Sunday, May 25, 2008

Happy Memorial Day

So the skies finally cleared up over the South Side of Chicago this evening, and I decided that it was time for me to take a break from editing my thesis paper (due Tuesday!), put on some pants, and take a stroll through Harold Washington Park. (Of which I think there are at least a dozen throughout the city.) The park was filled with families enjoying the holiday, barbecuing, listening to music, chasing their kids. It was all quite pastoral. I flaneured from one end of the park to the other, and then reached a bench and sat down to take in the sights.

And then I had one of those moments. You know, one of those, "I am the only white person in the entire park" kind of moments. Not that it bothered or really me (that would be more "racist") but it's just a very strange feeling. And the strangest part about it - and I don't think I'm being paranoid here - is that a lot of the other people in the park noticed that I was the only white guy there, too.

Granted, city parks are designed to encourage spectacle. They're akin to shopping malls and airports, in that they're anticipating that some people will be there just to sit and watch complete strangers mill about. The trade-off (unlike, say, voyeurism) is that the people who go to just watch have to allow to let themselves be watched by everyone else, too. The idea is that everyone is equally exposed to everyone else.

But all that changes when you're the minority (or, even worse, a singularity.) If you've got some quality that marks you out from the rest of the crowd, say, you've got a second head or a chainsaw instead of a left arm, then it is only natural for you to stand out in the crowd. But if you have a different skin color than everyone else, then you ought to be prepared to have yourself put on display for everyone else to gawp at.

Now, I'm pretty use to being such a spectacle for others - I believe that the charitable way to describe my gait would be "drunken stumble," even when I'm sober - but there is an undeniably different sense altogether when you are the sole representation of your particular ethnicity. Fortunately, the sentiment that I drew amongst the other people at the park was mostly, "Is he lost? What is that white boy doing? Is he drunk? How can we help him?" Because I know from experience that the reaction made when an African-American wanders into a white community is closer to, "Is he lost? What is that negro doing? Is he drunk? Should we call the police?"

I guess that all I'm saying is that it's a lot better to be a white boy lost in a black neighborhood than it is to be a black boy lost in a white neighborhood.

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