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Are they spitting at me?
February 26, 2005 6:45 PM   Subscribe

As a white man in New York City, I've become conscious that when I pass some black men, they often spit immediately after I pass. Another white friend says it happens to him, too. Is it a statement about our race?

Or do black men just spit more often, so that that they might seem to be spitting a lot after anyone who passes? I ask even though don't think that's it: the Chinese, who are renowned and incredible expectorators, don't seem to spit every time I walk by. Nor do Latinos/Hispanics, Polish people, Hasidim, or whitey hipster types spit after I pass.

Additional info: The spitting is not on me nor at me, but done loudly right after I walk by. I am a straight, pasty, doughy, tall white guy in his mid-thirties, who dresses casually and non-trendily, and who lives in a racially, culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse neighborhood. I have, however, encountered the spitting in several different neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I do not wear a stars and bars t-shirt, nor do I exhibit, as far as I can see, any kind of aggressive or racist behavior. In the last three years, I would estimate the spitting has happened more than a hundred times (and, of course, it has not happened thousands of times).

What do you think? Is it a skewed data sample? Or is the spitting a statement?
posted by Mo Nickels to Human Relations (42 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Maybe you're just being paranoid or feeling guilty over your white privilege.

I've never experienced what you're describing, and I'm a white male living in an impoverished half white, half black neighbourhood.
posted by cmonkey at 7:17 PM on February 26, 2005


Is it possible that you emit a natural expectorant that only affects people with sickle cell anemia?
posted by Pretty_Generic at 7:25 PM on February 26, 2005


I experienced what you did, but it was in Oakland, CA, and it was about 10 years ago. I was also called a "bigoted bitch" by black panhandlers when I didn't give them money, and I was once slapped on the ass, hard, by a black man who thought I was taking up too much space on a staircase (at least I think that was what upset him). Young black men would prod their dogs (usually pitbulls) whenever me or my white friends walked by, although we weren't sure exactly what that meant. Did they want their dogs to get angry at our appearance?

But that was Oakland, and it was 10 years ago, when my section of town was in the process of being "gentrified". Perhaps there were tensions there that wouldn't have normally existed.

There were also plenty of friendly black people there (obviously), so perhaps it was just one segment of the population that was unhappy with the situation, and possibly trying to drive me out of town. I don't know if any such situation or another similar situation is occurring in your area.
posted by veronitron at 7:31 PM on February 26, 2005


I live very close to you in Bushwick, which is mostly Latino, but there's a lot of black folks around as well. Like you, I'm tall and white, in my mid-thirties and dress casual. Now that you mention this, I believe it may have occured a few times, but I haven't noticed it in a long time. And, of course, it's really difficult to tell, so I probably end up forgetting about it, not being able to ever prove it. Or perhaps the longer I live here the more comfortable I am with the surroundings and people, so maybe my armor is down more than it used to be. I've been here for just over 3.5 years.

I would say I do notice more spitting in general here, but it doesn't seem to be angry spitting. Just plain ole disgusting spitting.
posted by hellbient at 7:35 PM on February 26, 2005


I've noticed it, but I interpreted it as someone feeling the urge to spit, not wanting to do it in the path of someone walking towards them, and therefore holding the spit until that person passed so they could hock one up without the risk of hitting anyone with it.
posted by 4easypayments at 7:42 PM on February 26, 2005


This is something I have definitely experienced before - not just in NYC. But I never noticed a racial aspect - just a 'young tough guy' thing. It seems to be one of those socially borderline acts that they could openly do to show their disdain - and yet, if they were ever called on it, could easily deny. Like passive-aggressive sidewalk hogging or slightly-too-hard jostling in a crowded bus. Just posturing, imho, but often deliberate. For the record, I'm a big dorky white guy and I think I've experienced this with young white, latino and black guys (been a while since I regularly walked in a downtown).
posted by kokogiak at 8:04 PM on February 26, 2005


I have experienced this hundreds of times, mostly in Los Angeles (I'm white and was living in a Latino neighborhood). Sometimes the spitting actually takes place half a second before I pass, so that it hits the sidewalk right in front of me. The explanation I usually give to myself is pretty much in line with what kokogiak said. But this is something I've always wondered about, and I'm relieved to see someone else asking about it.
posted by bingo at 9:53 PM on February 26, 2005


Does this happen in the reverse?
posted by Jim Jones at 10:05 PM on February 26, 2005


Weird. I've lived in both mixed and almost completely black neighborhoods and I've never had that happen to me.

Come to think of it, though, I spit a lot myself, out of habit from when I was trying to look "badass," as a wannabe hard guy teenager, and because smoking makes me hawk up a lot of phlegm. Maybe these guys are wannabe hard guys or smokers. In any case I wouldn't let it get to you. Or maybe you should hawk up some loogies as an experiment.
posted by jonmc at 10:28 PM on February 26, 2005


I should also add that I've lived in NYC for more than 12 years now, have lived at length as a white person in a black community before (80 percent black, 10 percent Latino, 10 percent whitey/gringo) and in largely Latino neighborhoods, and that this has happened outside of black neighborhoods as well as in them.
posted by Mo Nickels at 10:59 PM on February 26, 2005


Jon, it doesn't "get to me" so much as I was wondering if there was a cultural phenomenon that I was oblivious to.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:00 PM on February 26, 2005


Hmmm. Maybe you should nod and say "how you doing?" next tim you pass a couple of black guys and see if they still do it. If it's some kind of subcultural stance, it'll override politeness, I imagine.

