Monday, February 13, 2006

On Theft and Racial Stereotyping

The one bad thing that did happen to me during my recent 48-hour trip to Los Angeles: I had my man-bag stolen. It contained, among other things, a digital camera and probably a little over $100 in cash. (My wallet and cell phone were still in my pockets.)

Somehow I can't help thinking of a grander significance to this event.

My family and I (there were 15 of us around two tables) were just winding down dinner when I pulled out my camera and snapped a few shots, then tucked the camera back into the bag, which was at my feet. Our table was near the entrance to the restaurant, and it was a fairly wide-open area with no real reservation/reception area to speak of. There was also one of those coin-operated games right by the front door, where you operated a claw to grab stuffed animals and hope the claw doesn't drop them before it reaches the escape hatch.

I actually saw the thief. The one guy I noticed most was, for whatever reason, a tall guy wearing a white oversized sports jersey, some bling around his neck, and a red baseball cap turned backwards. I believe he was latino. For some reason, I was turning around to observe the door often, and saw him there for a few minutes.

I honestly thought nothing of him. At one point he made his way over to that dorky stuffed-animal game and I remember thinking how funny it was that that machine was so attractive. (We had watched a guy with his kids playing with it before dinner started too.) I did not think "This guy looks sketchy" or "This guy looks like a thug" or even "What the hell is a latino guy doing in a Vietnamese restaurant (where the menus aren't even in English)?"

Perhaps this was my (first) mistake.

Before I knew it, I noticed the guy go running out the door. A buddy of his also hightailed it out at the same time. I didn't see my man-bag in his hand. Only about a minute later did I notice it was no longer on the floor: It was far too late for me to even dream of recovering it.

This guy had somehow or another managed to make his way pretty damn close to me and my cousin (sitting next to me), reach down to the floor, and get my man-bag away from me. How I did not sense or notice his presence or the movement of my bag still baffles me. How this could have happened with fifteen pairs eyes at the table -- not to mention restaurant staff and other patrons -- flabbergasts me. And how someone can come up with the unmitigated gall to even attempt to pull that off in those circumstances chills me. Would he have been willing to confront me if I had noticed? Would he have pulled out a weapon of some sort if I had put up some resistance? We'll never know.

But the larger ramifications of the event still haunt me in odd ways.

If this were some Jean Valjean who was really down on his luck and desperate, perhaps it would be easier for me to understand his motivations. But he looked like he had everything he really needed; either he just wanted more, or theft was fun for him.

Of course, I was a fool for not paying attention to my surroundings, and, frankly, for ignoring the fact that I had seen him loitering in the entranceway without making an effort to kick my bag further under the table or to loop the strap under a leg of my chair. I suppose waaaaaay deep down inside I thought something was in fact amiss, given the number of times I made eye contact with this guy before he pulled off his stunt.

And then there's the broader implications still. This guy was latino. I refuse to say that all latinos are crooks or anything, but a part of me will probably always carry that with me now. This guy is now "The latino guy who stole my camera from right under me". And then I can't help thinking how he does himself and his entire race a disservice that way. As a latino man, he should probably by now realize that stereotypes do not work in his favor in this country. Sure, he's just one individual, but when he goes around stealing -- even once -- does that at all help the reputation of latino men, at least in my eyes?

Contrast, for example, his background to mine. Outside of gang-related activity, Asians don't have much of a reputation for hooliganism or otherwise running outside of the law. If I were to go about committing crimes, I'm going to guess that most of the rest of the American population wouldn't leap to a larger conclusion about Asian men in general.

But this guy was latino, and he does have that stigma attached to him. So even if someone (like me) were to approach him as a completely blank slate without racial bias, his actions could tilt them toward believing the stereotypes. Why would you do stuff like that which can only further hurt the reputation of everyone who shares your skin tone and/or background?

In the end, of course, there are no answers, only questions which I cannot possibly wrap my feeble mind around. I am confident that I will not be generalizing this one experience to all latino men -- I live in an area with far too many latinos around for me to start fearing them all now.

At the same time, like other victims of crimes perpetuated by stereotyped ethnic minorities, I will always carry a memory of this incident. I hope and resolve that it won't bleed into my life in any way that matters.


Sub Girl said...

i'm sorry your stuff was stolen! it sucks when preconceived notions/stereotypes actually come true...

Washington Cube said...

Don't beat yourself up over not noticing. The man was a professional thief and for them, it's all about "sleight of hand." You never know where to look, and you never see a thing. His partner may have even done something at that moment to distract your gaze. I'm sorry you had to go through that.

katie said...

I'm sorry about the loss of your stuff. I would hope that people would realize that an experience with one member of a race isn't indicitive of the group as a whole, but I fear that isn't the case a lot of the time. A theif is a theif regardless of nationality. Hopefully karma comes and bites him in the ass.

