It Happened to Me: An Innocent Question Can Sometimes Be Mistaken As Being Racist

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By Washington Osiro

I want to share a story about an incident that occurred almost fifteen years ago. I write about the incident in my memoir “WUODHA: My Journey from Kenya to these United States” in a chapter titled “On Matters of Race and Racism”. I had the incident on my mind as I reflected on events of the last several weeks.

I was walking back to my car having just finished lunch in downtown Palo Alto. As I approached my car, a middle-aged (looking) Caucasian gentleman stopped by and asked me the question “Is that your car?

Taken aback and frankly annoyed by the implications I thought were embedded in the man’s question, I curtly responded by telling him “Oh no! It is not mine. I am going to steal it!

My response so surprised the man that he literally scurried away – mumbling a barely audible apology along the way. Still standing next to my car and marveling at the nerve of the man’s “implicit bias,” I watched him walk – towards a car parked four parking spaces away from me on the eastbound lanes of University Avenue – a popular destination for dining and people-watching located less than one mile from the world-famous Stanford University.

(Implicit Bias: The unconscious attribution of particular qualities to a member of a certain social group. In this case, I thought that white man thought I was trying the car – because as a black man, I could not afford it.)

The gentleman’s car? The same make, model, color, and I later found out, year as mine!

More embarrassed than confused, I walked towards the now-confused and fearful gentleman and apologized for my less-than-cordial and rude response to his question.

I am so sorry man. I was having a bad day – and thought you were questioning how I could own such a car.” I told him.

I didn’t realize that you had one like it.”

The gentleman, seemingly relieved, assured me that it was okay; that I should not worry about my assumption about the sincerity of his question.

It was NOT okay.

In responding to his earlier question (whether I “owned” the car he saw me standing next to), I had ascribed negative connotations in my response. I assumed that the white gentleman was questioning how me, a black man, could own such a car – and how wrong was I.

I was wrong in assuming the worst about his question – very wrong.

It turns out that we both owned cars that were identical in every conceivable way: make, model, color, and year. His car had fewer miles than mine but even the options were the same between the two cars! Using our apparent love for the same type of car as an icebreaker, the man wanted to know whether I liked mine because in his words, he “absolutely loooved” his. In our choice of cars, the man saw the proverbial “thing that unites us” – two men – our different races notwithstanding.

Yes, his opening line was a tad awkward but so was my response.

A simple “Yes, it is my car” in response to the man’s question would have been sufficient, i.e., Asked and Answered. Instead, I loaded my response with years of conventional (stereotypical) wisdom about several things including race and the ownership of a certain type of car. I then unloaded these assumptions onto the unsuspecting stranger – incorrectly so.

To his credit, the gentleman acknowledged that he could have phrased his question differently. He said that he could have asked me whether I “liked” the car instead of asking whether I “owned” it – as implied in his opening question “Is that your car?” The less accusatory wording would have triggered a less defensive reaction from me, a black man usually looked at with suspicion – especially in tony climes such as Palo Alto.

With my ego and self-perception as an open-minded / tolerant person temporarily in tatters, I apologized once more, bid farewell to the man, walked back to my car, and headed back to work.

The entire incident took all of 15-20 minutes that late afternoon. However, it fully captured the ease with which a seemingly innocuous question can spiral out of control and add to the narrative some people, especially from different backgrounds, race in our case, have of one another.

The lunchtime encounter also illustrated the ease with which individuals whose interaction with one another is sincere can salvage a potential faux pas. The two of us put ourselves in one another’s shoes and saw how easy it was to misunderstand the other.

 

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