Big Butts & Barack Obama

by jkatejohnston

31 October 2013

Dear Max,

About eight or nine years ago I was sitting in court all morning without much to do. I didn’t know the clerk that day, and I didn’t pay much attention to her, but I had a general impression of her as a thin, middle-aged person. Then at the end of the morning she stood up, and in my memory of it she stood slowly, and her butt, which of course I’d never seen before, kept coming, slowly and slowly, more and more, like raising the Titanic. And that’s when I became aware of my impression of her as a thin person—when I realized I was wrong.

(I of all people shouldn’t have been surprised. My head could be a skull and I’d still have a big, bouncy butt. Good thing we all like it and are amused by it. It’s like the family mascot.)

Then a few weeks ago I was riding to work and a car pulled out in front of me. “Dude, I’m right here!” I shouted. I don’t think the driver ever saw or heard me. There was a young guy walking on the sidewalk, and I called out to him, “I wasn’t talking to you!” I wanted to be friendly or at least not hostile because he was young and black walking his dog in our whitey-white neighborhood. He ignored me. When I got to a stop sign on a busy street, I had to wait for a long time, and he caught up. I glanced over at him. Something was missing. Where was the dog? He didn’t have one. He’d never had one.

All this just to say how quick and clear and unconscious our impressions are—and how often wrong. And how none of this makes me doubt my impressions as I’m having them. It’s like when you read something in the newspaper that you actually know about, it’s usually half wrong. But you still believe everything you read in the newspaper. I mean, you have to live.

So anyway, I was waiting to cross this busy street and so was the guy without the dog. He had a well-marked crosswalk, and no one was stopping for him. I was gesturing at the cars, sort of sweeping my arm toward him, like, look you assholes, a pedestrian, a person walking, have you heard of that? I yelled at the cars, “It’s a crosswalk!” No one stopped. (Of course I’d been hoping to get across when the cars stopped for him, riding on his coat tails.) I called out to him, “I don’t expect them to stop for me—but you’re a pedestrian!” Again he ignored me.

And I remembered how crazy I look when I’m on my bike, especially on cold mornings with my frayed 10-year-old balaclava face mask under my helmet and my shorts that are all blotchy blue-and-white because I tried to bleach them and my many layers of bulky low-tech jackets. Plus I yell at people who can’t hear me. He was giving me a wide berth. I felt a bit ashamed, not because I looked like a homeless bank robber without a getaway car. It was because when I stand at a crosswalk I expect people to stop and wait for me to cross, and he obviously expected to wait and wait and wait. And I felt Entitled. Ew.

It reminded me of how the first sperm donor we tried was African American, and it never occurred to me that, for the kid, this would sometimes be inconvenient and that we’d have to talk to him about something I know nothing about—racism. I didn’t think about any of that, I just wanted a cute baby. We switched donors on a whim and ended up with Enzo. Being half-Chinese, he’ll only have to deal with the expectation that he’ll be super-smart, which he shows no signs of being. Of course, he seems like a genius to me, but you hang around other kids for a minute and my god they’re counting backwards from a hundred in Spanish and you’re like, Oh shut up. (Though Teresa tells me Enzo did knit a whole row in school yesterday. Thank God.)

All Right. For some reason I’m finding this hard to write about. When I say Entitled, first of all, I hate that word. It sounds so preachy. I mean that when I ride my bike through my neighborhood I can gesture and shout and look homeless and it doesn’t matter. The young black guy without the dog can’t act like that. He has to keep it simple, eyes front, keep moving, don’t engage, especially not with crazy white ladies. This is what I wanted to write about Trayvon Martin but never got to. How differently he has to move through the world.

A related subject—privilege (another word I can’t stand) doesn’t feel like anything. It’s almost always invisible to the person that has it. Like I just got my first married paycheck and there’s an extra two hundred bucks in there. Before we were married my federal taxes had an “adjustment” upward because I had to pay tax on the part of my healthcare benefits that went to Teresa. So this small change doesn’t even reflect all the other tax goodies for married people that we have yet to enjoy. (You don’t get the really big bonuses until you die, which takes half the fun out of it.) Anyway, I doubt that most married people feel a rush of gratitude when they pay their taxes every year. I know I won’t. And the privilege of yelling at cars with no consequences doesn’t feel like anything either. I feel small and defiant, not privileged.

There’s one last thing that’s bugging me—why the dog? It feels like the same part of my brain that makes wrong inferences about the size of people’s butts wanted the guy to have a dog. Something nice and wholesome to make him seem less out of place. The same part of my brain that runs down to my fingers and types Barack O’Bama, the first Irish-American President. It just seems more likely, doesn’t it? And my fingers know it.