“Are you prejudiced?”

Race Muncie

“Are you prejudiced?” The man on the street asked.

I had just finished the Memorial Day Murph at my local CrossFit gym and was getting a dry shirt out of my car.

“…” I wasn’t sure how to respond.

I suppose I am prejudiced against complete strangers approaching me randomly on the street and asking if I’m prejudiced. Maybe prejudiced isn’t the right word. Cautious is more fitting.

But the man didn’t mean was I prejudiced against strangers on the street. He meant was I prejudiced against people with a different skin color than my own. People like him. Black people.

“No,” I said, “but I’m sorry you feel like you have to ask that.”

Hal introduced himself. We shook hands. And then he told me what he needed. He was new to Muncie and just discovered that the buses don’t run on Memorial day, which was a problem because he was late for work at Wal-Mart.

I wish that I could tell you that without missing a beat I said, “Sure! Hop in!”

But I did miss a beat as I considered if I was going to help Hal or not. In my hesitation, I flipped through my mental list of excuses: My wife isn’t ready to go yet? We’ve got to pick up our kids?

As Hal waited for my response, he lifted his shirt to show his waistband and said, “You can check; I don’t have any weapons.”

The act hit me just like his initial question. This is our world. This is how this man thinks I see him through my blue eyes. Hal felt that if he suffered through the indignity of a pat down that maybe then I would help him. Hal is friendly and inherently unthreatening looking. He looked like someone’s grandpa who would sit down with other grandpas over cups of coffee at the local restaurant discussing the good ol’ days, armed with a joke in one hand and a poignant story filled with life’s wisdom in another. So, Hal, the grandpa, turned a 360 exposing his waistband.

I stared at him in disbelief.

“I’m not sure we’re ready to leave yet,” I said. “Let me check with my wife. Come with me.”

I led Hal over to the gathering of exhausted CrossFitters on the sidewalk.

“Hey everyone,” I said. “This is my buddy Hal. The buses aren’t running today and he needs a ride to Wal-Mart if anyone is heading that way soon.”

Conversations stopped as everyone experienced the hesitation I had experienced. Hal broke the silence with some chitchat about how everyone looked really fit. It’s Hal’s way. I think I was hoping that someone else might step up and take Hal to work, yet I still “helped” him by making the connection. I also thought it was a good idea for other people to see Hal and know when we were going and where we were going.

I found my wife Annie and told her that we needed to give a stranger a ride to Wal-Mart. She didn’t hesitate. Maybe she just trusted my judgement. Maybe she is just a better person than I am. Later she would tell me, “You’re weird like that so I just didn’t think anything of it.”

We walked out of the gym to find Hal still talking with everyone. We said goodbye and gave Hal a ride.

It was only 10 minutes to Wal-Mart, but we covered a lot of ground. We talked about our families, Muncie, and about the Facing Racism Project which I’m participating in as a writer and editor. Hal talked about church and how we must be church people.

He went to work at Wal-Mart on Memorial Day. We picked up the kids from our friends (thanks Terri and Scott!) and spent the day playing, jumping in a bounce house, eating ice cream, and napping.

It was good day, but the two moments I’ll remember most were with Hal.

His question: Are you prejudiced? I keep asking myself that. In those moments was I prejudiced? Did any part of my hesitation and moments of consideration as to whether I would help Hal have anything to do with Hal being black? Honestly, I don’t think so. But in the course of reading 40+ Facing Racism stories, I’ve seen that racism isn’t always overt. Someone doesn’t get a promotion, someone doesn’t get treated quite right, someone doesn’t get helped by a stranger. Was it because of their skin color? Possibly. The person being racist might not even realize their own prejudice shaped by a history of inequality. That doesn’t make it right.

That’s precisely why we need to ask ourselves Hal’s question: “Am I prejudiced?”

I feel that Hal’s skin color had less to do with my hesitation than maybe his situation did. I think it’s more likely that I’m prejudiced against people who don’t have cars, who are desperate for a ride to a minimum wage job on a holiday, people who have so little social resources that they have to ask a complete stranger for help. (Again, I don’t think I’m prejudiced in this instant, but it is still worth asking the question. I think I was cautious of a stranger. I hope that’s the case.)

