When a 'Bad White People Day' Is Just Another Tuesday
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there was a 17-fold increase in hate crimes directed against Arab Americans from the previous year, and while current national and local headlines suggest that the attacks continue, not all make the news.
Not all hate crimes result in physical injury or death, and research suggests that verbal assaults, even though they are clearly not hate crimes, are the most common form of abuse. And for many, what can be experienced as hate speech are just words marinated in a hostile tone, meant to wound.
Since Obama's election there has been a noticeable surge in rhetoric promoting fear and hostility among people of color, particularly immigrants. And just in the last year and a half, with the rise of the Tea Party, the public expressions of disdain were evident in endless campaign signs (often misspelled) that were loaded with negative racial imagery. And thanks to the network that has cultivated and cloned the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, rather than whispering under the radar, many Americans are emboldened to strike back, at full volume, even when they aren't exactly sure why they are afraid.
Just before the November election I witnessed an incident involving two men at a gas station, and although there was no physical confrontation and no crime committed, the potential for violence was undeniable. And later, I found myself wondering if one of the parties involved hadn't just finished watching a special news alert on FOX.
It was one of those magical fall days when fears and misfortunes are momentarily melted by the brilliant sunlight. As I pulled into my neighborhood station, all eight lanes were open. About 10 feet away, a four-door SUV pulled in and parked catty-cornered to one of the gas pumps. The way the vehicle was parked made it difficult, but not impossible, for other cars to reach the pump, but since the station was empty, it didn't seem to matter. Getting out of the SUV was Omar, a young Arab-American man whom I had seen several times before at the station. Although usually cheerful, he seemed particularly happy, and I couldn't help wondering if he had just gotten a new job, a girlfriend or if maybe it was his birthday. We exchanged pleasantries as I swiped my credit card, and he quickened his pace to help a customer exiting the store who needed a hand.
Pulling up to the pump adjoining mine was another SUV with a handsome, middle-class, white male in his 40s, wearing casual attire. He, too, seemed intoxicated by the day, and we greeted one another cheerfully. Within a minute or so, Omar sauntered out of the store with a carton of cigarettes in hand and waved goodbye. Before I could respond, a string of harsh syllables drenched in sarcasm interrupted my words: "Nice parking job!" I felt the hair on my arm stand at attention as I leaned around the pump to identify the source of the snarling. The vitriolic tone was more like a grenade being lodged from behind the pump, and Omar looked around the empty station to determine whether there was another target.
Eager to let him know that I had no part in this affront, I shrugged my shoulders and gestured with my face as if to say, "Yes, I heard that too." After confirming that there was no one else in proximity, Omar turned toward the aggressor (the handsome man who had just smiled at me), who was still positioned behind the gas pump. Omar's response came in the form of a question: "Excuse me, did you say something to me?"
Instantly, the bright light of a beautiful day dimmed, and a cold chill swept up my spine. "You heard me," the white man replied in a tone dripping with disdain. Although finished pumping gas, my car was now directly in between the two men. They stared at one another, and then the handsome white man asked if Omar had a problem understanding English, adding, "I said nice parking job, man! What part of that don't you understand?"
Omar's facial expression indicated that this was not the first or even the fiftieth experience of hostility aimed in his direction, and looking at his posture, I wondered if it might be his last. The look of defiance on the accuser behind the pump suggested that he was sick and tired of something, and somehow Omar and his parking job were the last straw. He was no longer handsome, as his face had grown contorted and almost disfigured. Was this even the same guy I had been admiring just minutes before? As the two squared off, Omar reached for something in his pocket, and I held my breath, flashing on whether or not this was the last time any of us would ever pump gas on a beautiful fall day. Much to my relief, Omar pulled keys out of his pocket, and still locking eyes with the aggressor, he climbed inside his car. As he drove off he spoke out the window: "You see this building and this lot? I own it."
The only words I heard from the other side of the pump were seething and almost under his breath: "Really? Congratulations!" I waved at Omar, hoping that there was comfort in having a witness, and as he disappeared, the man behind the pump shook his head and snarled in my direction: "Can you believe that idiot blocking the pumps like that -- who the hell does he think he is?" Concerned that my silence might be interpreted as agreement, I got back out of the car pretending that I had forgotten to clean my windshield. As I wiped the front window, I inquired if I might ask him a question, and he said "sure."
"I'm just curious. If he were a white man in a suit, would you have spoken to him in the same way?" As if I had poured gasoline and lit his clothes on fire, he exploded: "That's exactly what my wife would say! His race has nothing to do with this! He's an idiot!" While spitting out the words, his face reddened and looked as though it might burst into flames.
"Really? I just wondered," I said. Knowing that a nerve was struck and a line crossed, I was eager to get out of striking distance and drove off. Unnerved by the incident, I called a friend, who is a white, middle-class male, and after I recounted the story, he simply said, "Just sounds like another jerk in a bad mood." I was stunned. He didn't seem to understand how threatening or disturbing the event had been, and that's when it was clear.
For someone who hasn't navigated the daily minefields of hostility, it is too easy to dismiss the incident as isolated, and equally tempting to minimize the physical and psychological impact on those who are repeatedly subjected to acts (or words) of aggression. Still shaken that evening, I shuddered to think how easy (and often) it is for three strangers to be mired in a senseless tragedy because of spiteful words and misplaced anger. And I couldn't help wondering if this is what some people of color refer to as "having a bad white people day."