Note: As long as I’ve been writing about the racism of other people, it occurred to me re-post this piece from three years ago about my own moment of racial profiling.
One of the more humiliating moments in my life occurred around 1997.
I was working as a waiter at Jimmy Armstrong’s Saloon in midtown Manhattan.
It was lunchtime. The place was packed. I was scrambling to get the food out.
I noticed a man leaning over a table. He was an older man, African-American. I could only see his back. He was wearing a faded, olive-green military jacket. He appeared to have flowers in one hand.
I thought he was selling them.
I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Sir, we’re not allowed to have solicitors in here.’
He turned to face me.
“Excuse me?” he asked.
Immediately, I knew I had screwed up.
He wasn’t selling flowers. He knew someone at the table. He had stopped to say hi.
Now that he was facing me, he wasn’t the guy I’d expected. Instead of someone hustling to make a buck, living at life’s margins, this man was wearing office attire under his faded jacket.
“Because I’m a black man.”
“Who do you think you are?”
Fuck, fuck, fuckity-fuck.
As his voice grew louder, the restaurant din subsided. We had the floor now, just the two of us.
“I am so sorry,” I said.
“Do you have any education?”
“I’m really, really sorry.”
“Yeah, we heard that part. Now I’m asking you a question. Education? You got any?”
It was an unholy, slow-motion disaster.
I nodded, head down.
“What kind of education?”
“I really apologize. Please forgive me. I didn’t – ”
“Did you go to college? Just answer me.”
I exhaled and nodded.
“WHERE did you go to college?”
I was fucked anyway. Might as well just roll down hill and let it be done.
In the quietest voice ever, I said, “Harvard.”
Perfect silence in the restaurant.
The man smiled.
My body was still in the restaurant, but the rest of me had already crawled out to find a place to curl up and die.
“Well, I guess that makes you just about the STUPIDEST FUCKING SMART PERSON I ever met!”
Even right then, in my agony, there was a tiny sliver of me that actually appreciated the phrase.
Indeed, when he said it, I think he and I actually both smiled, at least a little.
Customers went back to their food. I went back to work. The man bid farewell to his friend and left.
As awful as the afternoon was, I’ve always liked the phrase.
Over the years it would even pop into my head as an appropriate tagline.
For instance, I thought of it when Donald Rumsfeld was discussing the brand-new wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when he pontificated about “known unknowables and unknown unknowables.”
Stupid smart person.
Or when Bill Clinton was musing on possible interpretations of the word “is.”
Stupid smart person.
It’s a great phrase.
Cosmically huge bummer, of course, that it was christened at my own expense.
But credit where credit is due, the guy got it right that day.