html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: What?!?! No! I walked into a door.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

What?!?! No! I walked into a door.

I was walking around with a broken arm last fall, and I nearly always got the same response from strangers. Someone would look over, smile and say “what did the other guy look like?” I would explain that there were three other guys, and one of them was a grizzly bear, else they’d never have broken my arm. But one night, I was out walking late and it was kinda cold and foggy, and across the street there was a huge black man on the phone. He looked over at me and said, in a giant voice, “Oh darlin’, what happened to you? He twist your arm?” I was purely shocked. Did he twist my arm? Enough to put it in a cast? But there is no he! If there were a he, he wouldn’t be an arm-twister! Who would think of arm-twisting first? Who would think of arm-twisting?

Just like I don’t live in a crowd where arm-twisting is the most likely explanation for a cast, I don’t live in a crowd that uses racial epithets. I was surprised to learn yesterday that “tar baby” is a derogatory term for black people. I just didn’t know. So much of black/white racism is new to me. It's not at all what I grew up with.

Growing up in LA, especially at a high school that was maybe 15% white, gave me what I’m guessing is a non-standard view of American racism. There was no one group everyone disparaged; it was far more intricate than that. The standard phrase was “the dogs of Asia”, and I heard it applied in every direction about every people from every Asian country. (Except that we didn’t mean it, because my friends were second generation and broadminded enough to forget traditional enmities when our actual schoolmates were all cute and stuff.) When I travel in the rest of the country, I’m always surprised again that American racism is about black and white people. That just seems so… broad. So… undifferentiated. Not by specific country of origin? Or even state? How would you ever make fun of people based on fine-grained stereotypes about the cars they drive or the crappy love ballads they listen to?

I suppose that with enough exposure, I could pick up some nuances of black/white racism. It would certainly be good to know enough to avoid loaded phrases. But it is too late for me to get where I am with inter-Asian/white racism, where I can trust my ear and understand my audience and actually make jokes. That’s just as well. I am lucky and privileged that I haven’t seen enough of it that I always recognize it.

In case you haven’t seen it yet: Blackpeopleloveus


Blogger billo said...

Megan, I'm surprised that you're surprised. Wasn't a black man 3/4 of a human the Constitution for Christ's sake! And the "Red man" wasn't even considered human at all, I think.

This is not a criticism of America per se; other countries have had and continue to have equally bad problems when it comes to "jews" or "women".

If they could see specifics don't you think they'd see their humanity, their uniqueness?

10:55 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

I know my American history and the broad picture. But what feels real is what you grow up with and experience daily. So I get surprised when I am reminded that it isn't the norm in other parts of the country.

11:19 AM  
Blogger billo said...

Sure M, I agree with you, real experiences always come first. But,as Philip Roth once said, after a century of slavery and a century of segregation such attitudes are hardly that surprising.

I have no sense of distances in america, so please excuse my ignorance, but were the race riots in L.A. close to where you live?

11:47 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

You mean the civil unrest? About an hour by car, which is is close enough in LA. I was already living in Berkeley by that time, where the People's Park riots were on my block exactly.

11:51 AM  
Blogger billo said...

"civil unrest"? Not sure what that is Megan.

I was thinking Watts and Rodney King. Back here in Blighty we call those riots...ain't nothing 'civil' about it! :)

12:16 PM  
Blogger Dubin said...

Whenever I get off the plane in L.A. I look around the airport and go, "Oh yeh! Hispanic people! Duh!" because I forgot about the major difference in the mix there as opposed to here in Philadelphia.

It also turns out that Megan and I went to the same high school, even though we didn't know eachother then. (Although I remember the school as being largely hispanic and only partly Asian. And, like, three white kids. But I bet my memory is deceiving me...)

I was still at said high school on April 26, 1992 (there was a riot on the streets, tell me where were you?**) and they put us all in the auditorium to tell us they were sending us home. Which was probably dumb given that a bunch of us got bussed back over the hill into L.A. proper, and my own bus, after dropping me off in West L.A., headed south towards the strife in question.

But that was one of the times I really felt the black/hispanic and black/asian tension in L.A. Sure there is regular old black/white, too, but it isn't the main dichotomy. Here in P-town, it's totally black/white. And I find that strangely nostalgic. It's perverse, I know, but when you get real Italian Americans that go way back, and mix it up with a black neighborhood in south Philly, I feel like I'm in a movie set in an earlier part of the century.

** I bet my sister and I are the only two people who like that Sublime song.

First spot we hit it was my liqour store,
I finally got all that alcohol I can't afford,
With red lights flashin' time to retire,
And then we turned that liquor store into a structure fire!

