The e-mail message was as jarring as the sound of an alarm clock on Saturday morning. Especially since I didn’t know the sender and was in no way expecting it. A little bit of contextual background may be helpful here.
I enjoy reading mysteries. Probably a holdover from a childhood obsessed with Nancy Drew books. As an adult, my current obsession is with a series based on Stephanie Plum, a female bounty hunter and a colorful cast of characters who are way more comical than competent. The sidekick is named Lula, an overweight, spandex-wearing, grammatically challenged Black woman with an insatiable appetite. In response to a comment posted by another fan on Goodreads, a web site for readers to record books they read and share their opinions with others, I mentioned that: “Lula is so stereotypical she makes me cringe. Yes, she’s funny, but would it hurt to give her a little depth and insight?”
My photo appears beside my post, so it’s apparent that I am African-American.
The originator responded that she, too, felt that way and wondered what African-American readers must think.
The unexpected e-mail came from someone who was not a part of our initial online conversation and read as follows: “I’m not sure if Lula is a stereotype or an archetype, but in my own life, I’ve personally known three Black women who could have played Lula without notes, so I think of her as ‘true to life.’”
Wait. What? I squinted as I reread the text on my computer screen. Do I know this person? The intrusion was annoying, just as when you’re in the midst of a pleasant verbal exchange and some interloper feels obliged to interject, and in so doing, changes the tone and tenor of the conversation. But I was irritated all out of proportion at the implication of that interjection. Was this person serious? If so, he certainly didn’t merit a response from me. Was he just being provocative for sport or expressing a true feeling?
It brought to mind an incident that occurred in Old Town Pasadena not too long ago.
On my way to a restaurant for lunch, I was lucky enough to find a rare parking space on the street. I simultaneously turned my blinker on, positioned my car parallel to the one in front of the desired space, and prepared to shift into reverse. As I turned to look over my shoulder, I abruptly stepped on the brakes. I was astonished to see a shiny gray Mercedes angled partially into the space. We’ve all had the experience of seeing a parking space a split second before or after someone else, and losing out to whoever was quickest. But this wasn’t like that. This was a driver who decided to deliberately ignore my obvious intention to park midway through the maneuver.
Our eyes met. She was a pretty woman who looked barely old enough to drive, let alone capable of such an overtly hostile act.
At first, I was more perplexed than angry. What are you doing? was what went through my mind and maybe showed on my face. Then anger surfaced readily enough when her intention became clear. But I neither said anything nor made a gesture of any kind. Truth was, I was wracking my brain for the perfect cutting remark to unleash that would so shame her, she would not only relinquish the space but do so with an apology.
My brain failed me.
I could not think of a thing.
Merely uttering a string of obscenities would not do. It was not my style and wasn’t something I was particularly adept at anyway. So I simply did not move. Seconds ticked by.
She was going to get the space. I was convinced of that. But I was determined she would have to work for it. I was not going to reward her boorish behavior by making it easy. My car remained stationary while I watched her turn her wheel this way then that, inch her car forward then back.
Amid her unsuccessful maneuvering, a man on a motorcycle parked nearby interjected: “Why don’t you move and let her have the space!”
By this time, her earlier brashness turned to frustration, and eventually to what I imagined was embarrassment. The aggressive stare that was directed at me initially was replaced with an inability to even meet my eyes. Try as she might, she was not skilled enough to get her big luxury car into the spot. That’s probably why parallel parking was invented in the first place.
As she drove away, I tried to suppress the smugness I felt as I eased my aging but still nimble blue T-Bird into the spot. This was not how I saw things unfolding, but I was glad I remained silent throughout the whole episode. However, I did have a few words for the motorcyclist who posed the question.
He was seated astride his motorcycle in front of Barnes and Noble. I had almost begun to feel the slightest bit of sympathy for the other driver, but his intrusion reignited my anger. In this age of apathetic bystanders, who would expect this idiot to weigh in on the wrong side? But I suppose when the choice is to come to the rescue of a cute young Asian versus a middle-aged Black woman, there really was no choice in his mind. Young and cute wins every time. Well almost. Ms. Mercedes had to concede defeat and drive off while I parked into the previously disputed spot.
