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FAMILY LIFE

There's Nothing Small About Racial Slights

April 05, 1990|MIKE SPENCER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roy, my regular golfing partner, and I are a lot alike in many ways, even if he can't putt.

Other than clothing (a sweat suit on him looks like a tux, while a tux on me looks like a sweat suit), we share many interests--politics, food, travel, books.

But things happen to Roy that simply could never happen to me.

Take his recent experience at a Mission Viejo carwash.

As he was walking to the cashier, another customer drove up, got out of his car and handed Roy the keys. "I don't need any gas," he said. "Just a wash and a hot wax."

Now, if that happened to me, I would (a) think it was a practical joke and laugh or (b) think it insulting, in which case I would take the car to a real employee and order a $75 hand wax and a $100 full detailing of the interior.

But I'm not Roy, who returned the keys and said, "Sorry, I don't work here."

I'm also not black and experienced at handling such notions based on my color.

Roy is both.

Note that I did not say that Roy is "used to" being judged by his color (or mis judged, to be more precise). You don't get used to it, he says, but you do expect it in an area such as Orange County, where just 2% of the population is black. "And you wonder, 'Will it really ever end?' "

I was raised to think that the answer would be in the affirmative--once we did away with all the overt forms of racism that existed in our society.

Now, however, decades after we've knocked down the legal barriers, I'm left to wonder.

I hear from my black friends the slights they receive almost daily, and I hear from my Latino friends who tell of similar experiences (one, whose family has been in California since before the turn of century, is constantly being stopped at the Border Patrol checkpoint just south of San Clemente).

Here's some further testimony, written by Jessie Fauset:

"I am a colored woman, neither white nor black, neither pretty nor ugly, neither specially graceful nor deformed. I am fairly well educated, of fair manners and deportment.

"In brief, the average American done over in brown.

"In the morning, I go to work (by public transportation), which is crowded. Presently, someone gets up. The man standing in front of the vacant place looks around for a woman to give it to. I am the nearest one, but 'Oh,' says his glance, 'you're colored,' and he plunks himself down in the seat.

"At noon I go to lunch. I always go to the same place because I'm not sure of my reception in other places. How long am I to wait (without being served) before I'm sure of a slight? I eat, but I go out still not knowing whether the delay was intentional or not. I can't tell, and the uncertainty beclouds my afternoon.

"I think the thing that irks us most is the teasing uncertainty of it all.

"Did the man at the box office give us the seat behind the post on purpose? Is the shop girl impudent or just nervous?

"Had the position really been filled just before we applied for it?

"What actuates the teacher who tells Alice--oh, so kindly--that the college preparatory course is really very difficult?

"Other things cut deeper, undermine the very roots of our belief in mankind. In school we sing 'America' and learn the Declaration of Independence. Chivalry, kindness, consideration are the ideas held up before us--

"Honor and faith and good intent,

"But it wasn't at all what the lady meant.

--the lady in this case being the white world. (The real message) is that the good things of life, the true, the beautiful, the just, these are not meant for us.

"I am constantly amazed as I grow older at the network of misunderstanding--to speak mildly--and at the misrepresentation of things as they really are which is so persistently cast around us.

"And so the puzzling, tangling, nerve-racking consciousness of color envelops and swathes us.

"Some of us, it smothers."

What's most fascinating about the above is that while it could have been written by my friend Roy this morning. It actually appeared in a publication called the World Tomorrow in March of 1922.

I don't pretend to know the answer or even, for that matter, that there is one. It may be, as a doctor friend says--only half in jest--that racism is genetic, that we are born with a need to discriminate against others.

But it certainly wouldn't hurt if we all were just a little more understanding and conscious of our actions when dealing with people of other races.

Roy wouldn't ask you to do that for him, but I will. Being a little more comfortable with his life in Orange County might improve his putting, and that would please me much.

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