The Burned Recycling Bin
Reading time: 3 minutes

This white guy insulted me and called me “white,” and I never could figure out why he called me white when he was white himself.

It was a warm spring evening, a couple of years ago. I was at Cal Anderson Park, this urban park near where I live, when I saw smoke arising from the middle of the park. One of those blue plastic bins for recyclables was on fire.

Someone was already calling 911, so I didn’t. But I did start dictating, into my phone, my observations of what was happening, so I could post about it in this blog I was keeping at the time, “I’m Curious about People.”

There was this guy nearby, a tall skinny white guy, close cropped beard, maybe mid 30s, wearing a white T-shirt, black jeans and cardigan, sunglasses obscuring his eyes and a baseball cap backwards on his head. He was hanging out with three or four others.

He must’ve seen me talk into my cell phone and thought I was calling 911. He walked up to me and told me, “Don’t call 911. It’s a contained fire. Do you know how much it costs taxpayers to send out fire engines?”

I was thinking, who is this lordly stranger? I replied, “That’s for the firefighters to decide, not us. Unless you are a firefighter.”

Clearly Mr. Lordly wasn’t a firefighter, but he didn’t acknowledge it. Instead, he kept on admonishing me, “You don’t need to call 911,” “Do you want to waste the taxpayers’ money,” “You’re wasting their time.” I stood my ground. He criticized my tone of voice. I pointed out that he’d spoken that way first.

Finally our contretemps seemed to be winding down, and I turned away. That’s when, to my back, he let loose with:

“You’re a stuck up white bitch.”

I turned around and just laughed in his face.

When I posted about this on my “I’m Curious about People” blog, I wrote about wondering who he was that he thought he could order me around.

But here, I’m wondering why he called me “white,” when he was white himself? Very few white people do that. Over and over, I’ve had experiences that show me that it’s rare for white people to refer to other white people as white. For most of us, it’s the default race, so we don’t think to mention it when we’re talking about someone.

Mr. Lordly wandered back to the group of people he’d been hanging with. I waited around the park to see if the firefighters would arrive. They did, and in fact the fire in the recycle bin was out before they got there.

While I was waiting, I watched the guy. He was with a group of people, and they were all white, too. I observed how he interacted with them, to see if he ordered them around, too. I wondered if they were afraid of him, if he was just generally a bully. But it didn’t look like it.

Now I wonder if maybe he was married to someone who wasn’t white, so even though he was white, he’d gotten used to seeing whiteness. Maybe he thought he wasn’t stuck up anymore, but other white people must be. Including me.

Or maybe he knew that most white people don’t think of themselves as “white,” so he thought he could put me on the defensive by calling me white, and I’d get so insulted I wouldn’t know what to say, and he’d win the argument.

Of course, it could be something simpler. Maybe he was from New York or New Jersey or some other place where people speak bluntly to each other. Since I didn’t back down, maybe he thought I was like him.

I don’t find any of my hypotheses satisfying. I wish I could find this guy again and ask him why he called me that. Maybe we’d actually have a good conversation about it.

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