During the first several weeks of my romance with Magnum, in moments of silence or transition, he would often return my gaze with an expression I found discomforting. It looked like the offspring of a grimace and the Joker’s grin—his mouth stretched into the shape of a too-large-to-be-real smile, his eyes reflecting zero mirth.
It had the effect of turning his handsome face into a caricature. I finally asked, “Why you look at me like that?”
“Dat what all you white people do.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You white people. All the time. Everywhere, you do dis ting.”
“We what…we fake smile?”
“Yeah, all the dahmn time I see you do this. Only white people.”
“…And this is your attempt at fake smiling?”
“Yeah. Dis what I do when I wuking an dah white people look at me dat way.”
A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to witness this odd mimicry.
I was enjoying myself watching him work and interact with customers, which he generally does with a fair amount of charm. Now, Magnum has a gorgeous, even charismatic smile when he’s really smiling. And he does really smile a lot. But it’s not something he can pull off when he doesn’t feel like it. If it doesn’t come naturally, if he’s actually irritated or even just bored, the smile you get is the Joker Grimace. Which is what he was doing while trying to help a white family-man back his rented sedan into a tight parking spot. He directed the nervous fellow into position, the Joker Grimace frozen on his face.
“Sweetie,” I told him later, “It doesn’t look like you’re smiling at all when you do that, it actually sorta looks like you’re in pain.”
And in a way, I guess he is in a bit of pain for having to pretend to smile when he doesn’t feel the urge. The more I got to thinking about it, the more I noticed that yes, indeed, we white people do fake smile all day every day. I did it reflexively myself just this morning, which is especially telling since writing this piece has brought the practice to the forefront of my attention.
Whether we’re pleased or not, we’re socialized to turn the corners of our mouths up a bit when making eye contact with another human on the way to the bathroom or upon entering the elevator. It’s basically, I guess, an acknowledgement of the other person. “Hello, we’ve made eye contact and are in the same space and time on the planet. Good day to you.” Or something similar.
Magnum has assured me, “Black people don’t care if you smile at ‘dem, ya know. We don’ care one bit. You don’ smile? No madda to me! I still gon’ sleep happily in my bed at night.”
Even so, unless I am utterly burned out or pissed off, when dealing with people (especially when I’m the one working) the smile on my face emerges naturally. There is absolutely no effort required on my behalf to greet the customer with a smile. It’s not necessarily fake. Would I rather be working instead of writing or reading or drinking beer on the beach? No. But when my role is to be of service, the smile automatically materializes. It’s been this way since my days working at JCPenney in high school. The smile may not be completely genuine, but neither is it forced. It’s a work-mode thing. This seems to be programmed into most us white people.
However, this does not seem to be programmed into most West Indians. In fact, it seems more like the opposite. You get, what I have started referring to as the West Indian Stony Face, until and ONLY until you prove that you are not an asshole. West Indians seem to start with the assumption that you are going to be an asshole, and if with time—maybe over the course of a conversation or business transaction, or maybe over several weeks, months, or years—you prove to them that you’re a genuine and good-humored sort, then the wide smile comes out and you’re treated as a friend forevermore. But until then, the blank expression they offer you rivals the likes of red carpet ice queens Kristen Stewart and Victoria Beckham.
I can only really speak for myself, but white people seem to operate from the opposite premise. You, the customer, are deemed decent until you prove you’re an asshole. Then, and only then, will you get the Stony Face instead of the Fake Smile.
I think I understand at least partly why we get the Stony Face until proven worthy. Just imagine if your home was constantly invaded with people from a differing landmass, with different skin color and customs. They make demands and tell you how things are done where they come from in white people land, with little to no understanding of or interest in why things are done the way they’re done in your homeland. They just assume that because of their white people exceptionalism, their ways are superior.
I get it. My perception of tourists has changed dramatically since living in a vacation spot, and it has forever changed the way I behave when traveling. But there is something to be said for being greeted with a smile when you walk in the door of a business. Even Magnum recognizes this. During a recent errand run, we entered a non-tourist business while the two local girls behind the counter continued their conversation, backs to the door, without bothering to even look in our direction, despite the electronic ding dong that sounded when we crossed the threshold. Walking down the aisle to find our items, he said, “Lemme tell you sumtin’. If I ever own a business, I will not hire black people to work in my store because dey don’ even bodda saying hello when you walk inside. A customer like to be greeted if he gonna spend money wit you!”
But can you train a fake smile? If Magnum is any evidence, the result is far more confusing than helpful.