Friday, September 19, 2008
On Being "Other"
I enjoy going to the movies. Any movie, really. Stupid action flicks, comedies, dramas, fantasy - whatever. I just enjoy going to the movies. But there's always a price I pay.
For instance, the other night, I decided I wanted to go see a movie in the theatre. I didn't know what I wanted to see, but I noticed that "Burn After Reading" (the new Coen brothers movie) was showing at the little neighborhood theatre down the street from me. So I went. Alone.
And so I got there, bought my ticket, got some popcorn, and found a seat. I was a little bit early and - this being a little "historic" theatre - there weren't any ads or anything else playing before the show time, so I had a chance to munch my popcorn and look around the theatre. And - lo and behold - I was literally the only non-white person in the room.
The only one. Nobody else. A full theatre. And I was the only non-white person. And it's not that there were some "probably-white" folks thrown into the mix. No - everybody was as white as white can be. Everybody. Except me.
And then the previews started. And one of them was a preview for a movie coming out (poorly) lampooning Michael Moore called "An American Carol" (let's just say they made a slavery joke and two Arab jokes in one minute-long preview) that got a couple laughs.
I brushed it off. I hadn't come to see that - I already know that people like that exist, that people find that kind of thing funny. Moving on.
So the real movie started, and I got pulled in, and off I went. But while I was getting into the movie, I couldn't help but count that there were only four people of color in the whole film (with speaking parts - none of them more than two lines), and I'm pretty sure that included the extras. But I knew that was going to happen - it always happens like that - so I moved past it. I brushed it off and kept watching the movie.
And - overall - I enjoyed it. I thought it was pretty funny. Nothing in the movie was overtly racist or pissed me off (one of the speaking characters of color was the Latino janitor . . . but they didn't really go there in a bad way, so I could shake it off). So when the movie ended, I felt more or less satisfied.
But then, as I got up to leave the theatre, I saw everyone else around me again. And I was reminded: oh yeah, EVERY single other human being in the place was white. Everybody. Except me.
And then I re-reflected on the characters in the movie - oh yeah, everyone that even slightly mattered was white. Not like me.
And then I started thinking about the fact that I was probably the only person at that showing that actually gave a sh-- about any of that. That noticed that. That looked out at that sea of white faces and felt uncomfortable in any way. Because - for all those people - what they looked at when they did so was "normal." It was like them. It was like what they were seeing on the big screen. It was like what they see all day every day. "Normal."
And so one more little chip settled onto my shoulder. One more added for another day when I couldn't avoid thinking about my other-ness in the particular world and city I live in. Just like every other day. One more chip piled onto the thousands already settled there. One more chip that my soul has to adjust to, get a little stronger to carry. Because that's how "normal" treats those that don't look like the "norm."
And that's the thing that keeps white folks from EVER being able to understand race. Because "that one time" doesn't do it. A whole year or two of voluntarily (and I stress, VOLUNTARILY) standing out in a foreign country doesn't do it. It's a lifetime. And the knowledge that it's going to last the REST of that lifetime, as well. There's no going home. There's no changing my mind. A plane ticket isn't going to do anything. There's no choice.
And yeah, yeah - I chose to see that movie, at that theatre, in this city. I chose all that. And I knew exactly what to expect. But that's not the point. It's that I have to very consciously think about those decisions and what that's going to mean for me, as an experience. That if I choose to go with "mainstream" - I'm going to get this experience. That I have to choose very specific movies and locations in which to watch those movies to get a taste of a different kind of "norm."
THAT'S what race means in this country. It's carrying around this weight on a daily basis and constantly having to adjust and think about how and where and when you're going to walk around in the world. Having to "brush off" constant little reminders and insults and frustrations just to stay sane and smiling.
And when I think about all this, it occurs to me: for some people, that ISN'T the case. For some people, what they see on tv and in the media actually does somewhat resemble what they see in the mirror. For some people, the sea of white skin that poured through my evening wasn't even noticeable because that is what "normal" looks like. For some people, that ever-so-slight ache of loneliness doesn't hit them every time (or any time) that that kind of "normal" surrounds them.
And that's kind of crazy to me. Because, for me, the consciousness and ache and other-ness . . . THAT'S "normal" in this country. And I wouldn't want to be on the other side if it meant losing that awareness. But those few hours per month (or two, or three) when it all flips upside-down? DAMN, if I don't appreciate it . . .