I have grown accustomed to ordering books off of Amazon, but on this Sunday, I felt compelled to step inside a bookstore. I have this thing with that space: it functions as a restorative outlet to me. When my day to day gets too tenuous and I feel gripped by the mundane triviality of life that inevitably comes with that monotony, I visit one. I may buy a book, or two, or four. Sometimes, I just peruse new titles and leave when I feel satisfied. Bookstores are somewhere between hitting the reset button and therapy for me. On this day, I simply wanted to be in one and see what was new in the section that I typically buy my books from, the “community and culture” section.
I was pleased to see that the section had almost tripled in size. A small win for us. But in this section I noticed something else that startled my attention. I saw something that I had never encountered in this section of the book store. It was something so foreign to my experience that I stopped everything that I was doing; I put my phone back in my pocket and put the book I was intent on previewing back on the shelf. I think I ended up picking up another random book just because, after a few moments, I realized that my current behaviour was stemming from my subconscious thoughts bursting right into my consciousness. I was staring at this picture that I never once pictured in my own head. I was staring at an older white man attentively examining a book that I figured no older white man would ever care to examine.
This older white man looked like the type of fellow that I would stay away from. Not for the sake of my own protection but to buffer his. He was wearing plain blue jeans — the type of thick and plain blue jeans that older white men wear after their older white wives iron them in the morning. And a plaid shirt, tucked in. He had grey hair and was wearing glasses. He looked like the type of older white man that, once you look at him, you think you know everything about. He owned a cottage and a mid-size sedan that wasn’t too flashy but bought brand new. He probably watched a bit of football but enjoyed golf more. He knew how to keep a lawn looking green, diversify a financial portfolio, and was retired — definitely retired. It was my instant stereotyping of him that made the book he was thinking about buying even more abnormal. The book was Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist.
I was stunned by what was happening six feet away from me. An older white man who by all stereotypical accounts looked like your textbook conservative checking out a “Black book”. We weren’t at the front of the store where some of those “Black books” have now been placed due to the combination of our social climate and good ol’ fashion capitalism. You had to be intentional to be in the section we were in — it was all the way in the back corner of this bookstore. And here this man was, reading the front flap and then the back. Flipping through the table of contents. Skimming the start of a chapter in the middle. He was studying this book. I was studying him.
I guess what caught my attention was noticing the actual book that he decided to pick up. I figured that older white people that looked like him didn’t really care about being “anti-racist”. And I can’t say what his intentions were. So I tried to think about them. Maybe he was thinking about buying it as a gift for his son or daughter or grandchild. Maybe he was thinking about buying it as a gift for one of them for a plethora of reasons. And then I thought about how those reasons could possibly be contingent on other reasons. So I stopped thinking about his why and started to think back on the entire moment and realized something.
I don’t really think it matters what his intentions were. At that moment, I wanted to walk up to him and ask what he thought about the book and why he decided to pick it up. But I didn’t because I thought that maybe I would be intimidating. Him looking at the book was enough for me as selfish as that may sound. And I did not want him to walk away from his curiosity for the sake of my own.
So I left him in his comfort. I let him engage in Blackness, for whatever purpose it served him, on his own terms. Comfortable on his continuum by being alone with his own thoughts. As a Black man who not only experiences my own Blackness but is somewhat trained on thinking about the subject, maybe that is where all people, not just white, should start — in a comfortable space and by ourselves.