There’s an Old Black Guy who stands outside the Journal Square Bus station in Jersey City station selling newspapers on the sidewalk every morning.  He greets everyone who walks past him with a hearty, “Good morning, and how are you doin’ this fine day?”  His voice is syrupy and friendly, but since he repeats that phrase to single person who passes by, the genuineness of the greeting quickly becomes lost in the rote citation.

One morning, an Old White Guy came up to the Old Black Guy and I overheard their conversation that I will share with you now.

OLD WHITE GUY:  Hey!  Where you been?  I ain’t seen you in forever!

OLD BLACK GUY:  I was visiting my people.

OLD WHITE GUY:  Your People?  (pause)  What does that mean, “my people?”

OLD BLACK GUY:  My people.  My family!

OLD WHITE GUY:  Oh!  Family.

OLD BLACK GUY:  Yeah, I was down South.

OLD WHITE GUY:  You were there a long time.

OLD BLACK GUY:  I have a lot of people.

That conversation resonates on so many levels of human compunction.  As an Old White Guy myself — but only half as old as the Old White Guy in the above conversation — I know he was thrown by the “my people” statement because it appeared to be colored by Racial lines.  Why not just say “my family” straight up if that’s what you meant?

I also know the Old Black Guy considers the Old White Guy a friend — I’ve subsequently seen them hanging out together, jawing, and blocking the sidewalk — and I’m sure the Old Black Guy didn’t think he had to be memeingfully correct with his friend by substituting “family” for “people,” but that little slice of conversation is still a greater warning for the rest of us.

We cannot always be certain what people mean unless we ask for clarification and explanation from the person.  Some are offended by questions, but if you’re trying to divine the truth, and drill down into facts, the only way to get there is to ask a lot of questions.  Otherwise, we risk assuming meaning, and that creates a dangerous debt from which no social bargain can begin to benefit — because then we have to guess at intention and wish upon desire instead of just flat-out knowing what a person means by what they say.

8 Comments

  1. Timely reminder not to make assumptions – I try never to do that, but when you have such a mix of cultures it is an easy thing to do. I have an African friend who always says they are going to see their tribe – AKA their family. I know he does it deliberately as a statement – I think he feels he owns any racism coming his way when he does that.

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    1. Thanks for sharing that example, Nicola! I think when we live in a cultural mix, there’s more gumption to ask “What do you mean?”

      When the social block is more homogenous, problems can arise when, established, presumed memes are put at risk — as often happens when new minority influences begin to cut along the edges of the established power line.

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  2. David,

    When I used to visit Cleveland, people would ask “Where are you from?” after I told them my name. I soon found out that they did not care that I lived in New York or that I was born in New Jersey — all they wanted to know was the background of my rather unusual not at all Jewish sounding last name. As soon as I told them that my parents were Romanian — “Oh, okay!” I eventually started asking people who would ask for clarification — “Do you mean where am I from, or where does my name come from?”

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  3. I liked this dialogue you relayed because it was so brief, but shows how easy it is for a conversation to be misunderstood. The guy was smart in asking for clarification, and his friend wasn’t offended in explaining it– much better than the ‘smile and nod’ copout.

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  4. I appreciate the point you’re making, especially since what I believe to be a very direct communication style on my part is misinterpreted or misunderstood or misconstrued at least three times a week by somebody else.
    However, as a person who grew up in Kentucky and had Appalachian grandparents, I can tell you that in the South, using “my people” interchangeably with “my family” is extremely common. It is also very common to be asked, in small towns where everybody knows everybody else, “who are your people?” and the question means “what is your surname? are you related to anybody I know?” (I’ve actually been asked this while standing in line at the grocery in Middlesboro, KY. Fortunately my family name is one well known in that county.)
    Thus it would have never occurred to me to hear something “colored by racial lines” in the expression “visiting my people.” It’s one I’ve used myself many times . . . although of course, since I moved to the desert southwest, I’ve stopped saying it, because it’s always misconstrued … okay, yes, I should stop now. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for your great comment!

      You make an excellent point.

      However, in the East, we’ve been schooled to never use the pejorative “you people” —

      http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/07/did-ann-romney-really-call-americans-you-people-this-morning/260084/

      — and while “my people” isn’t exactly the same phrase, “you people” does carry an associated, discriminatory, undertone as Ross Perot learned the hard way in 1992:

      NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Ross Perot, making his first campaign stop outside the friendly confines of his volunteer army, offended members of an NAACP audience yesterday by referring to blacks as “you people.”

      He said afterward that if he upset anyone, “then I’m sorry,” and he repeated the apology later in a telephone interview broadcast on Cable News Network. “It never occurred to me that they would be offended, and if I offended anybody in any way, I certainly apologize,” Perot said.

      http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19920712&slug=1501684

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