Friday, July 14, 2006

Larry David and Liberal Guilt

In Larry David's work on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, he covers at least one topic better than I've seen anybody else do it: the anxiety of white liberals who are worried and confused about doing anything that could be perceived as racist. When George told his boss he looked like Sugar Ray Leonard, and the boss responded, "I suppose we all look alike to you," and George was trying to befriend every black person he knew to show to the boss. When Elaine thought she was dating a black man, and George kept saying, "Are we supposed to be talking about this? I don't think we're supposed to be talking about this." The legendary episode of Curb when Larry blurts out a joke about affirmative action and has a daylong nightmare as a result. Or when Larry doesn't want to fire his TV repairman because he is black, does anyway, and then keeps accidentally doing things in front of Wanda to make him look like a racist.

Who else is covering this topic? It's sort of an odd, strange, weird topic to even bring up. And yet for liberal whites, this is a part of our lives.

I go on frequent walks; it's my poor man's effort to stay fit. When walking alone, I keep a pretty good clip, and I always try to avoid bumping into people walking slower than me because of the awkwardness of going around. The other day on a walk, three guys were walking slow in front of me. Since I needed to cross the street soon anyway, and there was no traffic, I just crossed there. And suddenly, in the middle of the street, I realized this looked like the worst cliche one could think of: the people in front of me were black, and I appeared to be the white guy crossing the road to avoid them. Now, I would have crossed if there were three old white ladies walking slow in front of me and I was in Woodbury, but the perception was still bad.

They were three young black men, and I think they perceived that I was crossing to avoid them, and started jokingly trying to scare me because of that. One of them yelled "Biotch!" and another flashed an east-side hand signal at me. I thought briefly about returning it, but then just nodded a greeting.

I felt terrible guilt for the rest of my walk. I kept trying deliberately to walk past black people the rest of the walk, and attempted to make eye contact so that I could say hello. I think many of the people I passed thought I was a weirdo for staring at them. But I kept it up, walking by a whole bunch of black people and trying to make eye contact to say hello. Somehow I thought this would help make up for my "transgression." Now when I go for walks, I deliberately go to the neighborhood where I saw those guys, hoping they'll be there so I can walk by and say hello.

This is all really stupid. It's the sort of thing most people don't talk about, but that some people think about. So thanks to Larry David for actually addressing it. It's certainly not the only interesting issue David's work gets at with insight and precision.

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