Like most Americans, I’m a gutless worm incapable of rebelling against our corporate slave masters. But I’m also a social misfit. All I really want in life is to fit in, to be normal. Yet sometimes I don’t know how.
I live in passive aggressive, upper-middle-class suburbia. As a child, I was told by my parents that you should “never discuss politics or religion.” Unlike my brother, I could never quite obey their their orders. It’s not because I didn’t want to, but simply because I could never quite figure out how to do it. So as a teenager I was always the one at family gatherings getting shamed for talking about politics or religion.
My parents weren’t racists. They sent me to a multi-racial school. When I played little league football, my mother drove black kids as well as white kids back and forth to practice. Once my father tried to buy a house in a New Jersey suburb that will remain nameless, and the seller strongly suggested (in coded language) that he show some proof that he was a Christian. The town had a restrictive covenant against Jews and the name “Rogouski” was just close enough that they felt they had to check. Yes, stuff like this was as recent as the 1970s. So my parents just decided to look elsewhere.
But for some reason my parents were always afraid of being seen as troublemakers, of making waves. So if they rebelled against anything, they did it quietly, passively. They would never go out of their way to insult black people, Jews, Hispanics, or Asians, but they would also never confront anybody who did. Some of my relatives are quite open white supremacists, and during family reunions I was told just not to cause trouble. Obviously “talking about politics or religion” is worse than open racism and antisemitism.
In the morning I always take a long bike ride, which ends at my gym, where I finish off by lifting weights and then showering. I was drying off, a towel around my waist, when I heard this middle-aged man talking about the possibility that someone was going to build low income housing in his neighborhood. He never quite came out and said anything explicitly racist, but it was obvious what he meant. “They” are going to move into town and “ruin our good schools.”
So I said “why don’t you quit talking in code and dog whistle and say what you really think?”
“Do you think its fair to have them come in here and make the taxpayers pay to have their kids ruin our schools?”
“Who’s they?” I said.
“Where do you live?” he said. “Do you want them moving next to you?”
“Who’s they?” I said. “Who am I supposed to be afraid of living next to? Italians?”
He was very obviously an Italian American.
“You’re a liberal idiot,” he said.
“And you’re a racist cunt,” I shot back.
I looked down to notice my towel had fallen off. I was completely naked. Undeterred, I raised my fist in a communist salute and said “fuck Donald Trump and fuck you.”
There were about 4 or 5 other men in the locker room, but, since they obviously had the same kinds of parents I did, they were hesitant to “talk about politics or religion” and said nothing. The man I was arguing with left. I dried myself off, got dressed, got on my back, and went to eat lunch.
While I was eating, the only thing I really felt was shame and embarrassment. I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that. I also started to worry. Was I going to get kicked out of the gym for harassing another member? Then I started to doubt myself. Was the man even being racist at all? There are plenty of good reasons other than racism — although everybody in the town in racist — to oppose the construction of high-density housing in a small suburb by a large corporation. I also realized that to everybody in that locker room, I probably came off as a corporate stooge defending the right of big capitalists to run roughshod over the local town council and disrupt the rhythms of everybody’s life just to make a profit. The company trying to build the high density housing doesn’t care about black people or poor people. They just care about making money.
In short, even though the man was obviously engaging in racist dog whistle, I started to gaslight myself. Had I heard what I thought I heard, or had I just heard what I wanted to hear? Once again, I was that 19 year old, on break from college at a family reunion, “talking about politics and religion” when everybody else was just trying to enjoy themselves. The only thing I really feel about posting the incident here is that people will think I’m making it up, that it didn’t happen, that it’s fiction designed to make me look like a cool rebel confronting passive aggressive suburban racism. And yet, it happened.