I had lunch the other day with John, a long-time friend. We've known each other since the days when we both attended a large suburban high school that was almost 100% white.
John wasn't quite himself because he hadn't slept much the night before.
"I was woken up at about 3:30," he complained, "by two noisy guys walking down the street."
"Ah. So I guess your window was open. Still, were they THAT loud?"
"Yes! And then I couldn't get back to sleep for a couple of hours. I hate it when that happens."
"Yeah, well, me too. Have some extra iced tea or something."
He smiled a bit, but then frowned.
"And you know, they were clearly drunk, or high on something. But, also, I don't think they would've been THAT loud if they hadn't been black guys."
I stopped stabbing my salad.
"Well, sure. I mean, these guys were LOUD. They were literally shouting at each other. And of course it was 'mf'ing this' and 'mf'ing that.'"
John had lowered his voice by this point; he was now "whispering 'black,'" that hunkered-down mode that white people often fall into when they discuss "black people." Also, I knew that if we were in some places other than a restaurant, John wouldn't be using those "mf'ing" abbreviations.
"So," I said carefully, lowering my voice as well, "you think black people are loud."
"Well of course they are. And I'm sure you've noticed that too."
"Um, I have heard a lot of loud black people. But I've heard a lot of loud white people too. And a lot of quiet black people, for that matter."
"Yeah yeah," John said, waving away what I'd said. "I expect that from you. I, however, prefer to just see and say things like they are. And black people are louder than white people. Generally."
Where to begin?
"Okay, look. I have a lot of white relatives living out in the boonies, right? You know that, you've met some of them."
"Right. Your cousins and such."
"Yes. Remember how loud they can be?"
"Yeah, okay, I do, there's some loud white people all right. But that's people living out in the boonies. Lower class, like I guess you'd say."
"Well, maybe working class, or lower middle class. I'm not sure what I'd say, and I don't really like saying 'out in the boonies' either. But the point is, they're loud too."
"So, you're saying these guys who woke me up were lower-class black guys? How can we know that?"
John was frowning again.
"All right, maybe they were lower-class or whatever guys," he said. "But I dunno. I really think it's more of a race difference than an income difference. I mean, I have NEVER heard two white people shout at each other like that. It's like they were shouting at someone a couple of blocks away!"
"Maybe so. But I've heard white guys who looked like frat guys doing that too. Not to do my own generalizing. But look, aside from these ridiculous, broad generalizations, what about this -- why are you saying that black people are loud? Why didn't you say instead that white people are quiet?"
John just looked at me.
"I mean, I really don't want to say whites in general are any quieter than blacks in general. I have no idea. But what I'm wondering now is, why did you say that blacks are loud, instead of that whites are quiet?"
"Because . . . whites are the norm. They're normal. Anything that deviates from that gets labeled with that deviation. That difference from a SUPPOSED norm. And that norm doesn't get labeled because it's THOUGHT OF AS the norm, not as things like 'quiet.' Even though it's just like, another difference, that in this case, would be 'quiet.'"
I held up my hands and slowly, but quietly, clapped.
"Sounds like you've been reading my blog!"
"You know I have. Thanks for writing it."
"You're welcome. Thanks for reading it."
"But," John said, pointing a spoon at me for emphasis, "I still say that blacks in general are louder than whites in general. Or wait, okay, whites in general are QUIETER than blacks in general. Same difference, really."
"No, no. Nope, I can't allow that. Pay attention, please. Neither statement is more worthwhile or valid than the other. Saying that whites are more quiet than blacks is still, to be honest, stupid and unfounded. However, it does at least takes away that, um, mantle of normalcy, from white people."
"Hmm," John said, as he picked up his hamburger. "'Mantle of normalcy.' I'm not QUITE sure what that means. But I think I got it. And, I do expect to see it on your blog."
"Oh you will, John. You will."