The following is an excerpt from the novel Flight by Sherman Alexie. The narrator is a homeless Native American man in his late forties, early fifties, who is bleeding from the face after being in a fight.
I’m going to walk out of this sad-sack alley and find a bathroom. And I’m going to wash my face and clothes. No, I’ll steal some clothes. Good clothes. A white shirt and black pants. And I’ll steal good shoes, too. Black leather shoes, cap toes, with intricate designs cut into the leather. In good clothes, I can be a good man.
And so I shamble out of the alley. No, I suck in my stomach muscles, straighten my spine, and hold my head level and I strut out of the alley.
And I horrify my audience. People sprint around me. A few just turn around and walk in the opposite direction. One woman screams.
Jesus, I must look like a horror movie. But that doesn’t matter. I am covered with the same blood that is inside everybody else. They can’t judge me because of this blood.
“I want some respect,” I say.
Nobody hears me. Worse, nobody understands me.
“I want some respect”, I say again, louder this time.
A man walks around the corner, almost bumps into me, and then continues on. He didn’t notice me. He didn’t see my blood. I follow him. A gray man, he wears a cheap three-button suit with better shoes. He talks loudly into a Bluetooth earpiece.
“I want some respect,” I say to him.
“I’ll call you back, Jim, I got some drunk guy talking to me,” he says into his earpiece, and hits the hang-up button. And then he asks me, “What the fuck do you want, chief?”
He thinks the curse word will scare me. He thinks the curse word will let me know that he once shot a man just to watch him die.
“I knew Johnny Cash,” I say, “and you ain’t Johnny Cash.”
The man laughs. He thinks I’m crazy. I laugh. I am crazy. He offers me a handful of spare change.
“There you go, chief,” he says.
“I don’t want your money,” I say. “I want your respect.”
The man laughs again. Is laughter all I can expect?
“Don’t laugh at me,” I say.
“All right, all right, chief,” he says. “I won’t laugh at you. You have a good day.”
He turns to walk away, but I grab his shoulder. He grabs my wrist and judos me into the brick wall.
“All right, all right, chief,” he says. “I don’t want you touching me.”
He could snap my bones if he wanted to. He could drive his thumb into my temple and kill me. I can feel his strength, his skill, his muscle memory.
It’s my turn to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” he asks.
“I’m just wondering how many white guys are going to beat my ass today.”
“Chief, you keep acting this way, and we’re all going to beat your ass today.”
We both think that’s funny, so we laugh together. And we almost bond because of our shared amusement.
“I’m going to let you go,” he says. “And when I do, I want us both to act like gentlemen, okay?”
“I want some respect,” I say.
“Are you going to be a gentleman?”
“I want some respect.”
“How many times are you going to say that?”
“I’m going to say it until I get some respect.”
The man looks around. He realizes that he’s pinned a bloody homeless man against a brick wall. Not one of his prouder moments. But he’s scared to let me go.
“All right, all right,” he says. “How do I show you some respect?”
This excerpt pretty much exemplifies for me much of how racial dynamics play out in this country, between white people and people of color. Much of the dialogue – and by dialogue I mean not just conversation but all interaction – is and has been one-sided, with white people doing all of the talking, and enforcing their collective will – conscious or not – via institutionalized supremacy.
People of color demand acknowledgment, demand respect. These demands, at different times, and under different circumstances, go unheard, or are responded to with dismissal, condescension, minor consolations, contempt, and/or even violence.
At the very end of the excerpt, only after the Native American man’s demand has been repeated over and over again, and only when the white man realizes that his position of power is subject to scrutiny, does he finally ask the right question.
“How do I show you some respect?”
Only when the ongoing racial dialogue in the United States reaches this point, on individual, local, or national levels – when white people ask the right question, rather than insisting upon their own answers – can we truly say that we’ve made progress towards reconciliation.