Thursday, July 18, 2013

Profile in Courage

UntitledI profile people. I do it practically all day every day. Sometimes I can justify it as research for writing or acting but not all the time. Not, if I'm honest, much of the time.

A couple of months ago I was walking the dog on a Saturday night near midnight. We'd gone further than we usually do for that last walk so I wasn't in our usual digs with our usual escape routes and our usual companions. As we walked along Lafayette toward the intersection of Clinton I clocked three people, two white women coming out of different entrances to the subway and one black man coming our way down Clinton. Let the profiling begin.

First I look for dogs. Having two dog reactive dogs means this is the first thing I look for whenever I'm out with the pup and sometimes the only thing I wind up seeing. Nobody had dogs. Good.

Next I do a once over for drunkenness. At that time of night a lot of people are going out or coming home or moving from drinking spot to drinking spot. Neither the dog nor I trust drunk people. Everybody seemed to be walking a straight line and no one was puking or singing or telling the world's longest, loudest story. Good.

We were still pretty close to home, definitely on the commuting route, so I checked next to see if I knew any of these folks. Pretty sure I didn't. I've been embarrassed several times when I've been walking, head down and determined to avoid being noticed, and not responded to a hearty greeting. In avoiding a potential creeper ("Hey baby, gimme a smile...") I've offended friends and neighbors. It was hard to tell in the dark but by checking out their gaits and what direction they were walking I felt certain that none of them were someone who might feel slighted if I didn't say hello.

Her Serious Face Now I got to physical danger. I dismissed the white girls for being about my size and wearing dresses and carrying huge, open purses that wouldn't make efficient weapons and, of course, for being white. It wasn't all they needed to slide off my radar but to say it wasn't a factor would be a lie. The guy was big and had very dark skin. I have a hard time at this point determining how much of my alert had to do with his skin color and how much to do with him being a man. He was wearing high end workout gear, not the sort you wear for show. He carried a high performance backpack with a specialty water bottle hanging off of it and he was walking in a direct, purposeful but unhurried way. He seemed like a personal trainer if I had to guess. (I always guess. That part is the writer, for sure.) So he went off my list. No one else in sight yet and I turned the corner knowing that eventually the guy and I would be walking in the same direction and not worried about that.

A few houses down he did, in fact, come abreast of me. I'd already done my "work," the work of any woman walking alone, so I wasn't taken by surprise. I stayed alert so the dog wouldn't change direction and get in his way but didn't turn to look at the man. As he passed he said, "Good evening." He had a rich, rolling voice but the inflection was flat and perfunctory. I nodded, tossed out a "hey" but turned my attention to the dog who had not been profiling anyone so was on the verge of doing his surprised freak out, which I spend most of my time trying to train him out of.

Over the next block and a half I went down this list of thoughts:

"Why the fuck did he decide to bother me? We're all just walking dammit, it's too late for annoying small talk!"

Straggler? "Oh, wait. He did that to warn me he was coming up on me. He didn't want me to have a surprise freak out like the dog only more dangerous. He has no idea I watch so far ahead. That's weird. I've never had a guy do that warning thing before."

"Of course I've had guys do that to me before. They do it all the time. Hell, I do it all the time to warn people that the dog isn't going to be mean. It's just never been so obvious. Well, obvious to me. God I'm stupid."

"Crap. I feel like an idiot."

"Am I dangerous?"

"I'm not dangerous. No one would peg me as dangerous even if I was. Shut up."

"But I could be. For him. You know?"

"Yeah. Crap."

Here's the thing, I don't know how to stop profiling. I comfort myself by saying that I use a lot of factors in my decisions but at the end of the day profiling is making assumptions about the content of someone's character based on their appearance. Adding clothing or accessories to the mix of physical traits like color doesn't make the work much more reliable. Adding behavior, like shifting attention or difficulty walking in a straight line or loud talking, makes it a little better but still not by any means an accurate predictor of someone's actions.

As a kid I was taught not to talk to strangers but to be polite to adults. As an adult I've learned to chuckle and nod at catcalls to keep the caller from getting angry and following me. I've been taught as a woman to "be aware of [my] environment" and not to "ask for it" with my actions or clothes or words. I know that I shouldn't enter an elevator or a stairwell with a stranger (which begs the question, what do I do, stand in the lobby where I remain vulnerable?). I know that I should walk with purpose in parking garages and have my car keys at the ready. A friend reminded me recently never to walk on the same side of the street as a park or playground at night since an attacker could hide in those places, ambush, and then escape. I should never wait until I'm in a public foyer, trapped between an inner and outer door, to look for the keys to my house but should be ready to go in and not to permit anyone to draft through the door behind me. My whole life in this society has been geared toward identifying potential danger (read: dangerous people) and avoiding it.

Untitled On the way to the Mermaid Parade I sat down next to young Hispanic man. Midday on the train to the beach on a hot Saturday I barely glanced at him or anyone else. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that he was intent on his phone and didn't think more about it. I assumed he was playing a game. I took a bit longer a look at the white woman across the car because she was slathering lotion on her legs and arms and Teddy's Girl had to ask her to move her bag before she could sit. I couldn't even have told you what other kinds of people were on our car until several stops later.

At some point the guy next to me got off the train and Teddy's Girl came to sit with me. A stop or two after that a black woman stood up as the train was pulling into the station and stood near the lotion lady.

"Excuse me," the black woman leaned slightly toward the white one. "That guy..." she gestured limply toward where Teddy's Girl was sitting, "he was filming you." Then she mimed the lotion application. Small talk was exchanged but, really, what could anyone say? It was gross and weird and unsettling but what purpose did it serve to tell the woman now when there wasn't anything she could do about it?

Later I recounted the story to Carmencita and added, "It sucks that she felt like speaking up would put her in danger, too."

Carmencita replied, "She didn't know you two would have backed her."

Now, heaven only knows how that kind of confrontation would have gone down but I do believe that both Teddy's Girl and I would have been appalled and tried to back the anti-upskirt side of that argument. Though we both outweighed the budding auteur we're less likely to wade into a fray swinging with both glittery fists than we are to call 911 and usher people off the train toward an MTA agent, and use big, argumentative words. Who knows if any of those skills would have been enough. What's more relevant to me, though, is that, as a woman who has been raised to identify and avoid danger, the black woman profiled us and the upskirt jerk and took what she determined to be the safer course of action.

I can't blame her.

I can, though, continue to wonder about the cost-benefit analysis of the profiling habit. I don't know think we are making ourselves any safer at all.

1 comment:

  1. It makes me sad that we have to be so hyper vigilant.