KOB said...

Outstanding post; Cube's comment has it perfectly. After time my memory of something similar just boiled itself to sadness over the choice some people make. I almost feel sympathy, as weird as it sounds, for those who have lost, or never had, a center.

Dennis! said...

Sub Girl: Precisely. For people other than me, this would ratify negative stereotypes. Blah.

Cube: I'm still flummoxed at how good he was. I mean, the bag was right there.

Katie: I keep trying to be a "bigger man" who's empathetic and who presumes that there must have been some circumstances that drove him to this. But in fact, I really do kinda hope that he got run over by a car as he ran away with my stuff.

KOB: Your last sentence is precisely the sentiment I wish I could feel. In the abstract, I could feel it. Say, if someone else's stuff got stolen. The odd paradox is that, because it's my stuff... I can't get myself to feel it.

mysterygirl! said...

Ugh! So sorry about the loss of your man-bag. It always sucks when things happen that upset the way you behave or the way you see the world-- I know I became a highly suspicious person after my credit cards got stolen from my wallet out of my purse out of my bag under my desk at work (phew!). I bet that, before long, you will reevaluate and things will go back to normal.
I know that you're a lawyer-- do you prosecute or defend? Because it would be sweet if somehow, someway, he made it out to DC and you got to try him for something! I mean, he'd have to be wearing the same outfit, or carrying your man-bag, so that you'd recognize him... I'll have to work on this more.

Sarah said...

Just because he was the one running doesn't mean that he was the one who took your bag. If he was involved, and you have no proof, his entire purpose may have been to distract you while someone within the restaurant, like your waiter maybe, snatched the bag and passed it off to someone. You saw him run out the front, but you don't know for sure that he's the one that took it. I'm sorry you were burgled, it's an awful feeling.

Dennis! said...

MG: Now THAT would be karma, eh? Heh.

Sarah: Perhaps I didn't paint the picture well enough, but I actually didn't move for about 30 seconds after I saw them running, so if their bolting was meant to be a distraction while someone else pilfered my belongings, it didn't work. It's not like all 15 of us at the table jumped up and left our things behind when these guys ran out. Heck, my parents didn't even notice the guys at all.

Anonymous said...

After reading your entry I thought, wow, racist suburbanites should stay out of the city. If you can't watch your man-bag at a restaurant, you shouldn't carry one. The person who grabbed your man bag may have been a professional. He may have dressed to blend in at restaurants and crowded public places like the one where you left your expensive gadgets unattended in your entitled, self important state of socialization. Perhaps applying racist sterotypes is a learned behavior for those who seek justification for their life choices that perpetuate racism, economic and educational disparities for people of color, and a general lack of responsibility to change American culture for the better. How do you know the guy who sold your camera doesn't read Vietnamese? You have no idea what his life story is, as I have no idea of your life story. Let your experience serve as a reminder that while you enjoy your priveledge with ease and irresponsibility, others are eager to take advantage of your weakness. Perhaps one day we will enjoy a society where mutual respect permeates all our interactions.

Dennis! said...


First of all, I'm not a suburbanite. Don't know how much you read this blog, but I live smack dab in the city.

Second, I would think "a society where mutual respect permeates all our interactions" would include one where people of any race or nationality don't steal from others. It's amusing how quickly I'm labelled "racist," "privileged," and "irresponsible" for my thoughts on this (despite the fact that I wouldn't have given him a second thought -- positive or negative -- if he hadn't stolen my bag), yet somehow the thief is completely exonerated for his actions.

Thanks for anonymous attack there.

sam said...

Dennis!, everybody knows Asians are WAY TOO SMART to be racists. Stereotype, what's that?

God, I crack me up! =D

Anyway, I'm sorry some loser hijacked your stuff. I think discrimination is natural. I don't think it's right, but it's deeply ingrained in our instinctive subconscious minds as a defense mechanism. Our conscious mind indentifies a threat, and our subconscious creates an archetype. It's as simple as that. And just because it's there doesn't make one a racist, as long as our conscious minds can rationalize what's happening. You can fight instinct, but you can't eliminate it. I'm a monkey; I'm going to scratch my ass when it itches, you know?

Being white and male, I'm constantly on eggshells. I mean, every day, I'm bombarded with racial stereotypes - both true and false - and so it's a struggle sometimes not to appear racist; not to overcompensate. And then to talk about it at all is taboo. I'm sure I'm offending someone RIGHT NOW! Fortunately for the easily offended, racial issues are among my favorite topics of conversation.

Can't please everybody. I sure don't bother trying.

duane said...

Sorry he got your bag!!! But I think that you are totally right about having that feeling in the future; it is just inevitable. It is the same as when people lock their doors when they see people in a sketchy neighborhood. It doesn't make you a racist or stereotyper, it makes you realistic and practical.