"The way you know who the racists are these days is when they start a sentence with 'I'm no racist, but ...'"
I ran into "Mark" last week. I went in for an early evening drink at this joint where he used to work, and there he was, in for an early evening drink himself. I hadn't seen him in five years, not since he'd moved on to his new job. I always liked Mark. We were never bowling buddies or fishing pards or anything like that, but I enjoyed talking with him. He was just a kid when we met. A bright kid and a student. He would tell me about this Harvard professor he admired, Henry Gates Jr., and I would tell him about meeting James Baldwin in the flesh. Mark is no longer a kid, or a student, but he's still pretty young. And still bright.
So we're catching up when one of the guys at the next table over starts telling Mark how he looks like Cuba Gooding Jr. I'm trying to wage varying degrees of repartee with a number of people at once, so I'm slow to pick up on the exchange. But I hear, "No, no. Not Cuba Gooding Jr. It's Chris Rock he looks like." Then the third guy says, "Wesley Snipes, that's who."
I have my back to the guys doing the famous people comparisons, but it's not difficult to guess whom they're talking about. Mark is the only black person in the joint. I look him over and decide he's nowhere near to looking like Cuba Gooding Jr., and even farther from looking like Chris Rock or Wesley Snipes. I decide if he looks like any famous person at all, except for that one thing, it would have to be Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernanke.
OK, two things, actually. Bernanke has a beard and Mark is clean shaven.
I kept my contribution to myself, though. I imagine those guys at the other table would have thought I was either drunk or nuts to suggest Mark could look like Ben Bernanke. In fact, it seemed clear they had only one criterion for picking out famous people for Mark to look like. Had the conversation gone on longer, we might have heard mention of Denzel Washington. Or Samuel L. Jackson. As far as that goes, since they were only seeing that one thing--that one detail out of all the components that makes Mark Mark--they might have decided he was a dead ringer for Halle Berry or Oprah.
The conversation didn't last much longer than it took me to realize it was going on. Mark was obviously not having as much fun with the exchange as they were. He was smiling, but it was the kind of smile you might see on a guy just about to ask for a divorce. He said, "Bill, I don't want to deal with this shit right now. I'll get back to you later." And he moved on to another corner of the joint, presumably where people appreciated him for something beyond whatever African-American movie star they thought he most resembled.
Those guys at the next table didn't mean any harm, I'm sure of it. I've known them for a while, too. They're jolly, good-natured gents and in this situation, there was nothing in their attitude or tone that indicated they meant to hurt Mark's feelings or demean him--that I felt.
But I emphasize "that I felt," because I was not the one being reduced to a transparent reflection because I shared one characteristic with widely recognized men. (After Mark left, I briefly considered asking the three guys who they thought I looked most like--Brad Pitt or Keanu Reeves--but dropped it, suspecting it was a joke only I would get.) Plus, I can never understand, as African-Americans have understood for centuries, what it's like to be recognized for their skin and little else.
Or ... had Mark been older, more seasoned, more adapted to the idea that so many white Americans feel the need to find a familiar and comfortable point of reference to cling onto when they come face to face with one of their black neighbors--that so many white Americans think that by bringing up race first, early and in a genial way (i.e., "I have a niece on my wife's side who married a black dude. Darn nice fellow, from what I can tell, and can he toss a mean horseshoe!"), then they have proven their magnanimity--he likely would have shrugged off the incident as just one of those doofussy things white folks do.
Yet we white folks are making a mistake if we think that racism has to come wrapped in vicious and hateful sentiments to be true racism. The root of it all is one simple thing, one simple sentiment: You are different from me in a way that I can never forget. Viciousness and hate are merely two of the more toxic symptoms that sprout from that root. There are many more, with varying degrees of toxicity, and never in my memory have so many of those symptoms been on such vivid public display as right now. Worse, almost all of them are accompanied by hollow disclaimers that the deluge of scorn and ridicule, paranoia and irrationality, the insistence that "we want our country back," is a matter of policies and philosophies only, and has nothing whatsoever to do with that which they can never forget about the man they want their country back from.
But racism--even the genial, gentle versions of it (i.e., "Know what? You look like Cuba Gooding Jr.") is a little like rape in that it's not up to the offender to say what is and what isn't racism. That's the privilege of the offended. And if we ever wish to be as decent as we pretend to be, it behooves us to trust our neighbors when they tell us something hurts.