Sunday, April 22, 2018

I see your true colors shining through

My hometown has been in the news this week for reasons that do not make me proud. Two African-American gentlemen walked into a Philadelphia Starbucks and sat down to wait for a colleague. This apparently made the manager of the Starbucks uneasy. Having two African-American men waiting at a table was more than this particular Starbucks manager could take. He called the police. After a discussion that referenced Starbucks company policy and a disobeyed order to leave the premises, the two gentlemen were placed in police custody, handcuffed just as their friend was entering the Starbucks to make their appointment. A cellphone video, posted to YouTube, shows the friend questioning the nature of the arrest... and receiving no real answer. The men were questioned at police headquarters and eventually released at approximately 2 AM — nearly nine and a half hours after the police were called. In the days following, protesters patroled the area outside the Starbucks at 1801 Spruce Street. Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks for under a year, came to Philadelphia to apologize to the gentlemen in person. Both Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney apologized to the two gentlemen for the way the incident was handled by the arresting officers. The whole incident was embarrassing and infuriating. I still find it puzzling that such blatant racism still exists in the United States in 2018.

Last October, my wife and I were on a cruise. During the course of our week at sea, we made friends with a variety of folks who were on the Norwegian Breakaway for the same reason we were. One afternoon, early in our trip, Mrs P and I were participating in a rousing game of Pictionary with some of our fellow cruisers. In between rounds, we made small talk with the other players, mostly discussing about the up-coming ports-of-call and where everybody hailed from. My wife struck up a conversation with a multi-generational family who, like us, called Philadelphia home. A friendly older woman revealed that they were  travelling with a church group from Southwest Philadelphia. As Mrs. P and this woman chit-chatted, a young girl sort of clung to the woman, silently taking in the conversation, trying to figure out who this lady was that was talking to — we later discovered — her grandmother. The little girl was about seven or eight and displayed an air of suspicion. She watched with wide eyes and exercised caution, staying behind the protection of her grandmother. Her grandmother, on the other hand, was quite animated and talkative and the conversation soon branched out past "where do you live?" and entered other areas of shared interest.

During the week, we saw this little family at the buffet, near the pool, walking the common areas, at activities, as well at the first of several late-night movies. As the time went on, the little girl became less and less timid. By Day Two, she actually introduced herself as "Anissa," careful to pronounce it "Ah-NEES-a," as though we would only get one chance and we better say it correctly every time we used it. Mrs Pincus, a natural Pied Piper of children, told Anissa that there was a famous child actress with that name who was very popular and she even pronounced it the same way. Anissa smiled and showed signs of warming up. She asked us if we have any children. I answered her by pulling up a picture of our thirty-year old son on my cellphone. Anissa asked us about pets and we told her that we do not have any currently, but we did have cats — on and off — for years. She asked more questions and we answered the ones that we could. We could see that Anissa was becoming more comfortable with these people who talked to her grandmother. By Day Three, Anissa was shrieking "SUSIE!" with delight when she spotted my wife scooping herself a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. Later the same day, we again heard the unmistakable cry of "SUSIE!" as we took our places for an afternoon session of trivia — our favorite shipboard pastime. Anissa even took a spot in a chair next to Mrs. P.

One late afternoon about midway through our trip, Mrs. P and I settled into a couple of overstuffed chairs in the ship's Atrium to watch a documentary about swing dancing on a two-story projection screen. Just before the film started, a young man we had not met before came over to us and asked how we know so much trivia. Evidently, he had witnessed the mind-numbing expertise we exhibit while answering the silly, general knowledge questions that were posed. Mrs. P and I laughed and explained that we watch a lot of television, watch a lot of movies and just have an uncanny knack for remembering useless tidbits of information. He laughed, thanked us for our candor and strolled off. As he did, he passed Anissa who appeared with her family and greeted us (actually just my wife) with a loud, excited "SUSIE!" She stood between us and asked — in all earnest and innocence — if that boy we were talking to was our son. She followed up by asking if we were with her church group.

I must interrupt this story for a brief explanation.

Anissa and her family were African-American. The young man who asked about our knowledge of trivia was African-American. My wife and I are Caucasian. 

Anissa, apparently, saw none of that. She merely saw us speaking with a young man older than she, but young enough to be the son we often mentioned in our conversations. Anissa didn't see skin color. At all. For the entire week. We were so taken by Anissa's "matter-of-fact" untainted outlook. It made me wonder if Anissa couldn't be the teacher from which we all can learn. All of us.

1 comment:

  1. I have to admit the Starbucks incident shook me because I stupidly thought we were beyond this kind of thing. Racism is a taught hatred. There's a lot we can learn from children.