A dangerous thing happens to me when I leave New York: I let my guard down. On my commute to and from work, and virtually anywhere else I’m headed on foot or Subway, I refuse to walk out my front door without head phones on. It’s the only protection from the excess street harassment, homeless people begging for food, and entertainers jigging in train cars for cash. So, once I get outside city and state lines I tend to be a calmer, less-guarded person, knowing all those elements of fuckery aren’t present in overdrive. Until recently, that method never really failed me. Then this weekend that mindset led to me chatting with an old white man on my flight to Cincinnati who was probably the sweetest post-Klansman (assumed) I’ve ever met in my life.
Despite my more welcoming demeanor in other more friendly cities, I’m still not too keen on striking up conversations with random people, especially on a flight when the landing is your only way out. And I did have one line of defense on my flight which I had to pull out rather quickly, Drown by Junot Diaz. I don’t remember what the older white man sitting next to me first said to make me grab for the book of short stories but I had an inkling he was a talker, and talk on that little one-hour commuter flight I did not want to do. Eventually though, my eyelids got heavy and I knew I wasn’t going to make it through another page so with one fell swoop I attempted to slide my book into the seat back in front of me and close my eyes fast enough to avoid signaling I was open for discussion. Something told me as soon as that book left my hands that man was going to strike up a convo, and when I failed at operation put the book down unnoticed that’s exactly what he did.
Initially, I actually started to feel bad and curse my introverted personality for not being more social. My seat partner had shared all sorts of tales with me from his days in the Air Force, and because we’re both from Ohio, he taught, yes literally sung, the O State versus Michigan chant to me 30,000 feet in the air. I was literally laughing at myself for getting got by a talker with no place to escape and simultaneously pleasantly surprised that the old man was pretty decent company. That was until he dropped the “c-word:” colored.
After telling me about working his way up from the manufacturing floor to head of a company he worked for for 40 years. My seatmate asked me what I did for a living. I said I was an editor for a black women’s website and for some reason a light bulb went off in his head that he should prove he has something in common with me. That’s when he proceeded with, “we had a colored girl that worked for us once. When she first started, one of the men on the floor pointed me out and said, ‘you see that man there? That’s a man you don’t ever want to piss off.’”
I barely had time to digest the c-word or respond to old Jim Crow because the “damn I knew this was too good to be true” thought was drowning out most of my cognitive abilities. All I could manage was, “did he really say colored?” while also thinking, “he’s old enough to possibly get a pass, but young enough to know we’re not called that anymore.”
I let the verbal slip slide, figuring a flight was not the place I wanted to get into race dynamics with a man who told me he once maced a dog after threatening to put his size 10-and-a-half shoe up his owner’s butt so I continued listening to his tales of times passed and hoped for the best. Unfortunately that didn’t last long as he then proceeded to tell me about another fella he checked on the job, letting him know he didn’t appreciate him telling him how to do his job. Eventually he got around to telling me that same man was the first colored so-and-so and now they’re the best of buds and play golf every week. At this point I thought, “and his colored butt hasn’t told you yet that we’re called black now?! That man probably hates your white a**” Oh, I also was assured Mr. Antebellum had probably lynched one or two back in his heyday day, or at least lit the torches and cut the eye-holes in somebody’s bed sheets. He was too turnt up that early in the morning and too ignorant of all things black to not have had an issue with segregation at some point. I kid. Sort of.
At the end of the day, I wasn’t really up in arms about my passenger. I mean, at least he didn’t call me the n-word. And he didn’t seem to mind colored folks too much as he was tapping me on the shoulder and cracking jokes every minute a story from the good old days popped in his head. I just need some white folks to get it together and step into the 21st century, at least when talking to said coloreds. We’re actually referred to as black now. You know this.
Have you ever had a “white person just called me an awkard name” moment?
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