Thursday, March 01, 2007

Penny For Your Thoughts

Every evening, as I walk out of the office building in which I work and into the bowels of the nearest Metro Station, I pass a man sitting on a bench. He is African American--which hardly seems relevant, but will become so quickly here--and he is holding a cup in his hand. As you walk past him, he calls out, "Don't throw them pennies away."

Occasionally, if I have some pocket change, I put it in his cup.

Tonight, as I walked past him, I checked my pockets for change. Finding I had none and hearing him call out, "Don't throw them pennies away," I said, "I don't even have pennies to give."

"No, he said, "but you're white."

"That's true," I thought, in passing. As I rode down the escalator, I realized I was daft. I'd heard and received his comment in a cursory manner, but the further I pondered it, the more I realized his comment went deeper than just the color of my skin and his. I didn't know whether to be remorseful and apologetic or angry.

To be frank, I'm not sure what to do, think, or make of this experience. I've typed in a number of paragraphs that try to see things from his perspective or that tell you something about my views on homelessness or that try to bridge this divide between privilege and poverty or even between black and white. But then it all sounds trite and patronizing or self-aggrandizing. Worse, most of it sounds and feels empty. And yet, his comment triggered a reaction in me that I'm not entirely able to put my finger on.

I suppose, more than anything, I feel like I've been judged. Maybe I shouldn't have said, "Oh, sorry. I don't even have a penny" and just walked by in silence. Maybe it was the wrong thing for me to say in an effort to acknowledge his presence and relay the message that I wanted to help, but I couldn't that particular evening. (I've given this guy a couple of bucks and loose change here and there before, but after tonight, I'm feeling less inclined.) Or maybe I should have said what I did and he should have kept his thoughts to himself. Either way, something passed between us that just felt wrong somehow.

Any thoughts, oh loyal blogosphere?


Rachel said...

I have heard that phrase before directed towards me and I have never understood it either.
Does that mean that life is easier for me because of my skin color?
I haven't ever been any other color than the one that I am so how could I know if it is easier or not?
I know that there is still a lot of racism out there. I know that even I sometimes have a kneejerk reaction that I then mentally lambaste myself for.
I try very hard to not use race or color in day to day conversations when discussing a co-worker or another person. I don't want to be the person that refers to people by their skin color and not their other features.
Is my being caucasian the first thing that other races see? Do they assume that my life has been a walk in the park because of that and that they are superior to me because of the trials that they have lived through?
It is so frustrating. I don' get it and I don't think that I will ever get it.
Not "getting" each other is probably one of the biggest reason the chasm between race relations and understanding is so large.

Sideon said...

I'm with you there - I'd have no idea how to respond to that.

I can't tell if it was a cut, an off the cuff comment, or something deeper. The ambiguity is the biggest cause of tension.

Mary Ellen said...

When I was dating Jeff (notable for saying I "wasn't very 'street'"), we got approached in Little Tokyo by a black man asking for money. When Jeff refused, the guy called him a chink. Although Jeff was perturbed, he just said, "Dude, don't make this a race thing" and kept on walking.

Sometimes you have spare change and sometimes you don't. How much does race have to do with that?

I've never been on the other side, so I don't know whether I'd just want the money minus pleasantries or if it would be refreshing to have one person in a sea of commuters acknowledge I existed rather than feign sudden blindness.

I guess that's a long way of saying I don't know how to process this exchange.

Gunfighter said...

Simply this: Don't get too wrapped around the axle about what some guy says just because he is annoyed or angry.

His statement was a throwaway barb.

Anonymous said...

Having been on the receiving end of discrimination it is quite simply put: confusing. But I know one important thing, if you stop giving change to the man on your way home from work you are letting his statement become a racist statement. Take the higher path, continue to give him the loose change, and pray that one day he will realize it was not for you, about race, but about helping someone in need. Even if he does not realize it, at the end of the day you have done one good deed for the day.

Sister Mary Lisa said...

I like what anonymous says. Just continue to be you, and he'll see that for you it's not about race.


And....some of us HAVE had it better because we're white. Some people HAVE had it worse because they're black.