Questlove in an Elevator

(Note: I wanted to wait a few weeks before starting this blog, but then stuff happened and I thought I should write about it.  Neither Trayvon Martin nor George Zimmerman were part of my generation.  But Questlove is, and this post is about him… )

Before you read anything I have to say here, you should go read this article, as I’m basically just dissecting it.  Yeah, pretty meta, reacting to someone else’s reaction.  But I think this blog is going to be pretty meta.

When I read the part about the elevator, my first response was “you fool, she didn’t do that because you were a black man, she did that because you were a man.”  I’ve been there; back in my single days.  Maybe an elevator.  Maybe somewhere else.  You have a chance meeting with a really hot girl and want to do something, anything, to grease the wheels along towards some possibility of something more than a chance encounter.  But she is completely unresponsive, and certainly not about to hand out any information on how you might come across her again.  I just figured it was because women can read my mind, so I’d feel guilty about my lascivious thoughts and go about my day.  But this guy, this guy dared to think it was because he was black.

The thing is, I came to that story wanting to hear him, wanting to believe he had something worth saying.  Why didn’t he go on about those five to seven times a year he almost gets arrested for being black before someone recognizes him as a celebrity?  See that’s something that I think we as white Americans could hear more about.  The *bow chicka wowow* ain’t helpin’ us any.  In fact, it might be perpetuating the very stereotypes black men would like to be rid of.

But somehow, I think maybe, I might have finally gotten it.  Maybe it’s because I wanted to believe he had something to say.  Maybe it’s because I think a conversation about race is something worth having, and that this essay from Questlove is an undeservedly honest addition to that conversation.  I think the key to understanding what happened in that elevator and why that is what he chose to write about is to first of all realize that his essay, kind of like my blog, started out as a facebook post.  Of course it’s all about him and his point of view.  That’s what you write about on facebook.

Secondly, you have to sort through the clues buried in the rest of the article to understand why this is the focus.  I suppose the first clue is right before he gets into the elevator business, that whole naïve alert notice.  The rest are sprinkled throughout, having to do with how he has to be a desensitized robot to survive in his position.

I can’t say that I understand what it’s like to be a black man in America, but this is my shot at understanding why he wrote what he did.  First of all, this was a very personal story initially shared through a very personal medium before someone decided it was worth broadcasting to a larger audience.  My desire for him to carry the torch of “cops pull black men over more than white men” in his time of reflection shouldn’t outweigh whatever it is he chooses to reflect on.  Maybe this is one of those few times that he gets to act human: when he’s sad and contemplating bad news.  He shouldn’t have to bear the burden of proclaiming those tales if he doesn’t want to.  And it’s not like that information isn’t out there already.  We just aren’t listening to it.

But still, why the elevator?  Well, it wasn’t just any elevator.  It was the elevator in his house, you know that place where you get to be yourself sometimes.  And not just any house.  This was like Eddie Murphy telling jokes about escargot while a supermodel named Penelope from Oslo titters over her long-stemmed champagne flute and places her hand on his knee.

Except it wasn’t.

This was him going to that place where he would be accepted for who he was, but when he got there they still treated him like they always had.  Like they had every time they thought he was a criminal.  But he was ready for that, it happens all the time.  Maybe he wrote about the elevator because he was naive enough to think things would be different in the place where he lived.

So was she racist?  The only way we know is if whoever she was comes forward and explains what happened.  And she shouldn’t have to do that either.  This story wasn’t a story about who was right and who was wrong.  This story was about how Questlove wanted to be human one day and got reminded he was black.

Does this mean that women in elevators should stop being cautious?  Absolutely not: Questlove even said as much in his own story.  Women should trust their intuitions and treat every guy they meet like Schroedinger’s rapist until proven otherwise.  I’ve been Schrodinger’s rapist myself: one time a girl I was with wondered why I had a shovel and duct tape in the trunk of my car.  It’s because I had a 20 year old Toyota Celica and I lived in Colorado.  But she was right to question that.  Wise women are aware of lots of potential threats that us nice guys don’t even know about.  They should keep being aware of those potential threats.  But if on reflection they find that their intuition warns them about black men more than white men, perhaps it’s worth considering why.

So I started this post questioning the motives of that other post’s author, then I reflected a little bit and tried to figure out where he was coming from.  Did I get it right?  I don’t know, and I doubt that he’s going to come and fill in the details for me, being an in demand celebrity and all, and this being my first blog post.  But at least it feels a little bit more like a conversation than where I started.

Until we as a country are willing to have conversations about race and about rape, every black man is going to be Schrodinger’s rapist and every white woman is going to be Schrodinger’s racist.  If there’s a way to live without that kind of fear and bitterness, maybe it’s worth opening that box, kind of the way Questlove did when he put this out there.  But what do I know, I’m just a middle-aged white guy with a PhD in chemistry trying to figure out what my place in that conversation is going to look like.  What do you think?  Let me know in the comments.


2 Responses to “Questlove in an Elevator”

  1. Loretta Carson Says:

    As a wife of a black man and mother of biracial children, I applaud your willingness to have this conversation. I don’t know what it is like to be a black man, either, but I have witnessed these same “precautions” up close and personally. When my husband and I met, we worked together at Cracker Barrel. I was a waitress and he was a bus boy. Was it coincidence that tips left on the table were covered by a hand when he was working at a table nearby? At first, wanting to give people the benefit of the doubt, I thought so. After watching other bus boys doing the same job for the same pitiful pay, but with lighter skin, I think not. It is sad but true that we take caution in where we go to make others comfortable. I have to admit that I do it more than my husband, if only to protect my kids from unneeded tension or negative attention. It is also unfortunate that when the first name calling and negative treatment occurred (in elementary school), my first thought was “Well, it was going to happen sooner or later.” I can’t protect them from it, and that saddens me. Yes, my son looks a lot like Trayvon, hoodie and all.

  2. Thanks for your willingness to share this story. It is sad that we as a country haven’t gotten past this yet. The thing is, it took hearing these sorts of stories over and over again from people I knew and trusted before I realized that there still is a problem. I don’t have these stories myself, but the point of this article was to point to someone who did and who was willing to share it. I don’t think anyone has a “duty” to share stories of injustice simply because they have them, that in itself is a type of injustice. But for those who are willing to spread the word it helps people like me figure it out. So thank you.

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