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Friday, March 30, 2007

Roger (Finally) Answers Your Question, Greg


I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but I have a question about black people. As a foolish white person, I have noticed a certain comraderie that black people share even when they don't know each other. This is something I have rarely seen among us whiteys. I wonder if you notice this too, and if you have any explanation why it's a phenomenon. It's very interesting.

You can ignore me if I'm just stereotyping and need to get my head out of my butt.


Sir? SIR? Really! We've exchanged music. I know I'm about two decades your senior, but still...

You my have heard of a term called "white skin privilege". (I'd look up a reference but I don't have Internet access - see below). Whether you do or don't, and I'll contend that there is something to it, the greeting you see, I suspect, is an acknowledgement of a people looking after their own. Beyond that, there was the fact that there was the common experience. When Nat Cole had his short-lived TV show in the mid-1950s, I will practically will guarantee that 90% of the black people were watching (and obviously, not enough of the white people); ditto with I Spy or other shows with black stars, when that was extremely rare.

You don't see that many white people doing the head nod with unfamiliars because the white male system is still the dominant culture, even as it becomes less so, statistically, in this country. But it's interesting that you ask about it these days, because I see it far less often than I used to, when I was in my teens and twenties. There was a sense of solidarity in the common struggle, not just for justice, but occasionally for survival. Maybe it's because the racial dynamic has changed in the country. So I'm going to assume the correctness of the premise of your question, as far as it goes, Greg. But I don't think it's just a "black" thing. I think it's an "other" thing.

I have seen the nod with south Asians who don't know each other, but feel - I surmise, since I didn't ask them - that shared experience of feeling somewhat like the outsider.

When I was going to college in the 1970s, all the long-haired hippie freaks gave the head nod. They surmised, probably correctly, early on, that the values and experiences of those other people were not dissimilar to their own. (Later, though, when hair was not such a sign of rebellion, that assumption went right out the window.)

I find that I get it with bicycle riders, an "us against the motorists" salute.

Find a room of one businesswoman and a dozen or more businessmen. Another businesswoman enters the room, and more often than not I've seen it. The look. The "I'm not alone here" look, the "you may have some idea what I've experienced" look.

I got on a bus this year with a bunch of teenage, mostly black kids getting out of school, who were, to be generous, rather boisterous. Immediately, a middle-aged white woman and I caught each other's eye, and in fact, ended up sitting together in our little cocoon from youth. We were surely The Others in this case.
I didn't plan to stretch the question-answering for three days, but I've been having technical difficulties with my computer at home. I try to get on the Internet; it doesn't work; I call Time Warner Cable and a technician puts me through all sorts of exercises with the computer, the end result of which being Internet connectivity. For about ten minutes. I did this exercise thrice on Tuesday night, and once on Wednesday night. A techie is coming to my house today. Between 12:30 and 2:30, smack dab in the middle of the day.



GayProf said...

I like this post.

Greg said...

Thanks for the insight. As a white straight middle-class man, I have very little experience with being the "other" - I can't ever recall being the "other," even though I was geeky in high school. I thought it had something to do with that, but it's interesting to consider it goes beyond race. It's actually somewhat heartening to know that all sorts of things link us.

I call everyone "sir," by the way, even my good friends when I talk to them again after a long while. So it's nothing to do with you being older than I am. I just like calling people "sir."

Anonymous said...

Where you live has something to do with it too. Around here (Oklahoma) almost everyone acts like they know each other. If we pass someone on the street (or in a store or whereever) and they don't smile or nod we tend to think, "What's wrong with that guy?" or "What's her problem?" though the "rules" vary depending on where you are, exactly. The bigger the crowd the less obligation you have to acknowledge strangers.

Anonymous said...


We were in Midtown Manhattan this weekend, navigating through wall to wall people on 42nd Street. No one nods or even looks at another person for more than a blink. the crowds are so dense that to even acknowledge another person causes too many complications. Now, Lynne was wearing her trademark short skirt and "outrageous stockings," in this case black fishnets over bright red tights. Very cute! As we were walking, we passed a few other women who were also wearing short skirts and outrageous stockings. Each of these women smiled at Lynne and nodded.

25 to 30 years ago I lived in downtown San Francisco, where almost every male was gay. I became familiar with the three other straight guys in the neighborhood, guys I normally wouldn't have any association with. One was a preppy fellow from Boston, one was a southern redneck with five german shepherds and a drinking problem, the other was a big ex-boxer with a deformed face. And me, whatever I am. The four of us would sometimes hang in a group chatting about nothing. I guess we were reassuring ourselves that it was OK to not be gay.

Y'know, whether it is "sharing the same thing" or "being the different other" seems to me to be of secondary importance. The main thing is shared identity.

-Dan VR