I’m currently reading Tribes by Sebastian Junger. He talks about how we humans are often at our best during war and natural disaster. The differences that divide us–class, race, religion–fall away during times of crises and we help one another more readily. We are in this together. But in times of peace the walls of difference go right back up.

I’m white and Hal is black. I’m middle class, and it’s likely that Hal is not. The world treats me differently than it treats Hal. That’s a fact demonstrated by Hal, a friendly grandpa, lifting his shirt to show that he was unarmed. In that moment, Hal exposed more than his waist. He exposed all of the racial injustice, inequality, and prejudice that remains in our society.

 
7 comments
Terri says:

We loved spending time with the TimmerKids, that morning! However, I am ashamed that I glossed over you telling us about this. I did not ask any further. I thought of how nice it was of you both, because to quote Annie (almost!) “You’re nice that way”;you both are nice that way. But, wait…there is more. The unspoken thought I had was that at least you were not alone taking this man to Walmart. You and Annie were together. Now, I have some pondering to do. This man had a name and a job and had to trust you and Annie, he had no choice. You both did, and you made the right one. Thanks for being an example.

Kelsey says:

I always feel a bit more confident when my muscle, Annie, is along for the ride. The really amazing thing that you said here is that he had to trust us. How did he feel?

Kelsey,
Thanks for sharing that story. I have had similar moments where I was moved to question my unconscious biases and have asked myself “Am I prejudiced or worse racist?” In a given situation. I think that is a good thing for us white folks to do regularly–hold our own feet to the fire. As coordinator of the Facing Racism project, I am constantly questioning myself and wondering about issues. I am a white man coordinating a project where most of the stories are about people of color. Most of our writers are white. Most of our storytellers are not. What impact does this have. I hope all of us participating in the project continually question ourselves–how our world view influences our decisions; how we can be the most inclusive; how we insure that people’s voices are heard. Keeps my head spinning some days. That is a good thing.

Teresa says:

I am reading Where Am I Eating, and after going through section 1, I am very glad to be reading it. I am a high school Social Studies teacher, and I know this type of information will help me in my classroom. I appreciate your work and the passion you have for it.
I want to respond to the prejudice question. There is an assumption that only white people are prejudiced, but asking “Am I prejudiced” is something ALL people should do. I worked for three years as a white, middle-class teacher at a minority, Title I school. I was always accused of being prejudiced and racist, though I showed up every day ready and willing to teach the freshman students in my care. In my time there, I had one white student in my class. The administration, which was minority except for one, was often openly unconcerned and sarcastic when any concerns I had about students were raised, including open threats and safety issues. They treated me like the enemy.
I now teach in a very diverse school. Some of the same issues exist, but not to the degree they did at the other school. The students I have now are often prejudiced less against color and more against authority in general. That is part of their age, and something we all hope they will come to terms with as they mature.
My point here is that not all prejudice is colored “white”. This is an issue for mankind, not just white people. All races can, have, and do exhibit prejudice. The same is true of religions, genders, and many other things. I fully appreciate your own dilemma that day with Hal. Just remember, Teresa has been on the other side of that with unearned accusations of prejudice and distrust because of the white color of my skin.
Prejudice is not just something white people have. I would like to think we can lead the way for others to think about it and get rid of it, but we will have to think outside the box we have put one race in and realize prejudice is a problem all races must deal with.

Lauren says:

Thank you for sharing this experience! I’m a Ball State student (who is also coincidentally helping with MWW16), and it completely baffles me how much people do worry about situations such as this specific one. Hal simply needed to go to work on a holiday, yet he worried he might not be able to make it because there are still so many people who hold prejudices in 2016. Did he think he would have more luck if his skin were another color? It’s quite sad.

From one person to another, thank you.

P.S.
I love the “BOOM” button.

I was thinking about a facing racism project when you were talking at MWW. Sometimes it is so subtle that I check myself in most things I think. Like I have to remind myself. I was walking in broad daylight on an Indianapolis street and we came across three black men sitting on some steps. My mom clutched her purse and I started to as well when I asked myself: would I do the same thing if these men were white? Is this a latent prejudice or a female reaction to any strange man? I still don’t know, but thinking those questions has helped me to reshape my worldview.

Kelsey says:

Anna, it’s good to challenge our underlying thoughts and feelings. I’m glad that you are asking these questions.

Let your voice be heard!