Black and white, we are afraid of each other. Not afraid of death, not afraid of pain, although those come later, when all our fragile bridges have broken down. We are afraid of each other like two kids, just met, who might be friends if they could only find the way forward, if they could only get through this terrible agonising silence. I see an expression on the faces of the women on my block that I can feel on my own face. It curls me up helplessly. I look at them from under my lashes, out of the side of my face, with a worried shy smile saying, “oh please like me. Please like me. Please be nice to me, even if you don’t understand me.” It reminds me of the ninth grade, except my rate of success vis a vis people-not-hurting-me-because-I am-weird is much higher here in then Tremé than it was in middle school.
What is the forum in which we can mingle comfortably? The street? Our front porches? Then we have to go outside. It is so so scary to go outside. I think it’s especially hard for a Minnesotan, with high and private internal walls, to be in this place where anyone can collar you on the street and the social expectation is that you’ll hang out for twenty minutes. Those of you with anxiety (or from the Midwest, what’s the difference) know the thin fear of an unstructured, unanticipated and seemingly unlimited social encounter. Of course, there is structure, and there are limits, I just don’t know them instinctually, and my ignorance makes them feel chaotic and eternal.
So, I stay in my house. I’ve been doing better, recently. I dawdle from the porch to the car, leaving myself time to be approached by anyone who wants to talk to me. People want to talk to me. I have a gap-toothed grin and attentive listening style. Come on. That’s interpersonal gold, right there.
I go to new places that I don’t know, where I turn out to be the only white person, and it’s fine. I get some looks like a parakeet has just wandered into the cockatiel area, but it’s just surprise, there’s no upset, there’s no malice. It’s fine. There is discomfort, the same discomfort you would experience if you went to Japan. If you went from New York to L.A. If you moved from the big city to a small town. It is cultural.
I have a theory. A small one. Modest. No pretensions to facthood. It’s content to sit and twiddle its thumbs in the theory corner. My theory is that people get acclimated to the particular discomfort of their own culture as children, and their own specific cultural awkwardness becomes so known that they forget that it’s uncomfortable. It becomes another amorphous bit of the lens that colours their lives. So when they run into new and foreign discomfort, tiny red lights and submarine horns go off in their brains because they can’t pair it to anything in their own experience, BECAUSE, the category has been renamed. Their files are all askew. If you could look and go, “Oh, this is a cultural analogue of this thing that I experience, it’s still uncomfortable but I kind of know what it is so now I have something to steer off of,” you could manage it, but you start believing it’s some new and impossible thing because you’re so used to your own brand of terrible, poorly timed, marionette-avec-string-cut social interaction.
Think about your family, if you happen to have one. Do you have a cousin or aunt who it is a chore to converse with? There. You’ve just gotten used to it because you’ve seen them twice a year since you were the size of a loaf of sourdough. If you can talk to that aunt, you can talk to anyone. You have powers. Skin colour just makes you think that it’s something other than it is.
On the other hand, I was raised by a woman with a degree in Intercultural Communication and may have a bias to see everything in this light.
It is possible that I don’t know what I’m talking about at all. I am willing to entertain this idea. Please tell me what you think about all this.