I watched some comedy movies over the weekend called “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and its sequel. They are the story of a loser security guard who manages to save the day when professionals such as the police can’t. One of the scenes was particularly unfunny. A beautiful Hispanic woman accidently touches the white security guard’s hand when she is handing him something as hotel manager. The white man contrives to make the scene completely awkward. He suggests that the Hispanic woman is making advances on him and then coldly and ruthlessly rejects her advances, leaving her mortified with embarrassment and confusion. He paints her as a desperate loser. Funnily enough, this little comedy scene which I watched just a few days ago in an American film happened today in London, England. Even weirder was the fact that I was the Hispanic woman.
Picture the scene: a crowded London park. A few of the benches are in the sun, however most of the seats are taken up. I walk up to a bench in the sun on which two white women are sitting. There is some space to one side. I politely ask the white woman near the empty space if she minds if I sit down. She stares at me for a few seconds and then says that she does mind. She does not offer any explanation such as there is someone else sitting there: it is apparent that she is not willing to let me sit down: she just doesn’t want to share the bench. She doesn’t care that there aren’t any other benches in the sun, that the park is crowded, that the bench is obviously a superior seat to sitting on the grass.
The usual objections that I am reading racism into the situation will be raised at this point. As per usual, it will be suggested that it was wrong of me to ask the woman if I could sit down on the bench. The objector will say that the woman could have been saying no for any other reason, perhaps on the basis that I am a young man, etc. They may blame the woman for being selfish and inconsiderate. I will not bother replying to these objections as the objector clearly did not see the expression on the woman’s face as she surveyed my face for those seconds before she spoke, or the rude tone of her voice when she did speak to me, a rudeness that was imbued with incredulity, as though I had no right to even ask if I could sit down next to her.
Now, how does this scene in real life relate to the scene in the movie? Here we have a conventional situation. I, the ethnic minority man, used a conventional phrase and asked the woman if she minded if I sat down next to her. The point of that conventional phrase is that it is purely rhetorical. In the particular situation of a sunny day and a crowded park, unless the woman has a good reason, such as someone else is going to sit there, she shouldn’t refuse the questioner. This is the convention. However, by refusing, without offering any reason, the white woman deliberately made the situation awkward. She deliberately constructed the question as an unwanted advance on her own person, rather than the bench which was free to all. The intent behind the rejection was to try and make me feel as embarrassed and confused as the woman could possibly make me. After all, first there was the aggressive look of disgust in my face and towards my person, and then there was the brusque rejection, based not in any reason or excuse, but in aggressive assertion. Like the Hispanic woman in the movie, I was rejected by a white person and made to feel that I was a loathsome person for having tried to intrude upon her person. An exchange in public space that would otherwise have been completely normal was made into a fantasy scenario in which I was some sort of lecher and pervert who had been thwarted from executing my wicked designs. The point of the little ceremony was hubris in its original ancient Greek sense: to make another person feel inferior and degraded so that the oppressor can feel superior and exalted, a hero in their tale. My desire to sit down was constructed as the desire of a rapist and an intruder.
Why have I written up my experience? I thought about forgetting about it and not commenting upon it. I know that the reader of this piece will side with the white woman instead of me, the ethnic minority man. She is more believable than me because we live in a white majority society. However, I then reminded myself that it is only my duty to record my own truth. I know that I am right. I saw the expression of the white woman’s face as she scrutinised my features and I heard the tone of her voice when she spoke to me. I rely on my own senses rather than the automatic and instinctive defensiveness of the white majority whenever they try to lay claim and stewardship of a racist situation to protect their own. And I also wanted to relay the story of the park bench because it is a small but exact metaphor of the reality of the ethnic minority experience in London which everyone passes over as though it were somehow a natural part of reality.
The reader will wonder what the conclusion of the story was. I had had to wake up early in the morning to go to a hospital appointment and had had a long and tiresome day. Instead of telling the woman off and escalating the scene, expending useless energy on a useless and inconsequential person, I decided not to trouble myself with her racism. I went to another bench and asked a Chinese woman if she minded if I sat next to her, which, of course, she didn’t.