Ingrained

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This morning I saw a video that brought back a memory for me. The incident in the video occurred a few days ago and is described here. In it, a white lady in a nice middle-class suburban neighborhood is calling the police on he black neighbors while continuing to argue with them. According to the articles, the dispute was about whether the black family had a permit for a new stone patio. There are some extremely familiar elements in this video:

  1. It’s one of at this point countless videos of white people calling the cops on people of color for doing totally innocuous things like walking into their own apartment buildings, using a community pool, setting up BBQs in the wrong areas, asking people to leash their dogs, or, most commonly, just generally existing in a public setting. If you have no clue what I’m talking about, I kindly suggest that you attempt to check out this thing we have that’s called “the news” from time to time.
  2. It’s a dispute between neighbors, and as anyone who has ever glanced at NextDoor knows, neighbor disputes can get CRAZY. I, myself, am ready to shank the next person who I catch tossing their dog’s poop into my trash can. Unkempt lawns, plants that grow over fencelines, drum practice after 9pm or construction work before 9am, cats peeing in sandboxes, all of these things are fodder for nuclear war in the psyche of most American neighbors. I have no clue if the people in this video had a permit, no clue if they needed a permit, no clue why this lady (thinks that she) gives a crap about a permit, and what kind of extended conflict these neighbors have had. Knowing how tense neighborly fights can get without any other elements involved, we don’t really know for sure whether this woman’s anger is actually race-based, or whether she’s just REALLY REALLY PASSIONATE about patio regulations. We can make some very educated guesses, but we can’t know for certain (which, of course, is part of what makes covert racism so difficult to combat).

But what makes this video different from most Karen videos and NextDoor battles I’ve been seeing recently is the witnesses. As the camera rolls (or whatever the cellphone-video equivalent of film-rolling is), other white ladies are standing, at a safe social distance, on the sidewalk across the street. There are two of them, and it seems like maybe they each belong to one of the other houses. They are just watching, staring, I think maybe even with their hands on their hips. They are silent (at first). To me, they look angry, like they are also ready to lay down the white lady law here. Eventually another slightly-younger white lady comes in from stage left (or stage right? I can’t remember drama class). She is walking dogs, and it is not clear how long she has been right there off screen- whether she’s been watching for a while, or whether she’s just arrived on the scene. Either way, she starts calling out the (presumably) racist lady. And the racist lady starts defending herself. She starts to say that the husband in the black family assaulted her. And this is where things get interesting; the angry-looking white ladies in the background stand up for the black family. They say that they have been watching, and the black guy never touched her. They say he was clearly upset, and his own wife pushed him back, but what the racist white lady was saying was completely untrue. They are angry white ladies who are not letting other angry white ladies get away with this shit.

Here’s why this particular video, and why these particular angry white ladies, struck a chord with me: I have been in a very similar situation. But things turned out very differently in ours.

Many years ago, when I was still a young white lady, I was in the car with a friend of mine, who was also a young white lady. My friend was at the wheel, and she missed her turn. No problem; we can turn around up ahead. She pulled into a turn lane, which would take us into a quiet residential neighborhood where we could safely turn around and then get back onto the road. Or, at least, this is what I thought the plan was. My friend, however, decided to pull a U-turn. This was a poor decision (and one which, I’m sure, she very much regrets). This intersection had a big NO U-TURN sign posted, and with good reason; this was a particularly busy road with a high speed limit, and this intersection was right after the crest of a hill. If someone were pulling a U-turn right there, they would not be able to see if there is any oncoming traffic, and oncoming traffic would have no time to slow down or react to someone pulling in front of them. That is exactly what happened in our situation. My friend pulled the U-turn and ended, briefly, in the left lane. Right then, a car came over the hill traveling in the left lane. My friend tried to move over into the right/slow lane to get out of his way, but he was already also trying to move into that lane to avoid hitting us. He now had to swerve back to the left lane. His car fishtailed, he lost control, and his car went swirling in crazy circles past us until it popped the curb and crashed into a hill.

Terrified, we stopped our car and jumped out. The other driver got out, too, looking understandably stunned. The other driver was a young black man. This fact shouldn’t matter, but sadly, for this story, it does. At first glance he seemed physically fine, and his car wasn’t too messed up (memory is fuzzy, but I think he’d managed to lose enough speed by the time he crashed that we’re talking maybe a bent fender or something). Knowing my friend was at fault and in deep shit, we still tried to do everything we’re supposed to do in the situation. We tried to exchange information, but the guy kept waving us off. He said he was fine. We tried to give him contact info anyway, for later, just in case he changes his mind, etc. It occurred to me that he seemed scared. He mentioned his father a couple times, and it was unclear how much of his fear was of getting in trouble with his father versus getting in trouble with the authorities. Of course, this was madness; this guy had done exactly NOTHING wrong for which he should get in trouble, so why was he scared?

Around this same time, a bunch of witnesses popped up out of nowhere. I don’t know where these people had been when the incident took place. This was a busy road, but fenced off from the neighborhood, and there was a busy shopping center with a parking lot across the street. I don’t remember how many of these people showed up, probably only a couple, but I do remember that they were all middle-aged white people. They first ask us, with great concern, whether we were alright. So far so good! Then they turned their attention to the other driver, and to my total shock and horror, started yelling at him. “How fast were you going?!” I remember one of them asking. There were a few other accusatory questions directed at him, but I don’t remember them exactly.

