I just wanted to spend a couple of relaxing hours playing bingo. And I am pretty sure that this is what just about everybody there wanted, although my “once-every-three-weeks” habit is on a slightly different pattern than that of most of the people there . . . (I once heard one woman tell a friend, “I haven’t been going as much lately . . . I’m down to about three or four times a week.” !!!)
If you’d asked me before yesterday, I would have launched into a lovely schpiel about how bingo is the great equalizer, how people of all ages and all walks of life co-exist peacefully (except when the caller is too slow, or too fast, or when a newbie like myself inadvertently breaks one of the 621 unspoken laws of the bingo hall . . . ) But since I’ve started visiting a new-to-me bingo hall, I’ve seen a few cracks in the formerly shiny verneer of my “we’re all the same at the bingo hall” fantasy.
I had seen a few moments of tension at this particular bingo hall in the past, but what I witnessed yesterday was more intense than previous ones, and harder to attribute to something other than racism.
I don’t know how it started, but all of a sudden, this crotchety old white woman who was one of the workers (or whatever they’re called) that day was yelling at an African-American woman, “And if you keep it up, I’ll call the police!” Of course, at this point she had everybody’s attention. What had the woman done? Had she lit up a joint at the table? (not that you’d be able to tell with all the smoke in there, anyway!) Had she stolen someone else’s dauber? Had she tampered with the bingo calling equipment?
No. She had answered a cell phone call. (This particular bingo hall had recently banned the use of cell phones during games.)
Lest you think I’m prematurely racializing this, please bear with me.
There was a great deal of murmering going on among the women sitting in my general area. I was upset too. “call the police”? because she took a call? I’m sure the woman knew the rules . . . she was by herself, so she would have had nobody to watch her cards while she left the room to take a call . . . and she must have had some legitimate need to take the call. (she was an older woman–probably in her 40’s or 50’s–I say that because she wasn’t some young kid with the phone glued to her ear.)
The woman was visibly upset by the interaction, and quickly took her call out to the hallway . . . but for me, the mood had been broken, and my “fun” afternoon of bingo had gone downhill rather quickly. The next few times the woman’s phone rang, I saw her walking very quickly towards the exit, and she certainly looked stressed, if not downright afraid.
It didn’t help that at one point, I looked over at where she was sitting, and saw her dabbing at her eyes . . . yes, I think she was crying. What I had interpreted in her face as anger a moment before was now transformed in my mind to something much more heart-wrenching. And although it’s possible that her tears (if they were indeed more than just a reaction to the smoke in the air, as I suspect that they were) were tears of anger, they still broke my heart. I could feel the humiliation she felt at having been spoken to like she was a child, or worse. And i felt myself in this strange no-man’s-land once again, as someone with the external appearance of the oppressor, but having (at least to some extent) the mind of the oppressed.
My anti-racism radar (not to mention my pathological codependency) fully engaged, I started to hone in on rumblings and to notice some things:
- All of the bingo workers were white, and come to think of it, I didn’t remember ever having seen an African-American working at a bingo game in Grand Rapids. This got me thinking about the whole “gatekeepers” concept and the question of who has access to the power.
- Probably 40 to 50% of the players were African-American (I didn’t count). If “they” would get together and boycott this bingo hall, there would be a serious loss of revenue at this particular game. (I’ll leave it to someone else to talk about the exploitative nature of bingo and other forms of gambling . . . I’m still in denial on that one.) In fact, since I am such a <tongue in cheek>Cool White Person</tongue in cheek>, I actually said as much to a woman at the next table. (I hope I said “we” and not “you”, but I can’t be sure. But seriously, and this is NOT something I’m saying to make myself sound like the CWP that I am, but I was upset enough that I DON’T want to go back to that particular bingo hall now.)
- Some of the women at the next table over were saying, “I stopped coming here for a while after that LAST incident.”, so clearly this was not the first time there had been this type of conflict.
- At one point, there was some flap over someone who had won one of the games (an African-American woman sitting two tables over from me), and I heard a snippet of a conversation between some of the workers–“look out for ________” (I didn’t catch exactly what the offense was, but from the context, I got the sense that it was an accusation of cheating or some kind of deception). Then I heard the worker say words that made me shudder . . . “they do that . . . they come in late and they _______” (fill in the blank with some bingo terminology that probably would not have made sense to me even if I HAD heard it.) Oh no. She said “they“. I heard it (remember, at this point my antennae were already tuned) and my heart sunk. I tried to convince myself that I hadn’t heard what I thought I had heard. Surely this white woman with the bad haircut had only meant “they” in the generic “bingo players” sense. Surely she hadn’t meant, “those people who come into OUR bingo hall”. But try as I might, I just could not convince myself that I had interpreted it wrong.
The thing is, I spent the rest of the afternoon looking at the crotchety old white woman with disdain and anger, keeping an eye on her lest she try some other antics . . . but then I stopped, and reminded myself that, rather than praying, “I thank You, God, that I am not like that sinner”, that I ought to keep in mind my own racism, buried though it may be under a flurry of well-intentioned words and attempts at “I’m-not-like-THOSE-white-people” coolness. And the problem, after all, is not that one crotchety old woman, but rather the deeper racism that hangs over all of our heads like the stale smoke of the bingo hall . . .
But it still broke my heart to realize that even here, in this seemingly benign setting, the racial divide was once again rearing its ugly head, showing up so clearly for those with eyes to see it. And I wanted to shut my eyes to it . . . I wanted to not see, to pretend that what I had seen didn’t mean what I knew in my heart of hearts that it meant.
I just wanted to play bingo. I just wanted to have some fun on a Saturday afternoon. And yet, I walked into a landmine . . . because this isn’t just a “Lorraine” thing–“there she goes again!”–no. if you open your eyes, it’s everywhere . . .
and I’m just not ready to shut up about it.