Just say no

I recently witnessed an unfortunate set of events. As I rounded the corner from Broadway onto Lexington, headed to meet a friend for a bowl of organic fare, I saw two men running along the adjacent sidewalk.

One was several yards ahead of the other, who clung desperately to a cumbersome electric guitar as he ran. Clearly, this was no mere evening jog nor friendly footrace: It was a chase, unfolding right before me.

Eventually the man in the lead, who was substantially younger and unburdened by a guitar, began laughing as he continued to outpace his pursuer. Ultimately, his margin became insurmountable and his pursuer gave up, doubling over in exhaustion.

In between gasps, however, he managed to right himself and deliver one parting shot, shouting, "N——-!" Even after he began walking back and his adversary was well out of earshot, he was still yelling, "Give me my money, you f—king n——-!"

Now, all of this had transpired in less than a minute, during which I was walking cautiously yet observing intently. As I opened the door to Rosetta's and ascended the staircase, I began to piece together the likely scenario. My educated guess is that the guy with the guitar had been busking, only to have his hatful of earnings unexpectedly snatched.

I began this article by saying I’d “witnessed an unfortunate set of events.” Of course I feel sorry for that musician, who both braved the humid cold and dared to lay bare his creative spirit on an anonymous street corner, only to be cheated out of the evening’s earnings. It was stealing; it was wrong. Case closed. And one can only guess how much he lost and how badly he needed that money — perhaps to pay the rent.

But as a Caucasian woman, I also have to admonish the victim of this theft. I don’t blame him for being angry; I don’t blame him for remonstrating his assaulter. This is only natural.

But please, don’t resort to the N-word. Call him a miserable SOB; call him a motherf—ker. Shake your fist and tell him you're going to kick his ass, or that karma will. Curse him for being a man who stole your money, rather than for being a man of color who stole your money.

I know this sounds like a tall order in the heat of justified rage, but I'm speaking from personal experience here. When I was 18 (many moons ago), I was at a dance club, and a young man began dancing with me. It was flattering and fun at first, but it soon turned too aggressive for my taste. As I reached to remove the man's arms from my waist, he called me a bitch. "N——-,” I retorted.

Looking back on it, I consider myself lucky to have remained in the club without a fight. Nonetheless, an internal battle ensued in my heart. My own behavior had offended my conscience: I had betrayed my own values.

The next week I saw the man there, and I took the risk of a lifetime. Approaching him, I asked if we could talk. His initial defensiveness upon seeing me again was overpowered by his undeniable curiosity, and we stepped outside.

The abrupt shift from the close, sweaty dance hall to the sobering reality of the cold night air sabotaged any semblance of confidence I may have wanted to project. My shivering revealed my fear, and the clouds of breath trailing my stammering words made them seem all the more tangible.

"What you did last week was wrong, but I was wrong too. It didn't bother me that I 'went off' on you: You deserved it. If you think you didn't, try being a woman for a day. But then again, I don't know what it's like to be a black man, either.

“I've been tormented by what I said to you. The bottom line: It was a cheap shot.

“It's all too easy for a white person to call a black person that, whenever there's a problem. But I'm grateful that I'm at least aware enough to know there's way too much devastating history behind that word, for which my people are responsible, for me to be using it — no matter what.

“I'm sorry for the pain my choice of words must have caused you. I hope you can accept my apology, but whether you do or not, I will try to make amends by making a commitment never to use that word again.”

He was stunned. And I started crying as I watched a single tear spill across this tough young man's cheek.

He both accepted my apology and offered his own, which I gladly accepted. More importantly, a forum had been created in which we could freely question the stereotypes we’d been taught about each other.

We are still friends today.

In both local communities and the media, Racism is consistently perceived and portrayed as a black issue, but that’s backward: RACISM IS A WHITE ISSUE. It’s not enough to simply "not hate" most of the time; passive tolerance will not suffice. Racism is substantially more insidious than that, so its antidote must be conscientiously proactive.

We "white folks" can start by opening the lines of communication, both with people of color and among ourselves. Never underestimate what an earnest conversation can achieve — miraculous healing, in my case.

— Asheville resident Felicia Dickson can be reached at WhiteGirlDiaries@gmail.com.

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