One of the angry old white people looked at my friend’s car and noticed a dent. “Did he do this to you?” they asked.

“No, that was already there.” This is about when the angry white people started to piece things together. White girl has a history of wrecks? Hmm.

“What happened?”

“We were making a U-turn and he had to swerve.”

The while people looked up at the gigantic, obvious no U-turn sign. “It says no U-turn,” they said. Yes, we agreed that it did indeed say that. They looked disappointed.

And with that, the angry white people vanished in a cloud of smoke, gone as fast as they has appeared. They were so eager to be of assistance when they thought they were protecting young white girls from a black guy, than when they realized the young white women were at fault for what happened to a black guy. The offers to be witnesses were suddenly off the table.

I was SO. ANGRY. And I continue to be so angry to this day anytime I think about it. At the time, when I realized what was happening, I wanted to SCREAM. I wanted to just let lose and let these racist assholes have it! Who the fuck did they think they were? How dare they judge this guy? How dare they attack him with their judgments, and let us pasty angels off the hook, based entirely on appearance? It was, I think, the most blatant example of direct racism I had ever seen in person. Holding in my anger was very difficult. I knew that, if you get in a car accident, you are never supposed to verbally admit fault. And my friend could, potentially, be in a lot of trouble. And I couldn’t make things worse for her. So I held my tongue. But I did glare daggers at these assholes, and I’ve been told I always look angry anyway, so hopefully they were getting at least some of my angry vibes.

One crazy thing is, I always thought that I grew up in a pretty progressive, woke area. I bet you none of those people think they’re racist. I bet they are the people who say “all lives matter!” and think they mean it, and mean it as a positive. Or maybe they even have a black lives matter sign in their window, or post inspirational MLK quotes on their Facebook walls. But in those split-second decisions, when those deeply-ingrained biases can suddenly pop out into the light, they went full-blown racist. Now look, everyone has their biases. Everyone. And its on us to try to root out and address these biases in ourselves. These people, in this moment, had an opportunity to catch themselves and to be better. They realized they were targeting, they realized they had their information wrong, and they had a moment, right then and there, where they could have gone “Oh, man, I made an assumption. Time to change course.” They could have still stayed onsite, redirected their disgust at us, offered to help the guy with his car, and still acted as witnesses. But they didn’t. They just left. I pray, for their sake, that they later reflected on this incident and realized they made the wrong call. And decided they need to do better in the future. But I doubt it.

The rest of the memory is fuzzy, but I think that after the dickbags left, the other driver let us at least help escort him to the next gas station where he could safely park and wait for his dad. I can’t remember if we managed to get him to accept contact info or not, but I don’t think my friend ever heard another word from him. But after seeing firsthand the reactions of these faux witnesses, I got a better sense of why he was scared. If I had a lifetime of being reacted to like that, I wouldn’t want to deal with us, either.

What does all this have to do with the Patio Karen video? Whether or not you believe that this woman’s patio rage was racism-based, what got me was her reaction to the other white ladies. When I saw those angry-looking old white neighbors staring, I got a flashback to those people who stopped by our car accident. And I got a strong sense that our villain was getting that same sense. Allies to back her up in her battle against them. But she didn’t get what she, or I , was expecting. No, instead they turned on her. They did what our witnesses all those years ago should have done. They did the right thing. They evaluated the situation, called out the bullshit, and stuck around to be real witnesses and to give their stories to the police.

These two stories are, of course, two individual incidents, involving different people in a different situation and different geographic regions. But I still saw some hope. Maybe we’re making some progress. It’s slow and frustrating, but maybe it’s there.

I’ll finish this off with one more quick story. I live in the DC metro area, in a neighborhood that has a lot of hotels, and was here during the two day period when we had President Trump’s inauguration immediately followed by the Women’s March. A fun game I played while walking around was trying to guess which tourists were in town for which event. For the most part, the answers were exceedingly obvious. Young woman in hipster glasses and wearing a bright pink pussy hat? Women’s March. Fat white dude wearing camo pants and a MAGA hat? Inauguration. Boat shoe and tucked-in pink polo? Inauguration. Chuck Taylor All Stars and ripped jeans? Women’s March. Etc. Any/all women of color? Women’s March.

But there was one demographic that was impossible to figure out in most cases: older white women. Older white women could swing either way. They were either in town to support the racist, or oppose the sexist. As a borderline-youngish-to-middle-age white woman, I get frustrated seeing racism in the women to whom I should be looking up. Older white women, who have had to live through the frustrating obstacles of extreme sexism, should be the first ones on the battle lines against racism. Discrimination in the work force? I get that! I’m with you! Not feeling safe walking down the street? I get that! I’m with you! Police don’t take you seriously? For white women their rapists walk free, for black people they get killed. I get that! I’m with you! People think you don’t deserve to vote? I get that! I’m with ou! But somehow, for some many white women, the ingrained fear of our differences seems to win out against the appreciation for our similarities. Which is very sad.

I wish I hadn’t judged the neighbors in this video. I wish I felt safe giving them the benefit of the doubt and had assumed they would step in and help. But I had given my own neighbors the same benefit of the doubt all those years ago, and they failed me. So, thank you, old white ladies of Montclair, for doing the right thing. Because we all know that many of your peers would not have done the same.


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