By Navneet Alang
At the outset, I think it behooves me to say this: some of my best friends are white. Yeah, it’s a cliche joke now. But I just want to point out that what I set down here is not done in pride, defiance or in the hopes of offending. Instead, it’s with some reluctance and shame that I post this, in the hope that it is read with some mild sympathy for the odd contradictions, conflict and general weirdness entailed by being ‘not white’ and privileged while living in downtown Toronto.
1. Washing Dishes the Wrong Way
For some reason, there was a quiet that pervaded the house that day. Maybe my mum and brother were away, or perhaps there were no basement tenants. Whatever it was, something was different. For one, I was trying to be extra helpful.
I was still feeling guilty for having moved out. I had, at the ripe old age of 25, recently gotten a shared apartment in the Annex, and was much happier for it. But as (ugh) ‘progressive’ as my parents were, moving out in the same city before marriage struck them as… odd. They got it; they weren’t oblivious sitcom stereotypes. It was just strange and a little sad for them. So I was back on one of my perhaps too-often visits, and after dinner I told my Dad I’d wash the dishes. You know, to help out.
I had always washed dishes the way I had seen my folks do it: one at at time, with the tap trickling slightly. I knew there was another way of doing it. At camp and at friends’ houses, I too had filled the sink with soapy water, and fumbled through like I did it all the time. At home though, we just never did it that way. That’s just the way it is when you’re a minority. Out there, in regular public lives, there was a way of doing things that everyone else knew, but to you seemed strange.
‘Course, I had been out in the world! I lived on my own, and was recently back from traveling through Europe, too. I had seen things. So I filled the sink with foam and water – just like Canadians do! – and got through the big pile in no time flat.
When I was done, my dad and I just hung out for a bit. I think we started talking about English literature, which had always been a shared interest of ours. I was doing my MA in English at the time, and my dad had done his some 30 or 40 years prior. We chatted about these things often. Then there was lull.
“I’ve never washed the dishes like that,” my Dad said after a bit, pulling out a tea towel. It was still really quiet in the house.
“Yeah,” I responded. “Quick though, wasn’t it? I think that way works better for a big pile of them.”
“Yes. It does,” said my father.
“I guess,” I said a bit hesitantly “I’ve just never done it like that because it seemed like the white way of doing things.”
My father paused – a bit portentously if you ask me. It’s like in that moment we were secretly bonding over something, even if we couldn’t articulate quite what.
“Hm,” my father said. “Yes, I’ve never done it that way because of that too.”
We finished drying the dishes and put them away in silence.
A few years later, when I lived with my white then-girlfriend, I made sure to wash dishes the way my father always had.
2. Breathing a Sigh of Relief.
I had brought lemon sorbet for dessert. My friends were disappointed. After barbequed shortrib steak topped with chimichuri, eaten on a patio table on a cool spring evening, what my friends were hoping for was vanilla ice cream. Or, God, at least strawberry. But I could never seem to get these sorts of things right. Who knew what these downtown hipsters did or didn’t want?
After reluctantly consuming the tart sorbet, we headed upstairs. But soon, it was clear one of our group felt sick, and she promptly went home. That left four of us: our Mexican-Canadian host, two Caribbean-Canadians, and me.
We shot pool for a bit, then sat around chatting, before finally deciding to to head off around 11. By that time it had gotten cool, and on the walk home, we pulled our jackets around us, commenting on how unseasonably warm it had been lately. Then the inevitable happened.
“And what is with white people in shorts and t-shirts the minute it creeps above zero?!”
Here’s what you may not know. Though you can almost never generalize about ‘minorities’, this phrase is occasionally like a secret code in this city for “it is now time for us non-whites to complain about all the weird, inexplicable things white people do’. You begin with the shorts in spring comment and it goes from there.
So it started. The litany of silly complaints. Drinking milk with dinner. Of how ‘they’ don’t respect their parents or, conversely, are like friends with their folks. Stupid shit. But then, depending on the crowd, it gets more serious. So we moved on to this thing a white lady at work said about ‘that crazy hair’. Of getting yelled at in the street. Of how oblivious some of ‘them’ are about their white privilege.
Yeah, white people. What do they know? Fuck them, right? That’s what it sorta’ amounted to. But unpleasant as that is, what is difficult to convey is the flood of relief that comes with saying these things among a crowd of minorities, the sudden feeling of camaraderie that erupts into something disturbingly close to joy. Phew!, you say to yourself. I’m safe to let out my neuroses here.
Now a bit older, I tend to stay away from this. I’ve started to believe that antagonism is a last resort, and even this kind of joke-y, release-valve humour is potentially dangerous. To my ‘white friends’ reading this, I don’t secretly badmouth you every time I get together with my more melanin-rich pals. Mostly.
Still. Chris Rock, who is obviously very rich and very famous, says that he can still get nosebleeds and panic attacks in rooms full of white people he doesn’t know. And sometimes now, when life demands I show up at an event or party mostly full of white people, I can relate. There’s no good reason for it. Just shyness and awkwardness coming out the wrong way. But it’s hard not to give a racial tinge to those shortcomings – and stand in a corner nursing a beer, comforting oneself by thinking: “White people. Fuck them, right?”