Presidents who Bridge the Racial Divide

I recently saw The Presidents of the United States of America (PUSA) at The 9:30 Club in Washington DC. (An unexpected treat was Joe Jack Talcum, formerly of The Dead Milkmen as the opening act.)

The Presidents of the United States of America - "Volcano"

Prior to the show, my friend Abhishek and I found a pretty good spot in the balcony. I scanned the crowd and summarized: white men in their mid-30’s. That assessment settled in–along with a vague disappointment that I somewhat fit a stereotype. I texted my friend Ron, just to make him jealous. Soon the show began.

I was digging the first few songs, when a black woman apparently in her 20’s asked me to squeeze over so she could see better. I complied (happily), but found myself asking (stupidly) to myself (thankfully), Do black people like this band? Maybe she’s here on a date. But, no, she started singing along–an obvious fan.

I felt so much better knowing that the PUSA fan base was broader than me and my demographic ilk.

It was a very fun show. In my sheltered life, I’ve never been to a concert where there was crowd surfing–but there was a bunch of it that night.

This is a cell-phone video filmed that night by someone else. At 2min 35sec, check out the headbanger right in front of Chris Ballew, the singer.

Josh Burdette

Incidentally, the 9:30 Club employs the most intimidating bouncer I’ve ever seen. I was certain I could find a picture of him on the Web, and I was right. His name is Josh Burdette, and he is quite articulate, as you can find out in this Washington Post article.

“Articulate.” That’s a loaded word now, you know. It can imply low expectations, as in “You wouldn’t think it to look at him, but he can actually express himself in grammatically-correct English.” Which is exactly the kind of surprise I felt when I read the interview with Burdette. When I experience a moment like this, the note-to-self is not that a particular person is an exception to the rule, but instead that I need to examine this particular preconception–and perhaps discard it.

Last year, Sen. Joe Biden characterized Barack Obama as “articulate” and got chastised for it. President Bush also used the “A” word to describe Obama, but with less backlash. (Perhaps reporters gave Bush a pass as a reward for using a fancy four-syllable word.) The political field manual needs an entry that says, “Never refer to a racial minority as ‘articulate.'”

Anyway, I rent cars fairly frequently, because I don’t personally own one anymore. But when I turn on the radio, I involuntarily assess the previous renter, based on the radio station. If it’s an R&B or rap station (as it often will be in the DC area), I will assume the previous renter was black. (However, I would not assume the same in Flagstaff, AZ. In the DC area, though, you have about a 50% chance of correctly guessing black as the race of anyone chosen at random. Add rap music as another data point, and your odds are better than even.)

Also, I have a mildly passive-aggressive habit of setting the radio station presets to NPR stations. I’m not sure what that’s about, but when I do it, I get a feeling that says, Take that, Rap. (In my white mind, rap is a proxy for misogyny, glorifying crime, etc. Another preconception that is under examination.)

So, the other day I reserved a car from Enterprise, and was picked up by Kwame – yes, a black man. I mentioned something about Flagstaff. Inexplicably, he started asking me about Shakespeare. “What was the name of the friend of Henry IV? Was it Flagstaff?

“Uh, I think it was Falstaff,” I said, not being 100% sure.

“That right: Falstaff.”

Kwame must have assumed in me a much greater familiarity with Shakespeare than is the case. He asked me about several plays he had either read, or seen on stage or on film. I felt outclassed, but didn’t want to let on the extent of my Shakespeare cluelessness. I also found myself thinking, Isn’t he articulate.

Later, when I signed the rental contract and drove off alone, I realized that Kwame already had the radio tuned to NPR.

1 comment

  1. Anonymous Reply
    March 31, 2008 at 12:35 am

    “Also, I have a mildly passive-aggressive habit of setting the radio station presets to NPR stations.”

    Try leaving a copy of ATLANTIC MONTHLY or NEW YORKER in the glove box. Or at the dentist’s office.


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