Monday, June 6, 2016
Vice President Biden visited my office today. He came for an exciting event, about which I will say little. I want neither the event nor his visit tied to what I am about to highlight. For context, just know that a presentation was made to VP Biden and then, after a brief hiatus, he returned for a group picture.
As we waited for him to return for the picture, we stood picture ready, by which I mean so close that a wrong move put your butt into someone else’s hand. One secret service agent stood century over us as we watched the hubbub on the other side of the glass door that separated us from the hall and wherever the Vice President was located. Another secret service agent with a prominent mustache came in, and asked if we were warned to avoid doing anything silly. He then told us that something silly might be asking for the Vice President’s autograph. If we did that, then the agent’s mustache, he said, would jump from his face and attack us. We all laughed. It wasn’t the first time that day we were told to behave or be tackled. It was funny for this large, intimidating man to jest at the part of his appearance we all noticed immediately before or after his stature.
Mustachioed Agent enjoyed the response from the crowd, and continued his routine. Fueled by our laughter, he told us that thrusting an item at the Vice President would upset the agent’s boss. This true statement set us up for the next punchline. Surprised that this intimidating man is not the boss, that there is someone bigger, badder, and scarier, Mustachioed Agent tells us his boss is big—which means something coming from this already strong man—and black.
His boss is big and black, which context implies scarier than small and black or big and white. I don’t remember if there was laughter at this point. For a brief moment, I have no memory of what was going on around me, because I was aghast and confused. I didn’t know what to do, how to react. I couldn’t just tell this scary government agent that his boss’s race has nothing to do with how intimidating he is. I muttered, just louder than sotto voce, but still loud enough for those near me to hear, “I don’t know what his race has to do with anything.” I looked around as I said it, yearning for affirmation that someone else heard it, that someone else was nonplussed. But I received no such affirmation.
With nothing else to do, I continued standing, picture ready. When the Vice President came in for the picture, he told us a story, mentioning his first run for congress was on the civil rights platform. More smiles and laughter ensued before the Vice President left. Once he was gone and I returned to my desk, I tweeted Mustachioed Agent’s joke promptly. A little later, I shared one of the group pictures on Facebook. Again, I mentioned the joke. In both instances, I considered also mentioning the racial comment. The racist comment? Perhaps Mustachioed Agent was using a stereotype in his rhetoric to enforce the seriousness of his statement: nonblack people in the USA tend to be more afraid of black people than other people (with the possible exception of people who “look Muslim”). But I think he thinks black people are generally scarier than white people, especially black men.
Mustachioed Agent might have black friends and family; he doesn't think all black men are scary. I am saying he generalizes. If two equally anonymous men of equal size are presented, Mustachioed Agent will be more suspicious of the black one. If both of these men reach in their respective coat pockets when the Vice President approaches, he is more likely to suspect the black man of doing something nefarious. This is what tends to be called a microagression, by the way. Overt racism would be someone saying black people are scary; a microagression is when someone doesn’t realize they think it, but their thoughts still bleed into their daily thoughts, actions, and discourse. Although a microagression seems to denote a “small aggression,” it can have a big impact, especially if someone is fearing for their life or the life of the Vice President of the United States of America.
How can I trust a man to be responsible with his trigger finger when he erroneously attributes intimidation to a man due to his skin color? How can I trust him, when I have trouble trusting my intentions for writing this post? Upon reflection, I am comfortable with my intentions, but I realize there is a fine line between wanting to expose and wanting to be recognized for an exposition, between telling a story and assuming your the main character of a story.
Re-reading the story and realizing it isn't about is important. It is good when you realize you are neither hero nor villain. Perhaps even now I am magnifying myself too much. Still, it is this questioning that I hope the main character of this story does.