More power to you if it dosen't bother you, but it would bug me if people were spitting because of my presence or simply because of my race, but I can be touchy.
posted by jonmc at 11:09 PM on February 26, 2005


'young tough guy' seems likely to me, i've noticed this (as an indian guy) with boys of any race who want to be thugs.
posted by anildash at 11:28 PM on February 26, 2005


Do you think the time of year might have something to do with your noticing it? I've noticed the past few days that I'm seeing a lot more spitting on the streets by all people in general, due, I believe, to the cold weather and everyone having some sort of cold/flu thing they're fighting (including me- yes, this white girl will spit in the street, even though I try to do it when I think no one is watching).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:47 PM on February 26, 2005 [1 favorite]


I turned up this article on the phenomenon. He explains it pretty much as you have seen it, making some good points. I think it is clearly a sign of disrespect, one that can easily be denied if push comes to shove, but clearly not random or simply your own prejudice paranoia.
posted by sophist at 11:53 PM on February 26, 2005


you think it is clearly? i am sure that's probably sophistry at it's best.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:57 AM on February 27, 2005


one of my first askme posts was a similar question: why do people spit...?
posted by grumblebee at 8:59 AM on February 27, 2005


If this ever happened to me, I'd simply assume that my magnificence has caused people to be overcome by drool.
posted by kindall at 10:10 AM on February 27, 2005 [1 favorite]


Does this happen in the reverse?

Well, I've noticed it happen to me too. And I'm a relatively unassuming Asian male in his mid 20s currently living in central Iowa.
posted by apeiam at 11:13 AM on February 27, 2005


I recall that there was once a website that was designed for this type of question. Geared to ask blunt racial or personal questions (fatness, differing cultures) that one might otherwise not ask in polite society. I have been unable to find it. I thought it was posted on mefi in context of personal hygiene of obese folk, but not in my search capabilities. Anyone else?
posted by Duck_Lips at 11:44 AM on February 27, 2005


Duck_Lips, why don't you post this on the front page? It sounds like a great resource (I thought about starting a site like this, myself). I would love to know the URL.
posted by grumblebee at 11:50 AM on February 27, 2005


I don't know that this is a racial issue..

I'm generally a foul degenerate, and have spit at times. If someone is walking by you, the slightest bit of respect would tell you to wait until they are past to spit.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 11:56 AM on February 27, 2005


I'd love it if Mo Nickels were to carry around a slip of paper as he walked through his neighborhood one day, and mark off a check in one column whenever a black man spit as he passed; and a check in another column each time a black man didn't spit as he passed.
Or have a seat on a bench or porch for 2 hours and document how much spitting you see, if it's after somebody walks by, and it's someone of a particular race.
I'm African-American, and have infrequently noticed (mostly tough male, not necessarily young) people (of various races, mostly black or Latino) spitting near me in San Francisco; I've taken it as a general lack of manners and a result of my not seeing them spit when I'm not nearby. (Hmm - maybe it's almost-good manners that makes someone wait until after you've passed before they spit, instead of in your path.)
All this being said, I'm not denying the OP's experience, just saying I'd want more info to judge...
posted by mistersix at 11:59 AM on February 27, 2005


Why not just hang out in the vicinity of them and see what they do to other people?
posted by rolypolyman at 12:05 PM on February 27, 2005


grumblebee: Duck_Lips's site is the Y? Forum on People's Differences, previously discussed on MeFi here.
posted by rxrfrx at 12:06 PM on February 27, 2005


Next week: why do black people never jaywalk faster than a meandering stroll as traffic approaches?
posted by The Jesse Helms at 12:10 PM on February 27, 2005


I exprienced the reverse phenomena while living/working in (west side) Harlem a couple years ago: black men going out of their way to say hello as they passed (I am a female). I figured THAT was a cultural difference, maybe a leftover from southern roots.
posted by availablelight at 12:24 PM on February 27, 2005


I've noticed hispanics doing this at times, but I always just assumed they were using some sort of tobacco product and didn't want to spit in front of a passing person.

I'm going to place my vote in the [this is nothing] category.
posted by mosch at 12:40 PM on February 27, 2005


I lived in the American deep south for five years and this never happened to me (live overseas now.)

In fact, black people were generally nicer than white people. I'd rather be stuck in the elevator with project thugs than a group of Crimson Pike fraternity pledges.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 12:59 PM on February 27, 2005


If they were spitting after every white guy they passed in Manhattan or Brooklyn, seems like they would run out of spit pretty fast. Or am I missing something here? I'm guessing they're just being tough but I wonder why you're attracting the passive aggressive macho vibe.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 1:03 PM on February 27, 2005


sophist: Thanks for the link; that guy echoes my feelings on this pretty well.

Interestingly, the fact that this activity falls just short of unambiguous confrontation is not only enough to make the accosted person feel justified in confronting the spitter; it also makes it impossible for those of us who have experienced this to prove here on metafilter that this happens on purpose.

on preview: If they were spitting after every white guy they passed in Manhattan or Brooklyn, seems like they would run out of spit pretty fast. Or am I missing something here?

We are (or at least I am) talking about occurrences in areas in which there aren't many white people, and the guys spitting are stationary, sitting or standing to the side of the sidewalk.
posted by bingo at 1:22 PM on February 27, 2005


Duck_Lips, is it this site: http://www.yforum.com/welcome1.html ?
posted by Jim Jones at 1:32 PM on February 27, 2005


Well, my google-fu is on the fritz, but I found this example from China and Cornwall. So, it's apparently fairly widespread. Found one more for Romanians.

Do a Find in Page for "spit."
posted by Jim Jones at 2:10 PM on February 27, 2005


But this is something I've always wondered about, and I'm relieved to see someone else asking about it.

I have noticed this as well in downtown Seattle. The spitters are almost exclusively young and black. As to whether it's actually happening or it's my selective paranoia, I am unsure. But it has happened far more than once. Then, too, I have blond hair and blue eyes and it has been my experience that I get shit from black teens and teens far more than my brunette haired, brown eyed white friends do. Which sometimes happens when we are out together on the street--my friends then often say, That's weird, nobody's ever yelled shit like that to me before... I chalk those sort of things up to being more Other to the kids than they are.
posted by y2karl at 2:21 PM on February 27, 2005


Could this be something like the lightpost phenomenon (people think that streetlights go out when they pass them and attribute it to some sort of magical quality about them that affects electricity but instead is statistically probable and their erroneous belief ignores the hundreds of times they pass by a streetlight that doesn't go out and is therefore ignored)?
posted by LeeJay at 6:58 PM on February 27, 2005


I lived in NY for 6 years (Union Square, Greenpoint, Brooklyn Heights) and never noticed anything like this. People in New York spit. I sure did - especially in winter. If you're congested and you don't have a kleenex that stuff has to go somewhere. You're probably just being a paranoid honkey.

I think johmc has the best advice: say "hey" to people you see on the street often. Talk to people on the street in the area's of town you frequent. It's up to YOU to make New York a friendlier place.
posted by mexican at 9:15 PM on February 27, 2005


Then, too, I have blond hair and blue eyes and it has been my experience that I get shit from black teens and teens far more than my brunette haired, brown eyed white friends do.

They may think that you're darker freinds are Latino. As a dark-haired, dark-eyed person, I've often had people ask me directions and whatnot in Spanish. My girlfreind teaches in an exclusively minority school and says that many of her Latin students are lighter than me. And FWIW, a Salvadoran buddy of mine once said that he didn't consider Jews and Italians to be "white." It's always more complicated than it seems at first glance.
posted by jonmc at 7:24 AM on February 28, 2005


I think johmc has the best advice: say "hey" to people you see on the street often. Talk to people on the street in the area's of town you frequent. It's up to YOU to make New York a friendlier place.

Yeah, well, if I ever encounter you, I'm going to pop you in the mouth for assuming that I don't greet people on the street. I do the nod--the slight movement of the head--that neither confronts nor ignores passersby, and it is well-received by most people.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:36 AM on February 28, 2005


Also, as for calling me a "paranoid honky," I'm going to pop you in the mouth for that, too. Step up, baby girl, daddy's home.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:37 AM on February 28, 2005


A proper study would not be to take not of how many black men don't spit after I pass, but how many men of any race don't. Which I've more or less kept track of, as I state above: men of other races simply do not spit as I pass. Maybe twice in the last three years, which is about how long I've been aware of this.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:44 AM on February 28, 2005


Yeah. Jim Jones et al, that is that site, as I recall.. thought it was a tad different. I bow to your searching-fu. I think it already was once a FPP, Grumb. If not, I would posted ita An interesting use of the interweb, the cloak of namelessness allows a unique openness.
posted by Duck_Lips at 12:10 PM on February 28, 2005


This happened to me a lot more in L.A. than it did in New York. Warm weather all year round, and streets with few pedestrians. Many of the spitters were not 'people I see on the street often,' they were people I had never seen before on a street that I didn't traverse often. We (or at least I) are not talking about a few particular kids who are always sitting on the corner down the street from my apartment. Saying 'hey' to every person of color (or every person, period) that you pass on the street is not practical.

Anyway, I for one am sure that I'm not 'just being a paranoid honkey.' I know I'm not a racist, and if kids I pass on the street think that I am, I don't consider it my duty as ambassador of white people to convince them otherwise on an ad hoc basis. It would be nice to know exactly what sort of signal they are sending me, though, because it seems an awful lot like an invitation to a fight (if it is, I'm not saying that I'm going to start fights with people who spit near me on purpose; I'd just like to know what it means).
posted by bingo at 6:19 PM on February 28, 2005


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