I absentmindedly fed coins to the meter while I pondered what I planned to say. I decided being straightforward was the only way to go. I approached the leather-clad motorcyclist, in no particular hurry, and posed a question of my own.
“Why did you feel the need to insert yourself in a situation without knowing all the facts?” It seemed like a perfectly reasonable inquiry to me, but I doubt he heard the question.
“Jeez, it was just a parking space!” he said as he hurriedly put his helmet back on. He zoomed away as quickly as if I had approached him with my arm fully extended, holding a club overhead. His hasty departure left me surprised and perplexed in the middle of the sidewalk.
In these situations, you never really win. There is always the risk of retaliation. You could come back and find your car keyed or your tires flattened. Or just a lingering alteration in what might have been an overall upbeat mood. Since the restaurant was within viewing distance of my car, that risk was minimal.
This whole incident was memorable to me precisely because I did not give in to the impulse to win either through intimidation or threats. More importantly, I did not allow someone else to have the power to cause me to behave in a way that I might be ashamed of later. It was a classic example of nonviolent resistance. Even if my intentions were not motivated by noble principles or high moral beliefs. Just the lack of a sufficiently witty comeback.
My response to the guy on Goodreads who was convinced that the “angry Black woman” was the norm rather than a stereotype was concise. It read: “Well clearly we hang out with different kinds of people, but I do thank you for bringing up the distinction between stereotype and archetype.”
I wasn’t going for a response and was somewhat surprised when I heard the ding that signified a new e-mail.
“Thanks Barbara! It occurs to me that my friends, if they were talking to you, might be less inclined to play the head-bobbing-Black woman-with-Attitude card than they are with me, a semi-hip-middle-aged white guy. I guess my point was that the card exists – and is played often.”
The tone was a bit more conciliatory, but I found myself even more irritated this time around. The first response appeared to have been dashed off without much thought and could possibly be construed as witty. This time, he appeared to think and chose his words carefully.
Why do I care what some stranger thinks? It is not my intention to engage in an ongoing dialogue with someone I don’t know or don’t particularly care to know. Whatever it is, it is probably related to the same reason that I felt the need to talk to the guy on the motorcycle back in Old Town. Not that I begrudged him getting involved. That, I view as a potentially good thing. But just take a minute to be informed before choosing sides. I am five foot four, and while I’ve long since outgrown the petite label, by no stretch am I physically intimidating. His hasty departure left me wondering if he actually thought I was going to assault him, verbally or otherwise.
I pondered the incident over lunch.
Was it the image of the angry Black woman that caused him to depart in such haste?
Was what I viewed as a legitimate question seen as a challenge?
Was it a challenge, even subconsciously?
Is it possible I’m not the person in full control of my emotions under infuriating circumstances that I like to think I am?
I considered these questions as I savored my chicken salad, but didn’t come to any conclusion.
It was only later, as I reread the posting with the final line, “…the card exists and is played often,” that I revisited the scene in my head. I chuckle when I think of the variations the story must have had when retold by either of the other actors in the drama.
I concluded it is not what you do but what people think you do. I wanted to ask “semi-hip-white-guy,”: “What do you do to piss off the Black women you call your friends? Why do you even have friends for whom that behavior is the norm rather than a last resort?”
Instead, here’s the response I composed:
“Yes, indeed there are blondes who are dumb, male homosexuals who are effeminate, rich people who are lazy (or undeserving, or hypocrites, take your pick) mothers-in-law who are evil, Asians who can’t drive, Black males with large penises and, of course, Black women who are angry who only show it by behaviors that are apparently unique to us. These are stereotypes. Because you know someone in any of the aforementioned groups who may, in fact, have the trait ascribed to them, does not make it any less of a stereotype. Consider this a good thing. Otherwise, you’d have to live with the stereotype of middle-aged semi-hip white guys. And we wouldn’t want that.”
And then I did the smart thing and decided not to send it.
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