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Dana Parsons

We All Need an Equal Opportunity to Have a Bad Day

September 10, 1993|Dana Parsons

In Orange County in the 1990s, one of the more challenging realities will be our increasingly diverse racial and ethnic makeup. You don't need to be a licensed seer to foresee the possibility of trouble along those lines. Different races and cultures will continue to come into contact with each other, and that will prove unsettling to many in our midst.

It's a safe bet that many minority group members will continue to feel discriminated against. It's a safe bet that many majority-group citizens indeed will discriminate against others.

However . . .

How, short of some blatant signals, do you really know when you've been discriminated against because of your race or ethnicity? What if you think you're being discriminated against, but really aren't? What if you've just run into a day where you happen to get the short end of the stick all the time?

If the questions interest you, bear with me as I recount a recent personal tale.

I live in a comfortable-but-not-posh townhouse complex in Huntington Beach. Typical of gated communities, all residents have a plastic card that opens the wrought-iron gate. Sometimes I go for walks without taking my card. My standard practice when I return is to simply wait at the gate until someone with a card shows up and then walk in behind them. It means that I just stand there, leaning against a wall in a loitering pose, but I don't give it much thought.

That happens without incident 99% of the time.

A couple of weeks ago, however, a resident who I didn't know balked at opening the gate with me standing there. She asked why I didn't have a card. She asked if I lived there, and I said I did. She asked me the number of my unit, and I wouldn't tell her. She made it clear she felt uncomfortable letting me in, but she realized she couldn't stop me.

I don't think I look very threatening. I may have been unshaven and looking like a ragamuffin to the woman, but I'm still about as WASPy as you can get.

So, clearly, discrimination wasn't the issue. The woman was reluctant either because she was a stickler for the rules or because she genuinely saw me as a possible threat.

I stewed for a while and eventually got to wondering what I'd have thought if I were black. If I'd known that people on foot were frequently let into the complex, would I have felt the woman was singling me out because of color?

I'd guess many blacks would have instinctively felt the sting of bias in the woman's action, although she clearly is an equal-opportunity stickler.

That situation was not unlike what I occasionally experience in restaurants. I often eat alone but prefer a bigger booth, so I can spread out a newspaper or read a magazine without knocking over the salt and pepper shakers.

Sometimes, the Seat Selection Person doesn't want to give me a larger booth and, to my chagrin, directs me to a tiny booth in a corner. Or, ugh, the counter. I've wondered many times how a single black person reacts to similar treatment? Do they assume they're being discriminated against?

What about all of life's other put-downs and trashings? Such as someone yelling at you for your lousy driving? The merchant who puts up the "Closed" sign a minute before closing time, just as you get to the front door? The nightclub bouncer who says you don't pass the dress code?

In the society we should be striving for, no minority-group member would read bias into any of those incidents. I suspect, however, that many do read bias into virtually every one of them.

That bugs me, but my thinking isn't far enough evolved to know who I'm most bugged at. Should my irritation be directed at the minority-group person who automatically feels the "victim" of the same kind of treatment that your basic John Doe sometimes gets? Or, should my irritation be directed at a society that has, by its own documented actions over the years, fostered that kind of mind-set among minority-group members?

I suppose I could split the difference and be bugged at both. All I know is that it's one of those societal things I want resolved. I don't want every minority member of society thinking every rotten thing that happens to them is an act of discrimination. Nor do I want majority members subconsciously injecting race or ethnicity into their treatment of others.

Impossible requests? Impossibly naive?

Probably.

But my request is so simple: I just want to live in a society where a black-skinned or brown-skinned person can have a rotten day from sunup to sundown and not have to worry whether his skin color had anything to do with it.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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