Next stop we headed was the music shop,
It only took one brick to make that window drop.
Finally we got our own p.a.
Where do you think I got this guitar that you're hearing today?

2:37 PM  
Anonymous UnderwearNinja said...

Having a bunch of people in my "clique" that are all various forms of mixed ethnicity, we spend most of our speaking time cracking really mean jokes about various ethnicities.

It works out that when I do find someone who's really racist, I just think they're joking! I mean really, you can't be that dumb, right?


2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was annoyed in college when people disaparaged the notion of "political correctness." It seemed to me that it was a matter of civility: you don't do things that you think will offend/insult others. (If you mean to, that's another issue.) If there is use of a term that has unintentional meaning (due to history or connotation), well, most will let that slide the first time, but there is some responsibility to be aware of the history and the obvious statements of offense.

Mel Gibson went with some fairly routine anti-Semetic remarks, after he should have been highly sensitized to the issue given past behavior. Triple whammy: endangering others by driving drunk.

I understand Megan's point that race and ethnicity play out very differently in California: in most of the country the dialogue is about black and white, whereas the hyperdiversity of Latino and Asian and other ethnicities adds a whole other dimension here, unlike anyplace else except New York (& Jersey) and Hawaii.


3:07 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

And we went to the same junior high and college, a couple years apart. Barrio Van Nuys!

3:18 PM  
Anonymous justus said...

race and ethnicity play out very differently in California: in most of the country the dialogue is about black and white

I don't think California is really all that unique. Every border state is the same way: Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and we're pretty damn far from the border. Even in New York City hispanics outnumber blacks and it is largely inertia that keeps the focus where it is.

whereas the hyperdiversity of Latino and Asian and other ethnicities adds a whole other dimension here

"For Census 2000 data, the Diversity Index ranges from 1.0 to 6.0. An index of 1.0 indicates a homogenous population where every person is of the same race; an index of 6.0 indicates a highly diverse population with equal numbers of people from all racial groups."

The 15 Largest Counties by Diversity Index:

1. Queens County, NY -- 4.219
2. Kings County, NY -- 3.528
3. Los Angeles County, CA -- 3.137
4. Santa Clara County, CA -- 3.218
5. Harris County, TX -- 3.109
6. Dallas County, TX -- 3.053
7. Cook County, IL -- 2.981

[others left out because I'm tired of typing]

I'm not seeing a lot of evidence in this data for the exceptionalism of CA over, say, Texas. I also don't see Hawaii represented in the list although perhaps their counties are simply too small. Other non-CA counties in the top 15 are: Broward, FL; Miami-Dade, FL; Wayne County, MI; Maricopa County, AZ; and King County, WA.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Sure. I wonder if people in those counties also feel like black/white racism is the dominant local form, or if they would share my sense that it is different and foreign and they don't know the rules well.

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you break your arm by walking into a door?


5:08 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Hey Justin,

I totally would have known that was you, even if you hadn't signed it.

Um, I didn't break my arm walking into a door. I broke my arm falling off my bike. There are pictures up somewhere here. "Walked into a door" is the excuse battered women use right after "fell down the stairs". It was a bad joke.

BUT! My last year at Berkeley I lived with a black belt from hankido (totally different) in an apartment building that the martial arts club had taken over. There was a black belt in every apartment, so we never locked the front door or talked about anything but who was sleeping with whom.

Anyway, my apartment-mate did walk into a door one time and gave himself two vicious black eyes and we mocked him mercilessly.

5:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Racial prejudice is just weird. As an ABC that moved from Oregon to the Midwest, I just wasn't aware of the assumptions that came along with my skin color. It's so disappointing.

P.S. To billo: it was 4/5ths. Moreover, counting slaves fully as part of the population when they didn't have voting rights would have given southern states more political power in the House.

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know someone who broke BOTH legs taking a snowboarding fall on a green circle hill, in the middle of the hill, no trees or lift towers involved.

I'm still wondering how the hell she managed that?


5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aw, crap. It was 3/5ths.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

The truly embarassing part is that I have fallen off my bike and broken my arm TWICE. Each arm, separate occasions. Yeah. We don't have to dwell on that.

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, we all do stupid things. I stabbed myself in the wrist once trying to cut a frozen pizza I thought I'd already cooked.

And, I drove my front teeth through the inside of my lower lip when I crashed my flying turtle into the picnic table.


7:07 PM  
Blogger Macneil said...

