A man stopped his car alongside me this morning while I was running through my neighborhood. This was unsettling to me and I am trying to come to grips with why.
To set the stage, I went out around 10:45 this morning for a 3.3 mile jog (for those like me who keep score). It was cold and I was wearing my bright blue Northface windbreaker. I love this jacket. I bought it 2 years ago after seeing it in the store, obsessing about it for several days, and then returning with credit card in hand. The color was unique, the styling and size perfect, the brand identity empowering, the price right. It was one of those purchases you have to make, lest your dreams be haunted with retail regret. You know what I’m talking about, America.
About mile post 2.5, I’m in the zone. My mind is clear and the end of my run is in sight. At this point of my oneness with the universe, I can sense something, something coming up beside me. My spider-sense tingled. I turned to my left and a black Porsche Cayenne is slowly creeping up. The driver rolls down his window and motions me closer. I feel a twinge of stranger danger nerves, but remember that I’m an adult. I am allowed to speak to strangers. So I slow to a stop so that I may help a poor stranger in need of directions.
He didn’t need directions. He asked about my Northface jacket. Where did I get it? How could he get one? Does it have a lining? These are odd questions but instinctively I answered his seemingly harmless inquiries when asked. It’s a reflex to try and be helpful. I think everyone I know would have done the same.
He accepts my answers and does a quick U-turn, fast enough to generate a squeal of tires as he heads back to the main road. Returning to my running pace, I begin to process the encounter.
First of all, who stops someone on a morning jog to discuss his fashion outerwear? It’s incredibly bad form to stop someone in mid-exercise, especially someone you’ve never met. His behavior was rude and inconsiderate.
Secondly, he had to have been following me. That’s potentially scary. After we spoke, he had to turn around to go back in the direction he was headed. How long was he following me? Remember, I was in the zone and not fully aware of the surroundings. I can’t say that I am a fan of being followed by strangers while out on the streets. Would you be?
Now here is the part that has unsettled me most. My untrained cultural eye placed him between Pakistani and Indian descent. Did this make me more suspicious of his motives? Had the driver looked like Steve Martin in Father of the Bride (Parts I and II), would I have experienced the exact same level of suspicion? If you want to know the most unsettling part of the story for me, it’s that I believe if it had been the Steve Martin type, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the encounter. And that bothers me.
When the President of the United States continues to reinforce the messages of fear of Middle Eastern people, and the news and other mass media (think every movie about bad guys since 2001) continue to amplify these messages, it becomes difficult to block them out completely. I think I’m enlightened, but incidents and feelings like this make me question how far I’ve evolved and how much further I may have to go.
This is how racism works. External messages, often subtle, become so ingrained that we cannot separate reality (he shouldn’t have stopped a runner mid-exercise) from fantasy (what was his real motive in stopping me? He must be dangerous). So am I a victim now of all these messages? I hope not but today I am unsettled.
Am I supposed to be talking about this?