race + gender + politics

On Being Chastised by Older White Men in Portland

January 29, 2015


Last night I pulled out of my building’s parking garage and into the frenzy of the adjacent residential streets, buzzing with cars. I left the house with plenty of time to get to the gym in a nearby suburb for Zumba. If traffic was worse than usual, I knew Zumba-friend M would have saved me a spot in the front right of the studio. No need to rush.

I approach a 4-way stop. There is a car opposite me and a car to my right who arrived at the intersection before me. I wait my turn and prepare to go straight ahead after the car to my right.1 Around this same time, I notice a car to my left approach the intersection. After a brief pause at the stop sign, proceeds to turn left after the car to my right has gone. We are both in the intersection when I honk my horn2, signaling that he is in the wrong. And that I was annoyed by this. I didn’t bother to allow my road rage to flair or to shoot death stares into the car, as I didn’t care. I motioned hurriedly with my hand for the driver to continue on. Keep it moving in your wrongness, bro. But to my continued annoyance, the car did not move. We are in the middle of the intersection, almost touching bumpers at an acute angle. If this car wasn’t going to move, I would move. I took my foot off the brake and rolled forward a bit. My adversary speeds and cuts me off, forcing me to turn to the right, heading towards the curb. As I pull away from the curb and try to continue to make my way down the street, my adversary in front of me pumps his brakes, moves forward a bit, and pumps his brakes again. I know this “be a dick driver” move, so I maintain some distance, as not to rear end the car in a sudden stop. Much to my surprise, the driver puts the car in park and jumps out of the car. A man with a full head of white hair – perhaps in his 50s – wearing sharp grey slacks, a black sweater and a grimace, marched towards my car, a half car length behind his. I’m somewhat worried of how this interaction will occur – I am, afterall, a Black woman in a fairly affluent neighborhood in a very white city. But I am also confrontational and unwilling to let him think I will be apologetic or scared of his misplaced rage.

So I roll down my window and say calmly, “Is there a problem?”

Infuriated, he yells, “You need to pay attention! That was a stop sign back there that you just went through! You need to watch what you’re doing!” (as he approaches the window of my car)

In my inside voice, “Hmmm I had the right of way.” This seems to infuriate him more.

“No you didn’t! You need to learn how to drive!”

As cars behind us begin to honk, he looks at them grumpily and stomps back to his car. In a fit of pettiness, I quickly drive around his car and head to the end of the street. As I make my way towards the highway, I see in my rearview mirror my adversary tailing me with his high beams on. I kick my petty up a notch and slow down on the on-ramp, creeping my way towards the traffic signal only allowing one car per green light onto the highway. My adversary is forced to drive behind me for a few minutes on the highway, as he cannot immediately get over into faster traffic.

This is not the first time I have interacted with an older white man in Portland has felt the need to give me a strict talking to when I’m presumed to be an imbecile.

There was the time an old white male bus driver lectured me about using expired bus passes. First let me note, I work at a huge university and all staff and students are able to purchase unlimited bus passes – a special sticker on their ID – for the year. The sticker color changes every year, with each new cycle beginning in September. I have this sticker because I ride the bus (sometimes different buses) every work day. One day I got on a bus from work, showed my work ID, and proceeded to sit down in a seat near the front (thanks, Rosa). The bus driver says, “Excuse me young lady, come back here.” Yes? Exasperated he says, “You can’t use expired bus passes. I can’t let you ride if you don’t have the right fare.” My sticker is not expired. I held up my ID for him to get a better look. “Oh, you must have had your ID flipped. When you get on the bus, it is very important you have your ID right side up and available for clear viewing by the driver. It’s very easy for some one to flash some one else’s ID or to have the wrong sticker. You can have a seat.”

Then there was the time I stepped onto another bus when an older white male bus driver immediately began to berate me. “You cannot just walk in front of a bus without using the cross walk, it is very dangerous. I might not have seen you and pulled right off. You should be more careful.” I looked around because I was unsure who he could be talking to. I was on the same side of the street as the busstop before he pulled up. I flipped through all of the possibilities where this could have happened. There’s never a time where I need to cross the street before I get on the bus or after I get off. Plus, I didn’t usually catch this particular bus at this time, so this bus driver wasn’t even familiar to me. He looked in my eyes and said, “Yes, you. Wasn’t it you who just walked in front of my bus the other day?” Uhhh no, I don’t know what you’re talking about. “Hmmm ok, I was sure it was you, but maybe I’m mistaking you for some one else. Have a seat.”

I don’t know why these encounters happen – if it’s just general “grumpy old(er) men” syndrome and they talk to any and everyone this way, or if they have a particular issue with some one who is Black, woman, and/or young(ish). For whatever reason, I don’t appreciate it. I hate it, in fact. I hate feeling belittled or singled out or reprimanded for some wrong I have nothing to do with. But I also have no desire to fight back, so to speak, and defend myself against the slander. I’m just not that interested in making a point to them (which is very, very unlike me, in many respects). And, to be honest, they’re probably too old and set in their entitled ways to care anyway.



1 This skit from the IFC show, Portlandia, that pretty accurately exaggerates what *usually* happens at intersections in Portland. Most Portlanders are very passive and overly courteous when it comes to driving. It’s pretty funny. And annoying.

2 People in Portland don’t really honk their horns. Not even a courtesy honk to say, “Hey dude, just wanted you to know the light changed.” It’s frowned upon. But I do it anyway. There are times when I feel people need to know they are operating out of order.

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  • Reply d. tafakari January 29, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    It’s like a whole nother country! o_o

    • Reply Gem January 29, 2015 at 5:57 pm

      lol indeed it is

  • Reply madscientist7 January 29, 2015 at 6:41 pm

    white people are out of control.

    • Reply Gem January 29, 2015 at 10:20 pm


  • Reply Dyvisha February 10, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    It seem to be, as you say, a syndrome. Why older men feel the need to consistently correct women (especially women of color, from what I have observed) is beyond me. Perhaps it is just the racist, patriarchal values that are embedded in our system. I hate being corrected by those who have malicious intent for their corrections. For the record, I really disdain being corrected, in general but I am working on that.

    Great blog, Gem. I cannot wait to read more!

    • Reply Gem February 11, 2015 at 12:58 pm

      thanks Dyvisha!
      and i completely feel you on being corrected – i used to hate it to. im much better about it now, but i dont take it as constructive or helpful when its coming from a stranger who is yelling at me lol. i’m grown, dont talk to me like a child. if you really feel i wronged you, lets deal with it like mature, decent humans.

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