Anonymous signed "-A":

I agree. We seem to be in the minority who think being "PC" is about not (un)intentionally offending people. Certianly you don't want the government using terminology that would offend anyone. It makes sense that everyone else should do the same, just to be decent.

Alas, somewhere along the line, someone decided to tap into actual bigots' disapproval of the PC concept by broadening the meaning to include other things. So, now if you want to be PC, suddenly others will think you mean a whole set of things that have nothing to do with changing your language so it isn't offensive.

Megan: In my old apartment there were two men who were my age. Both partied all of the time and were high school drop outs. Once, one of them had his arm in a cast. I asked him how he got it and I was already preparing my response to "wow, that's too bad about your skateboard" when he replied rather calmly "I got it in a bar fight."

The idea was alien to me. How could someone exactly find themselves in a fight (when they aren't getting mugged or worse)? I'd have to try very hard to get into a fight in my life. The idea is just strange.

7:45 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

Woah Megan,

You've broken your arm in bike accidents twice and you still don't wear a helmet?

This incident convinced many members of my local mountain bike community to always wear a helmet when riding. Will it do the same for you?

You look cute in your pictures, and the male grad students of the world (myself included) would be horrified if that changed.

8:00 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

No, I do too wear a helmet now. Consistently. I have people here who would also nag me if I didn't.

Hi, Tall Chris!

10:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting to hear different notions of what it means to be "politically correct." In my hometown, it didn't mean just not using derogatory racial terms, it also went as far as not dressing up as a witch for Halloween because you might offend a wiccan. That's why the word "political" is in there, because it's about the surfacey stuff that other people see. For instance, the one group you could slander (we're talking stuff you would be run out of town for saying about any other group) without repercussion was Christians, because in the PC world, they're fair game. That's why some people don't like "PC," because it's often about not looking like a bigot, not about actually caring about other people.

On the other hand, maybe all that is why I, too, had no idea that "tar baby" was a derogatory term. Didn't anyone else grow up on the Brer Rabbit stories?

Oh, and to a previous "anonymous", thanks for bringing up the meaning of the 3/5ths clause in terms of political representation. Akhil Amar makes a great argument in his book "America's Constitution" to that effect, and I would have mentioned it had you not.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Dubin said...

>You look cute in your pictures,
>and the male grad students of the
>world (myself included) would be
>horrified if that changed.

Dan and Megan sitting in a tree already!!!!!

Can you people PLEASE get this thing together? Don't make me come over there!

9:04 AM  
Anonymous thelonious_nick said...

While I'm not saying that California's politics of ethnicity and racism may be especially complicated, things are definitely more complicated than simply white vs. black in the south. Having grown up in NC, I can assure you that class, varying skin shading, and other factors all go into how the races deal with each other in that state. But in any case, things were definitely less complicated by the time I got to school in the 1980s than they had been even 10 years earlier.

12:05 PM  
Anonymous dan said...

Anonymous who references Brer Rabbit:

Brer Rabbit hits and kicks the little (black) tar baby for being "uppity" and not tipping his hat. I'm surprised you didn't find that denigrating-- but I'm curious in hearing another read on it.

The more obvious reference to me would be Toni Morrison's "Tar Baby." Either way, it's a racially loaded word, and I was surprised to see Governor Romney use it so casually.

I suspect this blog is read by gaggles of grad students who think Megan is hot (many of us having followed links from Marginal Revolution.) Once one of those guys within a more reasonable dating distance gets his game on, you're going to have someone more promising to encourage.

1:23 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I bet the anonymouse who referenced the Uncle Remus stories read them when I did, about age 8-9. I didn't catch the reference then.

While I know that I am as implicated in American history as any American, I'm still going to hold on to my theory that it would be harder for a girl in California to pick up on that. It isn't on the radar the same way as it is in the South/East Coast. At that age we would have just studied the Missions and read Island of the Blue Dolphins. I could have talked then about Spanish friars and California Indians and how native Californians were treated on Mexican land grant ranches. But getting parallels between a talking rabbit and a tar baby and how white people treated black people would have been a real stretch, because I never saw white and black people interact that way.

I think Dubin's chosen you. I totally want to 'make her come over here.' That'll be excellent.

1:49 PM  
Anonymous ogged said...

Isn't the real lesson of "Did he twist your arm?" that you must not look so tough in person?

4:58 PM  
Blogger Megan said...


I'm sorry. I can't hear you when you mumble like that. I missed what you were saying.

5:02 PM  
Anonymous ogged said...


5:20 PM  

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