Some of you may remember this classic commercial from the late 1970s. Memorex challenged us to hear a difference between the real thing - Ella scatting live in a studio- and the not-real thing - a recording of Ella scatting in a studio. The cassette tape-maker wanted us to believe that the their tapes recorded sound so perfectly that we could not tell the difference. Clever.
The smog of racism hovers heavily in this country, and cross-cultural encounters - even the most fleeting ones - give rise to what I call Live or Memorex moments. Here's an example of what I mean. I just landed at the airport after a long flight from Texas, and I needed to charge my phone. I walked over to the first outlet I saw where another woman, a white woman, was charging her phone. Her phone was inside her purse, and her purse was on the floor under the outlet. As I moved to plug in my phone, the woman grabbed her purse and quickly walked away from me. Although the moment was brief and insignificant, internal chaos ensued: "did she do that because I'm black?", "I bet she wouldn't have done that if I were white", "does she think I want to take something from her?" Then, "Look lady, I don't want or need anything you have." And so on until I was tired.
After I settled down from the perceived insult, I wondered if there might have been another reason - other than a racist reaction - for her abrupt relocation. Maybe she realized the time. Maybe she had a flight to catch. Maybe remembered she left her child on the plane. Maybe she saw her ride beckon from other side of the room. There were many possibilities other than the dreaded one (a racist reaction) that would have explained her actions. But like Ella's sound recording, I could not tell if her behavior was live (a racist reaction), or if it was Memorex (an imagined one). Nonetheless, my psyche was working really hard to figure it out.
Innocuous encounters like this happen everyday, and everyday we are lured into the internal chaos gifted by the smog of racism. We twist and turn our brains trying to understand. We have imaginary conversations giving the alleged perpetrator a piece of our minds. We call our friends to get their reactions, and sometimes we fall asleep only to awake thinking about it.
l'll never know if the lady's reaction was live, or Memorex. And the truth is, it doesn't matter. What matters is that I became aware of my internal chaos and the source of it, and by doing so, I freed myself from the internal chaos of race-based paranoia. So, next time, rather than allowing the smog of racism to infiltrate my peace, I will choose to breathe the fresh air of self-awareness.
I suspect that the smog of racism causes internal chaos in all of us. How does it show up in your life, and where do you find fresh air? Please share your story in a comment.
Onward and upward with eyes on the prize, my friends,