Frank Talk About Racism and Classism

I was sitting on a bench during my ten-minute break from work when I was approached by a young black man with dreds. His clothes were shabby and his eyes were damaged and baggy from the level of exhaustion that usually only comes with the assistance of drugs.

He offered me a quarter to use my cell phone. This reminded me of my boyfriend, who looks a little like a “terrorist.” We had an argument once because he walked a mile home to use the phone rather than asking a person on the street to use theirs. He told me that it never works and people usually get scared or annoyed. He would rather walk the mile than ask.

So it ocurred to me that it wasn’t easy for this man to approach me.

I also thought of all of the things my racist and classist culture has taught me: that he must be desparate and willing to do anything, that he is jealous of my luxury and riches and will not hesitate to hurt me in any way if it is to his benefit.

That I am willing to admit this thought even entered my head is only through years of analyzing class systems. I truly believe that most middle and upper class people only think, “he might steal my phone.” And then they make up a white lie (so aptly named!) to cover their racism (really, more classism, few are intimidated by a black man in an expensive suit.) that everyone else can see right through.

This angered me. What is more likely, that this guy needs to use a phone or that he
is part of some con to score a bunch of crappy, beat-up cell phones and resell them for a fraction of what they are worth? I have loaned my phone out to many people on the street, in retrospect all of them black women at the bus stop. This is less of a coincidence and more owing to 1) most black men wouldn’t bother to ask me for reasons stated above and 2) most white women have cell phones.
Additionally, I have borrowed many cell phones from random people. I never hesitate to ask because I am a white woman which equals harmless and demure.

I have never loaned my phone to a man, much less one that looked like a drug addict (now there’s another stereotype: so many drug addicts look as wealthy as they are. Cocaine, alcohol, pills, weed — desparate housewives live in fear of the crackheads and meth-heads sport these addictions of their own.). I admit I hesitated long enough to think all of these things before I handed it to him, which really only took a few seconds.

Ultimately it ocurred to me that I would rather my cell phone be stolen (which is unlikely, and besides I can outrun this guy) then contribute to the cycle of fear that racism and classism neccessitate, and this was the deciding factor. I gave him my phone and went back to reading my book. He was done in less than three minutes. A car showed up — I suppose he was giving them directions. He made sure to look in to my eyes when he gave the phone back.

He told me that it meant a lot to him that I wasn’t afraid.

He returned minutes later on a bicycle that is much too small for him. Then he told me that this bike may not look like much but it saves him from having to walk three hours to work. I told him that I also ride my bike to work but I don’t even look at jobs that aren’t in biking distance. He responded that with “the dreds and the skin color” jobs aren’t so easy to find. I admitted that things are tough; I have a bachelor’s degree and I work in retail. He took a moment to appreciate that as a sign for how fucked up the economy truly is: even a white girl with a diploma works in a shop and hasn’t had health insurance for years.

I know that our little exchange meant a lot to him and truthfully it meant a lot to me too. We each had to take a risk. Such a small risk, something so inconsequential, at least among people of the same race/class, becomes powerful and imbued with meaning simply because we come from different upbringings. We exchanged names and he promised to spit some poetry when next we meet.

I am truly looking forward to it.