Monday, April 23, 2012

Dear Discomfort Czar

This week, we begin a new feature, in which readers are invited to send in their discomfort questions and have a chance at an answer from an esteemed guest: THE DISCOMFORT CZAR. We seem to have a couple of questions already in the hopper, so let's begin with those.


Dear Discomfort Czar,
Why is the word "dilema" misspelled in that graphic at the top? How can I be expected to trust someone who either doesn't know how to spell or doesn't proofread carefully?
--An anxious reader


 Dear Anxious Reader,
We use what we have. I did notice the misspelling. I am a pretty good speller and also a pretty good proofreader, but I like the look of that graphic, so I decided to go with it despite its shortcomings. I'm sorry if it adds to your anxiety. 


Dear Discomfort Czar,
I was out walking the other afternoon, approaching the high school. There weren't many people on the street at the time. One young man was walking behind me (I know, because I saw him making a diagonal across the tennis courts, and then I passed him), and one ahead. The one behind me, with ear buds installed, crossed over to the other side of the street. The one ahead of me was pivoting and pacing, broadcasting a kind of restlessness. He was African American, and the one who had crossed to the other side was white, as am I. The African American youth (let's call him a youth; it sounds clinical) was NOT wearing a hoodie, but something about him made me consider crossing the street, as the other youth had. Still, I decided to stay the course, look this youth in the eye and acknowledge him with a head nod, perhaps even a hello. When I did, he said, "Ma'am, do you have a phone I could use?"
     I did not have a phone with me, and I held up my hands, sort of to show that they were empty, and I said, "Sorry. I don't have one with me." I was actually sort of . . . well, not . . . happy . . . but . . . relieved that I didn't have one with me because I don't think I would have wanted to lie, but I don't think I would have wanted to hand my phone over to him--a stranger, regardless of race or age or style of dress (at least that's what I'm thinking, or wondering, as I'm writing and trying to be honest).
     My question to you, Discomfort Czar, is whether you think he was out of line for asking, and what you would have done if you had a phone with you.
--Another anxious reader (I swear I'm not the one who asked that first question)


 Dear Another Anxious Reader,
Why don't you just stop mulling it over and be happy you didn't have a phone? Some people can't seem to give themselves a break, and you seem to be one of them. But, honestly, he may have had an actual need for a phone (you say he was pacing and/or restless, so maybe he was waiting for someone and wanted to know where they were). This doesn't mean, however, that you would have needed to hand over your phone to a stranger. If there had been a clear emergency, you would likely have offered to make the call yourself. But hand a highly portable and valuable item over to a stranger? I'm sure I wouldn't have. Which doesn't mean that the experience wouldn't have made me uncomfortable as I looked at myself and considered my values and/or my race-based instincts. After all, I am the Discomfort Czar.


Jim Poznak said...

Dear Anxious Reader: Answer honestly, please. Were you anxious in part because he was a black youth and you were alone on a deserted street? I am not saying I would not have been anxious in that circumstance.

Susan Messer said...

Yes, the two factors, especially combined, added to my discomfort. If the person asking had been a middle-aged, well-dressed white woman, I'm sure my feelings would have been different, and I probably would have handed over the phone, but I still might have been nervous about it.