“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.