To Chris at the car dealership, who thought I was racist

Hey! It's Rant Thursday! Here goes: Dear Chris,

Can I call you Chris? I mean, of course I can. You asked if you could call me Susan, and, obviously, I said yes. I’m not sure if you’ll remember me, but I bought that family-friendly car from you last week, flew all the way to Toronto from Thunder Bay because cars are less expensive in the big city and I wanted an excuse to visit my family and friends, not to mention to navigate the drive home along the north shore of Lake Superior solo. It seemed like a rite of passage.

But I digress.

What I wanted to say, Chris, is that I love the car. I mean, it’s difficult not to love, what with the windshield wipers that actually wipe and the brights that stay on without me having to hold down the lever and the door locks that actually lock and the acceleration that actually… well, you get the picture. I’ve been spoiled with freebie, hand-me-down cars for more than a decade now, and I am eternally grateful for them, but I have to say I am kind of giddy about having a new one.

You must be familiar with that new-car feeling, Chris, having grown up in the industry. Your dad, you told me, owns several dealerships, and you’ve been around them your entire life. “But things are really different now,” you told me, conspiratorially, as I signed the papers for my new vehicle. “I mean,” you said, looking around the dealership, out near the Toronto airport, “I’m the only white guy here.”

And, you know? You were the only white guy there. It was, objectively, true that all the other salespeople at the place were people of colour. I honestly hadn’t paid much attention until you pointed it out. And while I thought that was weird that you pointed it out, I was prepared to grit my teeth and let it go if you didn’t say anything else. So I initialled the first page of the contract and then we moved on to the second, the one where I signed to confirm that I was whom I said I was and not some imposter trying to buy a car on Susan Goldberg’s behalf. “I mean, it’s easy to tell who you are,” you told me, Chris. “I mean, with everyone around here, you can’t tell who’s who: everyone is Mohammed Abdullah Singh. They all have the same names.”

(I have to admit, Chris, that I wasn’t really sure how to take that one coming from a white guy named, well, Chris. Which is, basically, the Christian equivalent of, say, Mohammed, isn’t it? But here, I am perhaps the pot calling the kettle black, having grown up a Susan in a world of Susans. Admittedly, there weren’t too many Chrises at my Jewish parochial school, but it still seems to me that there’s no real shortage of Chrises in North America, if you know what I mean.)

Now, I knew I had to intervene. Because I have made a pact with myself and the world to speak up in instances like this. Because not to do so is to be part of the problem, yes, and, more selfishly, because when I don’t I feel like an ass for weeks after. Months, even But it’s difficult to know how to intervene. It’s so easy to be caught off guard by the bad behaviour of others. I suppose that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily leave me with a whole bunch of prepared remarks for these kinds of situations. By the time you commented on the fact that, “You know, they’ve got 15 or 16 guys are living in one house and one guy goes down to the licensing office with another guy’s ID to try to get his license,” I finally managed to get it together enough to look up from my contract and say, “You know, I really don’t want to have this conversation with you.”

Was that enough? Likely not. But it was what I came up with at the time. And at least I succeeded in letting you know that, despite the colour of my skin, we don’t share the same values.

Which isn’t to say that I’m not racist. Because, Chris, you were right: I am. Sometimes, I see someone from any random ethnic or cultural group and an unflattering or sometimes even downright mean stereotypic thought flashes through my brain like some particularly vile form of Tourette’s syndrome. And I marvel, frustrated, at how deeply ingrained these kinds of thoughts are, at my brain’s persistence in thinking them. It’s like that song in Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes.” I’m working to explore that part of myself I don’t like, to acknowledge it, to figure out where it comes from and to work against it.

I didn’t walk out of the dealership in a huff. I mean, I had come too far already and contract was mostly signed. Plus, we got a really good deal. But I wonder if you would later tell someone about how I “Jewed you down.” I mean that’s what happened to my friend Susan (my God! We’re everywhere! It’s amazing you can tell us apart, all these white Jewish writer Susans) when she bought a car and the salesperson told her that she better not Jew him down any more. But that was 30 years ago. You said that things are really different now, Chris, but are they?

So maybe I didn’t say enough at the dealership, which is why I’m writing this letter. I haven’t decided yet whether I will copy you, or maybe your managers, on this link. But in the meantime, here are a couple pieces of advice for you, nuggets that I omitted to mention at the dealership: first, don’t assume that just because I’m white, I’m like you. And second, to paraphrase my mother, if you can’t think of anything nice to say, shut the fuck up.