I am a white American male. As such, I realize that there is no way for me to grasp and viscerally appreciate all the ways in which racism afflicts black Americans. Or, for that matter, all the ways in which sexism afflicts women. But I can acknowledge that these things exist. I can recognize when it happens. I’ve seen it happen to others, both friends and strangers. I can try not to be part of the problem.
It isn’t just black and white or male and female. There are so many other ways in which we classify and mistreat each other. Black Americans were enslaved; Native Americans were largely eradicated. It is easy to think of still more examples – religious heretics, colonized peoples, members of the LGBT community – anything that sets one apart as the Other. Being the Other makes one less than human and more akin to vermin that should be controlled or exterminated: clearly the attitude taken by Nazis towards Jews in occupied Europe.
When I was a child, my family moved around a lot. [It doesn’t matter why; there was no good reason.] We moved every other year. I was born in Oklahoma, but my only memory of it is from visiting relatives later: we moved to central Illinois when I was still a baby. We lived in a series of small towns – Decatur, Sullivan, made a brief detour to Escondido, California, then back to Shelbyville. My earliest memories are of the rich smell of the fertile Illinois landscape coming to life in springtime as my consciousness dawned in a beautiful wooded landscape about which I was infinitely curious. The shady forests and little creeks were as much my classrooms as the brick schoolhouses inhabited by teachers, friends, and bullies.
I was painfully, cripplingly shy as a child. It took a year to start to make new friends, and another to establish them. Then we would move away.
Bullies came more quickly than friends. Every bully wants to pick on others, but especially if they are different – the Other. I was different in so many ways. I was from somewhere else, an alien immigrant to each parochial little town. I was small for my age and young for my grade, having skipped first grade. I was an egghead, a nerd in a time where the only thing society seemed to value was size and strength. Worst of all, I did not attend the same little church that they did, so I was going to hell, and many illiterate bible-thumping bullies seemed to take it as their religious duty to speed me on my way.
When I was 13, we moved to Flint, Michigan. We went from a tiny farm town to an urban industrial area the epitomizes “rust belt.” I could no longer see the stars at night because the sky was pink – a lurid, poisonous pink – from the lights of the nearby AC Spark Plugs factory (then an active facility in which I briefly worked; now a vast empty slab of concrete). I still wandered in the limited little woods wedged between the freeway and a golf course, but the creek there ran thick with the sheen of petrochemical runoff.
I became a part of the 1970s effort at desegregation. The white religious bigot bullies were replaced with black ghetto bullies. Some seemed to think it to be their duty to return the shit white people had given them by being shitty to white people whenever they could. I didn’t really get that at the time. To me, they were just bullies. Same old, same old. Their hatred for the Other was palpably the same.
But you know what? Most people aren’t bullies. Bullies are just the first in line to greet Others onto whom they hope to unload their own self-loathing. Given time, I met better people in each and every place I lived. And what I found, over and over again, is that people are people. There are craven, nasty people and their are extraordinary, wonderful people, and everything else you can imagine in between. I’ve lived in all-white neighborhoods and mostly black neighborhoods and pretty well integrated neighborhoods. I’ve seen differences in culture but zero evidence that one race is better or worse or even meaningfully different from the other. Both have a tendency to mistrust the Other that seems deeply ingrained in human nature. We aren’t quite human to each other until we’re personally known. Once you meet the Other, they cease to be the Other and become an individual with a name and a personality. I suspect that’s what people mean when they claim not to see color – it’s not that they cease to see it, but for the people they’ve actually met, it ceases to be their defining characteristic.
And yet we persist in making implicitly racist assumptions. To give just one tiny example, a few years back a friend was helping to organize the Larchmere Porch Fest, and asked my wife and I to help. This is a wonderful event in which people in the Larchmere neighborhood offer their porches as stages for musical performances. One can wander up and down and hear all manner of music. On this occasion, I wound up helping to set up one porch for a performance by Obnox. I realized that some electricity would be needed, so knocked on the homeowner’s door. A woman appeared, and after a brief discussion, she provided an extension cord with a pink, Barbie-themed power strip that we threaded through an open window. Lamont Thomas and his drummer arrived, and set up went fairly smoothly, but he thought of something else, so also knocked on the door. I don’t remember what he was looking for, but I remember the reaction of the woman upon opening the door. Lamont is a tall, imposing black man. Her eyes got as big as saucers. She closed the door without a word. We heard the -snick- of the lock and her retreating footsteps. Lamont looked at the door that had been shut in his face, then looked at me and spoke softly: “My lyrics are kinda… raw. Is that going to be a problem?” I could only shrug. “She signed up for this,” I replied.
I don’t know what went through her mind. I would guess that like a lot of white people in the U.S., she had conveniently forgotten that black people exist – or at least, weren’t a presence in her regular circle of life. So when she chose to participate in a positive civic activity, in this case porch fest, it simply hadn’t occurred to her that black people might be involved. Who would have guessed that some musicians might be black!
That episode is but one tiny example of the pervasive, reflexive fear of the Other that still pervades American culture. More generally, I marvel at the human potential that we must have wasted in this way. The persecution of minorities, both ethnic and religious, the suppression of novel thought outside the mainstream, the utter disregard for women in far too many societies… For every Newton, for every Einstein, for every brilliant person who became famous for making a positive impact on the world, how many comparably brilliant people found themselves in circumstances that prevented them from making the contributions that they might otherwise have made? Einstein happened to be visiting the U.S. when Hitler came to power, and wisely declined to return home to Germany. He was already famous, so it was possible to financially arrange to keep him on. How might it have gone if the timing were otherwise? How many were less fortunate? What have we lost? Why do we continue to throw away so much human potential?