My sister texted me the other day asking if I wanted to do lunch. Since we work only a few blocks from each other in Uptown, I suggested we try one of my new discoveries, Vapiano. We met on the corner of Third and Tryon streets and walked the half block to our destination. It was about 12:40, and the Uptown lunch crowd was growing by the minute.
We were enjoying our meal and lively conversation when out of nowhere, an older white dude sits down at our table.
I'll admit that by that point the lunch crowd was in full swing, and we were sitting at a table that could accommodate a few more folks. But this gentleman did not say excuse me, inquire if we were expecting more people in our party, or even ask how sweet the tea was that we were drinking. He just sat his non-communicative butt down and started eating his lunch.
It's not uncommon to feel hurt when you think you have been slighted, but when you are a minority — accustomed to being invisible to some people while simultaneously being subjected to their scrutiny — situations like the one my sister and I experienced often put you in an uncomfortable position of uncertainty: Is blatant rudeness just that, or is it racially motivated? After all, I am 6'3" with dreadlocks and my sister is an afro-sporting fashionista. We didn't exactly blend into the restaurant's crowd.
If you have been in that kind of situation, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, let me explain. There you are, in a store, dressed in business-casual attire, yet the salesperson is tracking you like caribou. Or you are in line at the bank, and the clerk, who has just finished an animated conversation with the patron in front of you — the customer she all but bear hugs before he leaves — loses all of her energy when you approach.
If you are a person of color, you cannot help but wonder, is it my race, my gender or my hair that she doesn't like? Maybe it's my "I heart Golden Girls" T-shirt. Or maybe the guy was her childhood best friend that she hadn't seen in years. All this stuff flies through your head in less than 30 seconds.
We evaluate human behavior through our filters, which alter our individual analytical process. Sometimes, as in the case of the bank clerk, we don't yield a clear result. Was our new lunch companion so steeped in his own privilege that he didn't think to excuse himself? Were we such a non-factor that we did not even warrant a polite exchange? Was he just a jerk?
Or, was it a classic case of cultural insensitivity?
Cultural sensitivity means being aware and accepting of other cultures. It is important to exercise, because what seems acceptable in some cultures can be interpreted as rude or derogatory in others.
For example, when I traveled to Paris as a graduate student, I found that Europeans have a very different sense of personal space than Americans do. Folks would be all up in my grill when speaking to me. I had to restrain myself from pushing back, as I did not want to offend anyone. After all, I was in their country; it was up to me to adapt.
If the guy who sat next to us was from the South, he probably would have been polite and formal. He could have also been unaware of the boundary issues two African Americans who grew up in the inner city constantly face, and therefore insensitive to any rudeness he might give off. Or, he could have just been in a bad mood.
I shared this incident with folks, who, depending on their filters, interpreted the exchange differently. Some deduced that perhaps he was from a place where the boundaries between public and personal space are blurred. My friends from New York said folks share space without introduction all the time. I also had reactions like my friend Iris's, who said she would have started talking loudly about him since he sat down and refused to acknowledge our presence.
When he sat down without a word, my sister and I exchanged perplexed glances, uncertain as to why this man had invaded our space. She thought to test the waters and spoke to our new-found lunch buddy. He looked at her and went back to eating. We had heard him speaking English on his phone earlier, so he was neither deaf, mute nor unable to understand her.
We quickly forgot the encounter and went back to our meal. Whether a racist or just a jerk, he didn't deserve any more of our time. Paging curmudgeon, party of one!