cleared out and repurposed? Because there were two elementary schools within walking distance, all the better to prove the patients’ temptations had been conquered? Whatever the case, the men did not have cars but you would often see them leaving St. Luke’s Institute to walk around the neighborhood. They traveled in twos or threes, presumably to defend themselves against those looking to go upside a molester’s head. I’ve read that FBI statistics indicate three out of seven sexual assaults are perpetrated by multiple assailants (like molesters moving in twos or threes), but that’s none of my business. So they walked around unimpeded in the same broad daylight under which police would slow to look me up and down. Oh, I forgot to mention they mostly seemed to be white, these magic 500 the Catholic Church sent to wander our streets.

Speaking of the streets I should touch on a frequent complaint of ethnic minorities everywhere. Have I been pulled over on suspicion of driving drunk? Several times. Number of times driving drunk when police pulled me over? None. Number of times driving dark? Every time.

Conversely, when dealing with the various state police patrolling our highways I’ve never had anything but good experiences. They are polite, helpful, and efficient every time. Why this deviation from the behavior of other public overseers? No idea, but I wouldn’t begrudge the state police taking over local jurisdictions if they are as consistently respectable as I have perceived them to be. Until then I brace myself every time I leave home because, as you can see, there is a pervasive pattern of being stopped, detained, and otherwise interrupted or menaced that can make it difficult for ethnic types like myself to get things done. Or, we’re just lazy and poor planners (insert sad LOL here).

Do you understand that by permitting such treatment of the underclass you are training authorities to behave this way as a matter of course? Have you been paying attention to the widespread reports of police brutality across the spectrum with increasing frequency these last ten years, and by “across the spectrum” I mean regardless of socioeconomic background? The white middle class privilege only extends so far, as illustrated by the fate of my father’s direct manager. She was a middle aged Anglo crossing the street to her home after parking her car…when a police cruiser ran her over. She survived, but the injuries sustained were crippling. Despite the fact the officer was not responding to a call nothing happened to him. She had no recourse, just crippling injuries, end of story. She was not technically in the crosswalk, just near the crosswalk, so: justice.

Which reminds me that I ought to recount the manner in which the police handled my mother’s multiple muggings. Yeah, multiple–we didn’t live in a great neighborhood, if you haven’t picked up on that yet. One occurred when she walked up to the convenience store for milk and on the way home found herself wrestling on the roadside for a quarter of an hour with a young woman who really, really wanted her wallet. The police took it all quite seriously, were prompt and courteous, and conducted follow-ups. Same with the other mugging years later. Oh, and also with the voyeur who bothered her even later on. It is worth noting my mother is…what ethnicity? Can you guess? Okay, her great grandmother was a full blooded Native American, but yeah, she’s Anglo.

By comparison one time a Latino family up the street from us called about a burglar, also Latino. The police showed up and, despite the family’s protests, took away their son while leaving the burglar. Hence the, y’know, frequent reluctance of folks to call the police when stuff goes down, and also my mother’s luck in being part of the neighborhood’s Anglo minority.

Back to my father. He watched the news with great intensity, and took the reports to heart. At times he would cheer or rage. Frequently it was the latter. That was due to his coming up in a time when news reporting often involved presenting both sides of an issue, and many details being revealed, as opposed to the 15-second segments and product placements we are stuck with today. His faith in the news would have transferred to the online arena as well, I’m sure.

And the problem with that would not be the Ferguson verdict. It’s the response to the minority community response. That would have likely killed my father’s octogenarian heart. I’d rather he die from the pancreas which leaked enzymes that dissolved his other organs than die from the smug horde of 15-year-olds tweeting it’s only liberal tree hugging Anglos who make the shooting death of a teen a matter of race (along with all the infinitely more virulent commentary online).

Maybe the shooting wasn’t about race; that is another argument entirely. You know what sure as hell is about race? Everything that came after the shooting, which is what I have perceived the uproar being about all along. Y’know, the investigation, handling of evidence, and so on (all of which the verdict relied on). But anyway. You can probably see how the constant suspicion, harassment, and outright violence many of us experience shapes how we interpret the 11 in 160,000 chance of a grand jury failing to indict.

Postscript: my great grandfather was a famously corrupt and violent cop in New York City. He has even been discussed in books for his antics. No, he did not hail from the side of my family which has African blood. This is, however, a long story for another blog.

Post-postscript: here’s one take on a city getting rid of its police force: https://www.dollarvigilante.com/blog/2014/10/1/what-happens-when-all-the-police-in-a-town-are-removed.html

Post-post-postscript: I am only relating here about how I have perceived my ethnicity influencing my relationship with the police, TSA, border agents, security guards, and so forth. There is much more to say on the matter in regards to daily interactions with “regular people”…but, again, that is another blog entirely.

