Where Is the Line Between Racist And Just Plain Rude, And Did My Neighbor Just Cross It?

Last night I was startled awake by a verbal fight outside my window that was either fueled by racism or just plain old assholery.
Publish date:
July 31, 2013
rudeness, racism, serious questions

I was dreaming about Kourtney Kardashian. Weird, I know. Basically Kourtney was some kind of political bigwig in this Land of Make Believe and I desperately needed her to approve a marriage I was arranging and Kourtney, being Kourtney, obviously refused.

Like I said, weird. But still an enjoyable G-rated fantasy. One I didn't want to be yanked out of by the hysterically drunk neighbor screaming at a cab driver just below my window.

"No, fuck you!" someone not in my dream yelled. "Screw you!" And Kourtney vanished as I jolted upright.

"What the what?" I asked my empty bedroom. It was around 2 a.m.

"It's five dollars! Calm the fuck down!"

Being the nosey pants that I am, I grabbed a crumpled pair from the floor, wiggled in quickly, then quietly crept to the window to see what exactly the what was.

An elderly black gentleman in slacks and a button-down stood outside his cab while a few feet away stood a drunk and ranting younger white gentleman who was being anything but. From what I could surmise, eavesdropping through the blinds of my second story bedroom window, the young man and his partner had taken a cab ride knowing neither one of them had any cash on hand.

Cabs in DC rarely if ever have credit card machines, which is inconvenient and stupid but still a fact of life that most cab riders here are uniquely aware of. Whenever I don't have cash, I usually let the driver know beforehand that he'll have to stop at an ATM. Most of the time he obliges sans complaint.

On the rare occasion that a cab driver has had to wait in front of my final destination while some responsible person with cash comes out and pays, I've always tried to act contrite in the backseat. Because in the end, this man just provided me with a service that I should have had the money to pay for upfront. Cab drivers aren't charity workers.

Only once in a situation like the ones described above has a cab driver cursed me out. Oddly enough, it was outside of the New York Times' office in Washington. I was a news assistant on the edit desk, and one of my bosses had sent me out on an errand to Virginia. At the time he didn't have enough cash for a round trip cab, but he said to call the desk when I was close and he'd come down with the rest. Cool.

So when we pulled up in front of the office I called my boss, who, of course, was tied up. The cab driver, who was of African descent, proceeded to berate me with a ton of insults about lazy black Americans as I waited patiently for my boss. Instead, my co-worker, another black woman, finally came outside with money for the fare and as the cab driver peeled off he yelled, "This is why we don't like picking you people up!"

We both laughed -- but also cried a little on our insides.

All that is to say that the cab driver/cab rider relationship is fraught with all manner of socio-political racial class junk. There's always this strange push and pull between the intimacy and trust in the act of getting into someone else's car, and the sense of entitlement inherent in consumerism.

In this way, it's sometimes hard to pick sides in a cab fight. Is the driver being a jerk, like the time this one guy refused to take me home until I paid the full fare before he'd even started the engine? Or is the rider being an asshole, like the time a friend of mine threw up in the backseat of a cab and threw 20 dollars at the driver as consolation? Wait, did I say "friend"? Because that was totally me at 21.

So when I heard this drunken dude screaming at the cab driver, I wasn't sure what to think. But the cab driver certainly did.

"You're racist!" the older man said, markedly quieter than his aggressor.

"Racist? Racist! I'm not a racist. You're just rude!" he yelled.

Finally someone showed up with the money. The five dollars that would let everyone go home. And the drunken rider took the money -- a fist full of dollars and change -- and threw it "make it rain" style over the trunk of the taxi, hollering, "Here's your money!" and laughing maniacally.

I watched as the driver limped -- yep, he had a slight limp -- over to the trunk of his livelihood and picked up the crushed dollars and loose change. He counted it out, then limped back into the taxi and drove off. That imagine burned into my brain as I contemplated the drunken rider's last words, "I'm not racist. You're just rude."

Really? It's rude to ask for money owed you, and it's not racist to scream at an older black man as if he owed you something? Race and privilege cut in so many ways and this was most definitely one of them. Although I'm still not sure where the line gets drawn.

Was this guy just a drunk jerkwad, or does a wasted mind spew privileged thoughts that, when taken into the context of the power dynamic, could easily be construed as racism?

It was a lot to contemplate at 2am with a sleepy head, so I'm still chewing over the whole thing. One of these days I know I'll run into Drunken Rider while out walking my dog and I'm wondering how I'll react to him after seeing him at his crappiest. I wonder if he saw me peeking out of my window and feels embarrassed. I wonder if he knows someone was watching him and whether he would've acted differently with that knowledge.

Most of all, I wonder what I would have done in the same situation. Would I have screamed at a man just trying to do his job or would I have been a gracious drunk despite all evidence to the contrary? Because in the end, some of us share the same privilege and abuse it in equally idiotic ways.