This one is perhaps the most straightforward to begin with. My two friends and I are all in our early twenties, either college-aged or just recently graduated. The man who approached us seemed older–how old is rather difficult for me to say. But looking back, it does strike me as noteworthy that of all the adults in the cafe at the time, he approached the booth where my friend and I were sitting first. Perhaps it was simply chance that he came to the two of us. But I can’t help but remember some words my Dad told me recently:
“When you get older, you may have already encountered several people who have tried to take advantage of you. After a meeting a string of such people, you might conclude that many people are out to get you, and you become less trusting in general. The thing is, this is a bias that emerges as you get older–something that you have to correct for.”
Is it possible that the man approached us because he saw that we were younger than most people at the cafe? Could he have thought that we would be more likely to help, because we haven’t been jaded as much, because we might be more naïve or more trusting? I should point out that these are questions are hardly objective, because they assume that I have an idea of what the man’s intentions were. Although I can try to infer them based on what happened, frankly I don’t know them.
I can count three major interactions in the story of that cold Saturday morning: (1) The man and myself, (2) the man and my friend, and (3) the woman and my friend. Of these three interactions, the last two are the most memorable. After my friend got back from outside, one comment she made to me was that she shouldn’t have been so careless. That comment struck a chord with me, or more accurately a nerve–what had happened was absolutely not her fault, and yet she was telling me that she was in part responsible for it. I wish I had said something to her with something then, but my response came much later. After the woman who gave my friend a twenty and left, I wondered out loud what would have happened if I my friend and I had switched parts–would the man still have walked away, or would he have ignored me too? My friend seemed to think so, but I’m not as sure.
I think the woman who talked to my friend afterward did a much better job in addressing this point. She affirmed that whatever my friend decided was okay, and that she had no obligation to feel guilty about it either way. The fact that she approached my friend to ask if she was okay also said a lot–the support she showed my friend, both through her words and her actions, reminded me of how human, how painfully and beautifully human, all the interactions in this experience were.
In terms of things I worry about as I go about my day, my personal safety and whether I will be respected tend not to be very high on the list. The fact that I can say this carries a lot of privilege. When I talk, usually people will at least be willing to listen or acknowledge me (whether they can understand me or not is another question, but that’s besides the point). I deeply wonder, though, why the man didn’t listen to my friend when she was talking to him. Was it because he didn’t take her seriously, or because he just wanted to leave? Again, I don’t know what his intentions were, but these questions certainly have a leading edge to them that I need to acknowledge. My friend and I are entering a field where practitioners are predominantly women, and yet as someone whom many would identify as male, I highly doubt I will escape the issue of gender and the privilege that comes with it. And I suspect that my friend is far more familiar with that issue than I am.
You may have noticed that I didn’t mention how the people in the story visually appear to the outside world. I also asked you to remember what details you filled in about the people involved–was race one of them? Or, perhaps, was skin color one of them? I make this distinction because they are not the same thing–race is often inferred from skin color, but only the latter is thought to have biological meaning. That doesn’t mean race is meaningless, though–on the contrary, it is incredibly charged with culture, meaning, identity, and social implications.
My two friends and I both present with light skin, as did the woman who later approached my friend. If someone had just met us and we didn’t tell them how they identified, I would guess they’d assume we were white. The man who approached me and my friend presented with much darker skin. If someone had just met him and he didn’t tell them how he identified, I would guess they’d assume he was black. If each of us were to describe to this hypothetical person our recollection of events, this difference would likely have a profound effect on whom they would be more inclined to trust and believe.
Of course, you would also have to take into account their skin color, and what race they identify with, too. We tend to be better at distinguishing people who look similar to us, and we also are more inclined to trust people who are closer to us. The further removed someone is from us in terms of appearance, the harder it is for us to distinguish them, or perhaps even trust them. I have a less clear sense of how race played into our interactions on that day compared to the other two factors, but I have a feeling it mattered. And looking back on what I’ve already written, I think that the leading questions I’ve asked regarding this man’s intentions are influenced by that.