13 thoughts on “Pigmentally Challenged, or: Sometimes I’m Glad My Father Died”

  1. I’m not sure how long I’ve been following your blog now but I think this is the first time your ethnicity has ever come up John. I think had you been named Kwame or something I still wouldn’t have known you were anything but white. Nothing to do with you being the erudite person you are but purely based on your picture.
    My lovely son in law is BLACK and probably as black as can be while my grandson who is a delightful coffee colour is still darker than you.
    Having now got over what was just a minor surprise I have to say I’m sorry not only for the way you’ve been treated but also for the way in which you’ve come to expect to be treated. It’s disgusting that a proportion of that treatment should be at the hands of those employed to serve and protect the public regardless of ethnicity.
    It sickens me that those people exist, much less that they are put in positions of some power and then automatically protected rather than prosecuted by their own.
    I can’t excuse the same behaviour here in the UK though I will say it doesn’t happen with the frequency or the ferocity of the US and within the UK I don’t hear much about it in my Wales.
    I hope one day the Christian whites who promote this attitude of one race being better than another can be weeded out by those with a better sense of justice and I hope the churches close their doors on all intolerance though probably not in my lifetime.
    So, please accept the apologies of one person for the treatment meted out by others of my race. I promise you, we’re not all the same.I hope as a result of happenings like Ferguson that things change for the better.
    Hugs
    David

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    1. David, I’ve long known you are a great guy and your response further confirms my suspicion. Thank you so much for adding some meaningful commentary to this! I’m relieved things seem to be better in the UK. I know I found myself at ease when visiting England.

      And hey, no need to apologize, just keep being a beacon of rational thought–we need as many people like you as we can get leading by example.

      Be well!

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  2. I endorse everything David has said. This is a powerful piece, John. The status quo angers and saddens me. It is beyond comprehension that human beings still treat each other as they do. When will the human race ever grow up.

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    1. Thank you so much for the kind words. For my part I believe the status quo is gradually improving, but part of that improvement seems to be a seesaw effect wherein we must swing back through a bad phase to spur on progress. Take care!

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  3. Being online friends with you, I was surprised and sad to read about your experiences over your life.

    There are so many things to be stigmatized for, there is a wonder that anyone falls in a “normal” range so that they have the “right” to look down on the rest of us!

    I think that you are funny and weird in a good way! LOL

    I also think that most of us have mixed blood, whether we know it or not. Now that dna testing is getting less expensive, part of researching ancestry might include learning about distant biological ancestors and people are amazed at the results.

    My last point on this topic, is that so many of our best loved and gorgeous, exotic actors, models, and music celebrities are of all kinds of creative mixed ancestry. There are always posts on who has what combinations in their blood and background.

    Ok, so you are not a tv or movie star, and you have been discriminated against. That is HORRIBLE, and I am ashamed of anyone that did that to you.

    Some of my issues –

    I can also share with you that being overweight brings on a lot of scorn and discrimination.

    Being handicapped/disabled/otherwise abled brings out pity or we are invisible.

    Having a mental illness is — well, you know.

    Just wanted you to know that your feelings are familiar to me, even though I don’t have the same shoes.

    Funny/strange story – my grandmother always told me that we were enough American Indian to live on a reservation if we wanted to. I felt like I was related to American Indians, and cried visiting points along the Trail of Tears as a teen.

    My Dad researched our ancestry and it was totally not true! It was all a story, that fueled my imagination.

    In closing (long comment – right?) I LOVE being your friend, and if you need me to defend you from any bullies, just let me know! Now that I am a gray haired, disabled, chubby, mentally ill woman who is passionate about defending my friends – they probably won’t mess with us again!!!! LOL

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    1. Thank you so much for the reply, and more importantly the sharing. I’m honored to be friends with you and so many like you worldwide via the Internet.

      And yes, you are absolutely correct on many fronts. Both of my parents dealt with obesity and physical impediments, so I have witnessed firsthand how people are treated when they don’t properly fit into the mold society has cast for us all. The indifference and disrespect accorded those with mobility challenges can be discouraging, but then there are also people who really go out of their way and give me hope.

      The Native American heritage story is a good one! Both the irony, and also your great empathy. Also, your grasp on the fact that YES: there is so much mixed blood floating around all over, and nobody seems to acknowledge it most of the time!

      Anyway, I realize there are people who have it much worse than me…I just hope this post can help raise awareness of discrimination patterns, and maybe get folks thinking about ways we can overcome this.

      Have a beautiful weekend!

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