In light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, the subject of race in America is at the forefront of everybody's minds, including my own. Polls show that many white and black people view this tragedy through starkly different lenses. This serves as a sobering reminder that despite the distance this country has traveled on a range of social issues, there is still an enormous amount of ground to cover in reconciling our nation's sinful past with its hopeful future. As a gay white man and drag queen who is engaged to an African-American man, my interracial same-sex relationship has given me unique insight into the fundamental mistrust, and often subconscious disdain, that people have for anyone different from themselves.
Ask almost any white person in America and they will tell you straight out that they are not racist. You will hear everything from, "I have black friends" to "I voted for Obama" as evidence of their inclusive viewpoints. Yet, in the five years that I have been with my black partner, I have been amazed by the profoundly different ways in which each of us is treated in similar situations. I won't bore you with the endless stories of the white people who cross the street when they see my boyfriend walking by, or the countless women who clutch their purses tightly as he passes. Nor shall I waste your time retelling how folks watch him like a hawk when we enter a store, while I could be walking out with half the inventory tucked under my shirt and no one seems to care.
On the other hand, I equally refuse to delve into the Facebook post an African-American friend of mine recently wrote where he stated that a black man dating a white man is the ultimate slap in the face to black culture. I will not count off stares, glares, and eye rolls we get on the subway from white and black people alike, or waste my energy on our white gay acquaintances that reduce our interracial relationship to a wild Mandingo fantasy and a conversation about penis size.
Instead, let's examine the simple, but surprisingly painful act of dining out.
One evening not so long into our courtship, my fiancé and I went to a hipster restaurant located in a progressive Brooklyn neighborhood for dinner. As we entered, the hostess, who was white, asked how many people were in our party, to which I replied, and proceeded to sit us at a table by the window where the waitress, who happened to be white, promptly handed me our menus and asked if we wanted a drink. After listing the specials and pointing out some exceptional bottles of wine, she stepped away to give us a minute to choose. When I looked up from the menu smiling I saw that my boyfriend was totally ticked. I was dumbfounded and asked what was wrong. My face fell as he sadly declared that "it" was happening again. Unsure what "it" was, he began to explain that the wait staff was completely ignoring his existence, just like in every other restaurant we had gone to before. I was jarred as I quickly learned that my point of view was truly one-sided, as what I was saw as polite service, he experienced as a fundamental and continual disrespect. After all, the questions asked and the specials listed were strictly addressed to me while he was not even acknowledged.
I confess that at first I was tempted to view his remarks as hyper-sensitivity and assign the behavior of the staff to the fact that I'm an out-going personality who naturally drew their attention, but I did not want to be dismissive to what was clearly a painful feeling that someone that I cared about was experiencing. Therefore, I did what I rarely had done up until this point in life and just shut up and listened. It was a watershed moment as I began to quietly observe the manner in which we both were treated and what I found forced me to examine my own long-held beliefs about racism.
Over the years, the startling consistency of the manner in which I am addressed while he is ignored has become a quasi joke between us. While we may be tempted to get up and scream when I am yet again automatically handed the check at the end of a meal, as my skin color must clearly imply that I am the paying member of our party, he would instantly be branded "angry black man" and we would only feed into the stupidity that is so pervasive. Instead we find relief in humor and chuckle heartily when we recall one of the numbers in the Broadway musical Avenue Q. At one point during the show the characters burst into song declaring that "everyone's a little bit racist." The truth of these lyrics have helped us to recognize that each person is the summation of their experiences and that often racism is subtle and unrecognized by the perpetrators, but that we all have a collective responsibility to continue to grow and that comes from treating others how we want to be treated and not being afraid to listen to each other.
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