Thursday, October 1, 2009

Trying to impress the locals?

Two of the three gyms I regularly attend are predominantly African-American. This is neither intentional nor unintentional. It's just a matter of geography.

Which gym depends entirely on my circumstances. Lately, it's most common for me to hit the gym on my way home from work, in which case, the 24 Hour Fitness on Slauson is the best one, as it involves only a slight detour. If I'm going before work, I'll hit the one in Hawthorne, which requires a short drive east on the 105. But I do that less often these days, for two reasons: 1) It involves factoring in all the extra time to shower after my workout, and making sure I don't forget a key part of my workday wardrobe (say, underpants or a belt, both of which have happened before); 2) They've set the stairmasters at this gym for a 20-minute maximum workout, which just won't cut it. The third gym I attend is the one in Santa Monica off Ocean Park, which is where I go when I'm planning to both leave from my house and return there. This is the one that's actually closest to home, but it's the wrong direction from work. It's also the only time I don't need a locker, because I arrive and leave in the same outfit.

The first two I've listed are predominantly African-American. Why does this matter, and why am I even mentioning it?

Well, for one, let's be honest -- it pumps up my sense of liberal self-esteem to attend a gym where I'm a minority. I haven't been fortunate enough to have many black friends in my life -- it just hasn't worked out that way -- so a liberal like me wants to prove (to the world, to himself) that he's as color blind as he fancies himself to be. I'm not saying that going to a black gym proves a person is not racist, but I do think people who are racist might choose the geographically inconvenient gym, to avoid those they don't like.

Like most people, I'm conscious of how my behavior is perceived, especially in situations where I'm interacting with other races. I don't think this makes me unusual in the supposedly post-racial world we've lived in since we elected Obama -- being conscious of how you may be representing yourself is just a prudent thing to do. Yeah, it would be wonderful if we could behave exactly the same way around everyone, but I'm conscious of things like seeming aloof or looking annoyed. I don't want it to be misinterpreted, to unintentionally perpetrate someone's idea that he or she is being disrespected. So I like to smile and nod at people at the gym whenever I get the chance. (I am also neurotic by nature, which I'm sure has something to do with it.)

And so it is that I also wonder what people think when they see me watching a movie like Crossover on my portable DVD player at the gym.

Now, I'm not going to say I'm as white as they come. They come much whiter. But my ancestors do date back to when the Angles met the Saxons, and a person probably wouldn't know my politics just by looking at me. (Though I do often have the crazy hair and bushy sideburns you might associate with a liberal.)

Most of the time, the movie I watch at the gym is just some dumb comedy or action movie, something I have to review that I know my wife won't want to watch with me. But I do also watch my fair share of movies intended for black audiences.

I've mentioned before that I can review any movie that doesn't currently have a review, and since movies for black audiences aren't the most hotly sought-after by the site's regular staffers, many of them are available. This serves a dual purpose for me. Not only does it pay me, but it also satisfies my democratic need to have all movies reviewed, not just the ones that the predominantly white society of film critics would naturally gravitate toward. I'm not going to assume that all the site's readers are white hipsters. Movies for minorities need to be reviewed, too. I'm not delusional in my liberalism, so I'm not going to tell you that I would watch most of these movies anyway -- I probably wouldn't. But I can tell you that I've had my share of nice surprises over the years, and am the better film fan for having seen so many movies that are clearly aimed toward a different demographic than my own.

But like I said, I wonder what message it sends to the guy on the stairmaster next to me when he sees me fire up Crossover, a movie about street basketball with literally an all-black cast. Does he smile and think I have good taste in movies? Or does he think I'm pandering to him, like those whitest of whites, who break into ebonics to show the person they're talking to how much they can relate? Does he even notice what I'm watching? Or that I'm watching a movie?

I know the answer to this last one. I know because it's difficult to miss me at the gym. Not only am I one of the few whites, but I'm also the only one who straps a portable DVD player to the top of the stairmaster using two thick rubber bands. Plus, if you're working out next to me, you have little choice but to be occasionally distracted by what's on my screen, even though I'm listening to it on headphones. Which is precisely why I try to keep everything I watch at the gym to a PG-13 rating, and why I get occasionally paranoid if nudity or graphic violence slips in, especially when I'm working out next to a woman.

But I also know because someone commented to me once about the movie I was watching. A nice woman in her late 20s noticed that I was watching Chris Robinson's ATL. In fact, when I reached the end of my time on the machine, she chided me that I couldn't turn the DVD player off because she was still watching. She then told me that ATL was her favorite movie. A sense of belonging ran down my spine in the form of a chill.

But most times, I don't get this kind of feedback, so I have no idea. And the answer is, what the person thinks -- if he or she thinks anything at all -- is probably a function of what biases he or she carries around. Which, when you think about it, is the basis for all racism anyway. If he or she is mostly untouched by racism, perhaps he or she just thinks "Right on, man." But if he or she deals with some dude who's always "blacking up his language" every time he talks to the person in question, perhaps this just seems like another instance of that.

Of course, there's also a third possibility -- that this person doesn't like Crossover or ATL at all. Just because a person is black does not mean he or she is interested in movies aimed at black audiences. And shame on me for suggesting it.

Aren't racial politics grand? To even have an academic discussion about it, as I try to do from time to time on this blog, is to make generalizations, even if just for the purposes of argument. Generalizations whose very nature tends to support what the proponents of racial equality are fighting against. Generalizations that I am in some way trying to attack, and root out, by discussing them here, in a public forum.

So I have no idea what the guy who was working out next to me yesterday thought. I didn't even throw him a surreptitious glance to see if he was watching my screen. And for the second half of my 45 minutes of huffing and puffing, my neighbor was a Latino guy.

Maybe I should have saved my screening of Sleep Dealer for him. ;-)

No comments: