When you have over an hour to kill downtown in a major city, time seems to slow to a stop. Fortunately, the Roman houses beneath the Palazzo Valentini, which we were waiting to visit, are a stone’s throw from the column of Trajan. On that warm and sunny day in February, we took over an empty bench facing the imperial fora and soaked in the sun we should not be seeing, when we returned to Illinois, for months.
From our bench we watched two hooded crows—dapper gents in gray and black—fighting turf battles over lunch scraps. (In some parts of Britain they are called “hoodies.”) The unruffled pigeons, waddling insouciantly among the tussling crows, often ran away with the best morsels. The white “dove of peace” Pope Francis released two years earlier did not fare so well. Fluttering out the window, the albino bird was immediately set upon by a hooded crow, backed up by a seagull. White birds, apparently, don’t matter either.
We turned to look at the African trinket sellers who were working the passersby. When they called out to anyone walking down the sidewalk, the walker usually slowed his pace enough to be trapped in a conversation that led in only one direction. The fatter and younger African approached our bench and, leaning over, asked, “You African?” and babbled on in English, not listening to my Italian “No.” As he drew closer and tried to attract my attention, I continued to stare stone-faced into the ruins. Finally, hearing my third “No, grazie,” he said in pidgin Italian something I interpreted as “You don’t like black people? Don’t like Africans?”
This is a trick question: If the answer is yes, he has earned the right to make a stink about racism and attract a crowd. If the answer is no, he has hit the American sucker in his weakest spot: His consciousness of what is now called “white privilege.” Still gazing in fascination at the ruins, I answered in rather elaborately formal Italian that he had nothing that could serve my needs. He walked away muttering.
His colleague—thin and older—hit us ten minutes later, but the attack was halfhearted. I watched them work the before-lunch crowd for over an hour. Their technique involved, first, confusing the mark with the nonsensical question “You African?” and then explaining, “There are white people in Africa, too. You seem African. We are brothers.” They concluded this improbable statement with an outstretched hand. If the victim took the bait, then his hand was captured, and he had to look at the trinkets.
If the target managed to keep walking, the vendor would shout a friendly greeting and throw him a trinket, which, instinctively, he would catch. Now he was caught. He couldn’t just throw the bracelet on the ground or toss it back to the vendor, who always managed to have both hands occupied at this point. So he had to wait until the vendor came up, took him by the wrist, and touted the beauties of his truly crummy gewgaws.
American and English tourists seemed the most vulnerable. Not only were they trapped nearly every time, but many of them actually paid money for a piece of mass-produced handicraft. As I saw new victims approaching, I started laying bets with myself. Surely, this distinguished-looking Ethiopian woman will not fall for these swindlers! She doesn’t. What about the Brit with the suit and briefcase, who keeps on walking as if he doesn’t see or hear anything? But wait, he’s turned to respond to the question, and, No, don’t catch the bracelet. He does.
How many generations of indoctrination did it take to instill this sense of guilt? People of privilege have learned to endure any rudeness, even criminal assaults on policemen, so long as the perpetrators are of a different color. Like Kafka’s Josef K, we cannot claim to be innocent because we don’t know what we are accused of.
Not everyone appears to be vulnerable. Several young Italian women, who seemed to attract the vendors’ warmest regard, never slowed their pace or turned their heads. They were used to the direct approach and knew the drill. I was surprised by a group of older Italian men, whose faces were etched with the rueful wisdom of human experience. They stopped of their own accord, chatted with the fat vendor, and even patted his shoulder as they walked away with smiles on their faces. Beyond any temptation to guilt or fear, they could afford to seem generous.
I don’t want to extract too much meaning out of an hour spent watching people in Rome’s Centro Storico, but the whole thing seemed like a morality play that began with an appeal to brotherhood and went through the phases of good-humored banter and resentment of white privilege to implications of racism. The only people to escape unscathed were those of us who maintained stony indifference and the older Italians who cheerfully enjoyed the spectacle without allowing themselves to get caught up in it.
In the short run, the only recourse seems to be either a Stoic refusal to pay any mind to the vendors, protestors, and race-baiters or, better still, the Christian response of the old Italian men whose benevolent irony, while rejecting their claims, acknowledges their humanity.