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.