Tales of a Token: The Riff-Raff Incident


My wife and I had an interesting encounter the other day.

We just moved to Chattanooga, TN and scheduled an exterminator to spray our house; protecting us from the creepy crawlies. An older white gentleman, I’ll call him Rick, came to our new home as a representative of a highly rated company and our soon to be savior from a bug laden future. She was the first to meet him and from hearing their initial encounter at the door, he sounded like a friendly southern gentleman, but being a black man with a white wife, I had my guard set for the usual bit of unconscious ignorance.

I call it… Interracial Shock.

My wife invites Rick in and he begins going about his business, scoping out the area and what have you. During his slow meander through the house, spraying the baseboards here and there, his focus finally falls upon me.

Okay. Im ready. Here we go.

There it was, a classic case of interracial shock beaming from his eyes. I looked straight into his baby blues, gave a big smile and confidently introduced myself with a firm handshake. This my friends, is the end-all be-all combo of civility; the trance is broken, and he is successfully comforted.

Phew. We can move on, or so I thought.

My wife and I now call what I am about to tell you… The Riff-Raff Incident.

After the trance is broken, Rick turned confidently and gazed through our windows, down upon the city of Chattanooga; it was his city.

He begins to talk to us about Chattanooga and it is quite enthralling, actually. With his true Southern Tennessee drawl, you felt as though he knew more about this place than most; a holder of incredible city gems. Then he began talking about a particular area below our ridge. He was totally fixated. “You see that area there,” he said like only a true southern-gent can, “and that spot over there.”

We listened with bated breath. The things we could do and experience with his time tested knowledge, my word!

“There are gangs down there, and they are shooting each other up all the time. Those are the projects.”

Interesting, not what we expected, but great to know. Thanks Rick!

“Yeah, you see that area over there. Used to be projects over there too, but they bulldozed the whole thing down and built really nice apartments and great people are livin’ there now.”

Okay, Rick. Not sure where you are going here, but seems a tad dicey.

“So, yeah. They got all of that Riff-Raff out. They are all over here now.”

Uh oh. This is not good.

“Yeah, can’t stand all that Riff-Raff. I cant wait until they bulldoze the rest of this and git rid of all the Riff-Raff.”

Rick, bless his heart, went on like this for at least another 5 minutes, using the term “Riff-Raff” without reprieve. My wife and I stood next to him, sneaking quick glances at one another to insure that the other was paying attention. What Rick described with great pride and indignation, if you haven’t guessed already, was gentrification and the “Riff-Raff” he referred to were (drum roll please) blacks and latinos.

This placed my wife and I in a precarious spot. As relatively level headed people, we had no intention of telling him off or scolding him for his ignorant ways, but we were not sure how to proceed. We knew this man meant only to protect us from what he believed to be dangerous. He saw his city in a particular light, free of all the dark spots tainting its potential. (nudge, nudge… thats me)

Rick finished his speech, completed the task at hand without a hitch and went on to his next job. My wife and I stood together as he drove down the driveway, shaking our heads.

Thanks for reading. ✌️

Felix Oliha