Sitting at the bar at Matchbox waiting for K to arrive, I idly flipped the pages of my latest foreign policy tome, half-reading and half-listening to the guy sitting next to me drone on to his bored date about the challenges of owning two vacations homes. I'd gotten to the point in reading where I was only semi-processing the words as I read them, the structure of the narrative voice drifting in one ear and out the other as occasional nuggets like "Jeffersonian liberty" or "Open Door Policy" latched on the walls of my brain.
As I sipped my water the bartender appeared to take my drink order. I asked for a Stella and looked back down at my book, but realized a moment later that she was still standing there, also looking down at it. I lifted my eyes to see her half-craning her head, as if to catch something written in it. This was the moment when I realized in horror that the chapter heading, splashed in big bold letters at the top of the page, was "The Hierarchy of Race."
Now would be a good moment to clarify that she was black and I'm white.
We looked up from the chapter heading at the same time and briefly met one anothers' eyes. In that brief moment of eye contact I tried to say "I am a student of history, not a pseudo-scientific Victorian eugenicist! Horrible misunderstanding! This stuff here? This is but the small-minded long-dead influence of a universally discredited theory of racial determinism and its effects on nineteenth-century policymaking! Me, I'm up with people! I led trust falls and small-group dynamic exercises as part of Students Educating Each Other About Discriminiation in high school! Down with whitey!"
Her eyes, on the other hand, seemed to convey a rather simple message of "I hate you."
Glowering, she turned away to get my beer and I bent back over my book, trying to shield the chapter heading with my cupped hand like it was an illict note passed during study hall. I flipped over to the next page just as she returned, sloshing the Stella over the side of the pint glass as she slammed it on the bar with more force than was entirely necessary. And of course, because God was watching and saw an opportunity, here's what was on the next page:
And of course, I couldn't say anything. Much like telling people you're funny or telling people you're powerful, the phrase "I'm not a racist" loses all meaning if you actually have to say it out loud to try to convince someone.
So I just hunkered down and continued reading, sipping my one Stella as slowly as possible so she wouldn't have to come over again and ask if I wanted another.
And then tipped her five bucks on a four dollar bill.