During my travels, I've gotten used to making terminal relationships and fleeting jokes and commonalities as if I’m a bartender, a cab driver, or hairstylist.
Usually, the conversations never really proceed into violent territories—that’s the point of small talk, trying tiptoe around your own beliefs, so you don’t put the other person off. Maybe, this is just a Midwest practice or maybe that’s just my knowledge of watching shows that have the classic Brooklyn/Jersey stereotype showing leading characters who raise their voices at everyone.
Small talk sometimes feels like a countdown to when I escape in whatever manner possible. Picture yourself in a bar, drinking overpriced gin and tonic and being forced into small talk. You do your usual tiptoeing, and this defense works for the first 30 minutes.
I’m tiptoeing with a middle-aged, white male from North Carolina. He owns a few franchises of a popular sub chain and manages an electrical company that powers much of the country—or so he says. He has a wife and two kids and is remodeling his home while building another. I couldn’t have created a better example of a typical American man if I tried.
Another white male joins the conversation; however, the couldn’t-be-over-26 is only in town to help open up and train employees at a Whole Foods going up in the city. How millennial.
TVs surround the bar, and while most are just showing basketball games and SportsCenter (our primary point of conversation), one of the TVs is silently showing CNN.
The topic of the electrical company is brought up as the newscasters glow behind us. The conversation veers into what was coming from the CNN TV. The typical American man states matter-of-factly, “I’m a conservative, but I don’t care if your gay or trans or any of that stuff. I just want to be able to keep my money.” He then goes on a baby boomer rant that allows for the couldn’t-be-over-26 and me to double down on our tiptoeing strategy. We’d likely need an escape.
I wish to get back to SportsCenter. Wait, no, typical American guy is still talking.
The millennial man is pretty quiet—either listening intently or trying to not appear to be feeling the beer in his system. I'm left alone to deal with typical American man who next ponders why I can’t detach myself from my phone. I respond truthfully and explained that I have many news apps on my phone because it’s my responsibility to know what’s happening. Plus, I need to be easily reached for my job. He bulldozes over my remarks, saying I couldn’t handle turning off my phone for even a day. He revels in turning off his phone every weekend. “Nothing,” he says, “is happening in the news that can’t wait. I read the paper on the weekend, and if it’s important news, it will be in it. Otherwise, it can wait.”
Millennial man is zoning off.
Trying to tiptoe around my opinions, I try appeasement. “I’ve gone a day or so without a phone before when camping in the summertime with friends.” He responds with another snarky remark, trying to make light of the situation, while I’m trying not to shatter his entitlement in the most tasteful way possible. Note to self, don’t come off too angry.
I cope by chuckling. I’m exhausted, and I’ve only been in this exchange alone for less than 15 minutes. The conversation fizzles out. Millennial man breaks his silence, trying to resurrect the discussion of home remodeling.
I feel assaulted. Did you catch that?
I’m sure most millenials like me have heard, at least once, someone older criticize our generation for how much we’re on our phones and lament the good ol’ days when all they had were pagers and payphones and gas was under a $1.00. This concept is transcendent, but when you contextualize it, it can become targeted and aggressive.
Deep breaths. Don’t come off too angry. Tiptoe.
This man is devaluing my reality. I should’ve put a stop to it. I should’ve told him that it’s a different time, yet many issues of injustice that are seen today aren’t new. It seems to be a common American practice for older generation to unfairly assess the succeeding generation. The same is apparent when those who hold privilege mock others for being too empathetic and not being able to “let go” of issues. I should’ve told him that people are dying every day, and silence/ignorance is complicity. My people are dying every day and that his privilege is spewing out of his pores so much so that I could see the red, white and blue pumping through his veins. I should’ve gotten up and left or…
The bar is closing. Everyone has to get up early for work the next day, so I say goodbye and go back to my hotel room.
I was the only POC in the entire bar that was under the glow of Trump, and I was supposed to make a point. I was supposed to check him. I was supposed to add another tally to the scoreboard of fights won. I was supposed to speak up—and I did nothing. I’m working on how to bring awareness to those in privileged positions because I am tired of the privileged pretending like the words that they say are not charged politically or otherwise.
Their words—“it can wait” echoes—are not playful banter, but a way of trying to tiptoe around us, not realizing that by doing so, their privilege is accentuated twice over.
Some might wish and strive to be like the man who can shut off the world off for a few hours, but I don’t. If I did, I would be ignoring the privilege that I have and turning my back on those who still need their voices to be heard.
About the Author
Originally from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Emalydia Flenory a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and has a degree in English with an emphasis in professional writing. She is a recipient of the Thomas Hickey Creative Writing award in creative non-fiction and has been published in For the Sonorous.