When I say Teddy bear, what do you see in your head?
Stupid question, I know, but in a moment, I’m going to use it as my justification.
Yesterday, I walked into the Columbia University bookstore to buy my aunt a birthday present. After looking around for a bit, I found a bunch of stuffed teddy bears on display and there were two types. One had on a Varsity jacket with the Columbia insignia stitched to the front. The other bear had a T-Shirt with the words “Somebody at Columbia loves me” across the chest. The Varsity jacket was pretty cool, but the T-shirt was so apropos…it was the perfect birthday gift for my aunt.
While the T-shirt was perfect, I wasn’t so keen on the bear. I turned around to ask a staff member to check the stockroom to see if the store had a different bear wearing the T-shirt I preferred. But when I looked around, I immediately noticed that everyone on the sales floor was black and I couldn’t bring myself to ask them. Why, you ask?
Because the bear looked like this:
Let me ask you a question…was I being ridiculous?
I became paranoid that if I asked the staff to find me a different bear, they would respond with the question, “Well, what’s wrong with the black bear?” To which I would be forced to reveal, “Because I don’t want a black bear. I want a brown bear.” Every post-racial bone in my body shuddered at the thought.
To the outside observer, it must have looked like I was really struggling with a massive teddy bear decision. But internally, I was undergoing a heated deconstruction process.
What exactly was it about the bear that made it less appealing to me? Do I, like so many color-obsessed racists over the course of history, just have a viscerally negative reaction toward the color black? Or maybe it had nothing to do with color at all. Maybe I was just a mindless social lemming, one that always prefers convention and status quo over the eccentric and unique. Was I a malicious receptacle of prejudice or a passive conformist? Either way, the teddy bear made me confront something very ugly inside.
It’s not really my fault, I thought. I grew up in Southern California where everyone looked like me, spoke like me, had the same background and things in common with me. I never had to look outside my race for meaningful relationships. And while New York has plenty of Asians, I get the sense that for the first time in my life, I am in fact, a minority. But because of my upbringing, I’m shamefully illiterate when it comes racial sensitivity. What is the line that must not be crossed? More often than not, I feel like a ethnic oddity stuck in the crossfire between What it Means to be White and What it Means to be Black.
But then I asked myself another question: When I say teddy bear, what do you see in your head?
A brown bear! You see a brown bear right?!
So then, I became indignant at myself. Dammit, if I want to buy a brown teddy bear with the adorable T-shirt of my choosing, I have every right to do so in this great nation of ours. I don’t owe an explanation to anyone, racial sensitivity and political correctness be damned.
I must have been standing there for quite a while because I started getting suspicious glances from the staff. Despite my fiery inner oratory, I still couldn’t muster the chutzpah to make my racist request.
But then I noticed that the T-shirt and the Varsity jacket weren’t stitched onto the bear. Eureka! There was my custom made solution. Just a simple wardrobe swap and all would be right in the world.
Much like the 14-year old boy stealing a naughty peek inside an issue of Playboy at the magazine rack, I knew I had to be quick, I had to be discrete.
Nervously, I scanned the floor and as soon as I was in the clear, I stripped brown bear of his suburban garb and replaced it with the T-shirt. Ninja speed.
I look up and there’s a staff guy who’s staring straight at me. He knows something’s fishy, but he doesn’t know what. There, on the shelf, is a black bear with a Varsity jacket, it couldn’t have been more obvious, but he failed to connect the dots.
I scurried over to the cash register, and in my rush, I forgot to check the price. $45. HOLY shit. $45 for a teddy bear?
After all that soul-searching, I felt obligated to buy the bear. So I did. But as I was signing the receipt, in a moment of clarity, I realized something. The bear wasn’t $45…the Varsity jacket was $45.
After I bought the damn thing, I sauntered back to the teddy bear display. I check the black bear and sure enough…$15. I thought, hey, black bear or not, I’m not paying an extra $30 on account of my hypersensitivity to racial protocol. I’m just not. Time for the ol’ Refund and Switcheroo trick.
But now they’re on to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the staff guy drop what he’s doing and head my way. I feel the security guard approach me from the rear.
I had no choice. I walked out of the store carrying this:
A $45 bear that’s only worth $15.
I guess that’s what I get for being a black bear parading around in a Varsity jacket.