“Hey White Guy!”
"You're tall man. You shoot that ball?"
The guy asking me this is hanging out in front of a Baskin-Robbins in a strip mall in an African-American neighborhood in south-central L.A. I was nervous enough stopping in here, and I certainly wasn't counting on something like this. I just wanted to get some ice cream and get out of here without anyone noticing me. But the way this guy is grinning, I'm pretty sure this conversation is going to continue, and I'm still not quite sure what "shoot that ball" means.
"I played ball in high school, but I don't have time to play much anymore."
"I knew it! Man, how tall are you?"
He's still got that full-on grin going.
Can't a honky just come buy some ice cream in the hood without getting hassled? I want to keep walking, but I'm not sure what the proper etiquette for this moment is. If this was just some guy on the street it'd be one thing, but this is a situation where I can't afford to look like a jerk.
"Hey man, you got any spare change?"
"I don't right now, but I might have some after I buy my ice cream."
Perfect. Not rude, but also non-committal, and it gives me a reason to keep moving. And it's even true. All I've got is a 20.
Still, after all that, I'm not even in the front door yet.
When I left my afternoon class at the University of Southern California, I decided I really wanted some "Quarterback Crunch". It's a type of ice cream you can only get at Baskin-Robbins during football season. There's a store near campus, but I'd never stopped here before. At SC, on-campus and off-campus can get very far apart in a very short distance. All you have to do is cross a street or walk a block and you find yourself in that part of the city that growing up in the suburbs was supposed to protect you from.
When I first came here, I was afraid of even getting out of the car in an African-American neighborhood. Now it's 1989 and I've been around here long enough to know that there probably won't be a drive-by shooting at a Baskin-Robbins at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday. But I've also been around here long enough to have developed a different fear—the fear of giving offense where none was intended. I grew up in Utah, and by the time I graduated high school, I had talked to maybe four African-Americans, three of them on a basketball court. Now that I'm in Los Angeles and I'm often in the minority, I'm afraid I will, without even knowing it, say or do something incredibly stupid or insensitive that reveals just what a redneck upbringing I had.
What if a white boy barging into a business in an African-American neighborhood is considered downright rude? Then again, doesn't coming to this particular Baskin-Robbins prove I'm willing to buy my Quarterback Crunch from people of all races, creeds and colors? Or maybe I should just quit tossing all this racial stuff around in my head and admit to myself that the reason I'm here is that I'm pretty weak when it comes to food cravings.
Whatever my motivations, I'm in the front door now and it would definitely be considered offensive if I were to turn around and leave because it's immediately clear, to me at least, I'm the only cracker in the place. The guy from out front has followed me in and as I wait in line, he goes over to a table and starts talking to two other guys.
"That guy over there says he's 6-4."
"The white guy."
"You can ask him."
The guy from out front turns my way and yells across the store.
"Hey white guy!"
The room goes silent. I freeze. All I wanted to do was just blend in here. The last thing I wanted was for anybody to notice me, my race, and most definitely, my whiteness. Maybe if I pretend I didn't hear him he'll just let it slide and everything will go back to normal—uncomfortable, but normal. But this is a guy who was bumming change in a mini-mall parking lot. He's not going to be observing any of the usual rules that restrain the rest of us.
"Hey white guy!"
Louder this time.
"Hey white guy! Over here!"
Maybe I could just say, "Who me?" and everybody would have a good laugh. After all, this guy has picked out the one characteristic that sets me apart from everybody in here. You have to admire his efficiency.
I've never been referred to like this before, and I'm not sure what it means. I've always been, "The guy with the glasses", or "The tall guy", or "The guy in the red shirt", but never just "white guy". Suddenly my skin feels incredibly light and it's growing brighter by the second. I'm going to blind somebody if I don't cover it up soon. I've never really thought about my skin being white before, but now I can't stop thinking about it. It's so different from everyone else's skin.
In a millisecond my mind flashes through all the times I've referred to somebody as "the black guy", or something like unto it. "You guard the black guy." "It's just over there past where that black guy is standing." "He's right over there—the black guy."
I'm still trying to figure out what to say or do, when the lady working behind the counter glances over to catch my eye quickly before she turns away to save me.
"Larry! Knock it off or you're outta here!"
And just like that—everything is back to uncomfortably normal. She is the voice of authority in here, taking precedence over all other voices. I'm soon at the head of the line and I pay for my Quarterback Crunch without further incident. I walk on eggshells back out to the parking lot and find there's a middle-aged man waiting for me. He and his two daughters were in front of me in the line.
"I'm sorry about what happened in there," he says. "Don't listen to him. I think he must be drunk or something. I hope you weren't offended."
Me? Offended? Over somebody calling me "white guy" when I had spent my whole life referring to this very nice man as "that black guy over there?" This gentleman is old enough to remember racism when it wasn't veiled the way it is now. He's probably been called much worse than "black guy" without anybody batting an eye. This would have been the perfect situation for him to sit back and smile at a very small bit of payback.
"That's OK," I mumble lamely. I don't know what else to say in the face of somebody rising so far above human nature.
He nods and we each depart to our separate cars. As I'm opening my door (I'd locked it, of course) the panhandler comes back out the front door of the Baskin-Robbins.
"Hey man, I'm sorry!"
That grin is back.
"Hey man, I was just messin' with you."
I pull a dollar bill out of my pocket and hand it to him.
He waves at me as I pull out of the parking lot and head back to campus.