I haven’t been listening

posted August 1, 2016

I might be racist.

It’s never been a decision. I hate the thought of it. It seems inaccurate and ugly to label myself a racist, but I don’t know how else to describe the recent realizations I’ve made. I don’t think of myself as racist. I’ve never consciously said or done anything to belittle or harm someone of another race. One of the reasons I left the South in fact was because I couldn’t stand the bigotry I grew up around. How then can I question this? Well, for one thing, of all the places I could make a home I chose New England.

New England is R E A L L Y white.

I don’t know how white. I don’t have any solid numbers. I’m going by the average stroll through Northampton, Easthampton, Florence, or any of the other places I spend most of my time. There are five large colleges within 20 minutes of my front door and I hardly ever see African Americans. A hijab, even rarer. Sikhs? One or two in the last several years. It’s hippie-liberal in this area too, annoying White Saviorism type stuff that often embarrasses me. What do I mean?

There must be 100 times more Black Lives Matters signs here than actual Black Lives.

That and our bumper stickers. White people; saving the world one slogan at a time. I know that’s cynical, and those hearts are likely all in the right place. I’m glad those signs and stickers are there. At least it’s something. If you breakdown late one night, it’ll be easier to know which door to knock on and not get your head blown off. I don’t blame them or New England. I don’t know the history those individuals have or what they’ve done to help promote social justice. More than me, I’m sure. No, I’m blaming me.

I lived in New York City, perhaps the most ethnically diverse place in the world, and although in 13 years I met countless minorities, very few became my friends. There was my boss. A gay, black man who’d lived through Stonewall (and worse) and who was one of the kindest humans I’ve ever known. He used to check up on me when I first moved to New England, and I lost touch when I didn’t return his last call. I met and befriended a black woman, while I was a bartender, when she was out with a white friend in the predominantly white neighborhood I worked. She helped me through a bad breakup once, and I never thanked her for that.

In every context these relationships formed by chance. I put zero effort into exploring diversity on my own. It never even occurred to me that there were communities outside my own that I could learn from. I held that belief that perhaps only white people can have, that I was colorblind.

Let’s look at my magazines.

I get Bon Appétit, Better Homes and Gardens, The Week, Take, and National Geographic delivered to my door. On occasion I pick up a Runner’s World to try to inspire my fat ass off the couch and back into marathons. I also need to feed a Wired fix a couple times a year, and every fall when The New Yorker Festival rolls around I miss their magazine and pick one up.

I noticed lately that inside my magazines there’s an ocean of white faces. Bon Appétit this month has a single black arm in an advertisement for a washing machine. Just an arm, cut off at the elbow. There’s a 4-page spread on creative things you can do with ice (yes, frozen water), but not a single minority face to be found. If I thumbed back through the last year of issues I might find a whole non-white body in frame.

What about Music?

Sure I love Frightened Rabbit and Sigur Rós, who are as white as they come. But I also love Wu Tang Clan and The Roots. I think on his best day Bono is half the songwriter Jay Z is. Yeah The Unforgettable Fire is amazing, but did Bono write it on the way to the studio in the back of his car like The Blueprint? My music library is packed with diversity. That means I’m contributing to a more diverse community doesn’t it?

I’m not sure anymore. Maybe it’s cultural appropriation. Maybe it’s like that handmade box I bought from an impoverished women living on the streets in rural Mexico as I dined out on my vacation. I got it for pennies and patted myself on the back for not haggling her lower.

I don’t want to beat myself up though.

It doesn’t accomplish anything. I’m not making an apology for white people. The white people I know are good people. Many of them much better people than I am. This realization has been brewing for years, but it wasn’t until the accumulation of appalling events, all these police shootings for one. The big slap in my face though has been the behavior of whites in this election cycle. All of that forced me to see just how privileged I am. It made me feel a depth of emotion I never felt before.

I felt Shame.

Deep Shame. I still feel it. I watched clips from the Republican National Convention and didn’t feel it. Those were not my people, and there were no surprises either. The average poorly-educated white man is nowhere near who I am. They’re sheltered and easily stirred to fear and hatred. They’re mean. They bullied me too, growing up. Shame came on unexpectedly, and violently, as I watched the Democratic National Convention.

Seeing all these weeping white faces, screaming angrily over Michelle Obama and Civil Rights Pioneer Elijah Cummings, as they tried to speak. Those whites looked like me. There are people I love dearly who might have been in the weeping and heckling crowd if they’d been there. The hardest truth to accept was that at a different time in my life I would have been one of them too. I would have been proud to stand up to what I saw as injustice, to be making a difference. It’s so much more than embarrassment to think of that now.

I wasn’t going to apologize, because it doesn’t mean anything. It’s all I know how to do in the face of this though. American Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, my Syrian friend who stopped speaking to me because soon after 911, when The Patriot Act was quickly ushered through, he was taken into custody and questioned, for days I think, for no reason other than his nationality. He went home to visit family regularly. That’s all. And he was treated like a terrorist for it.

What do you want white man, Exoneration?

Hell no.  If you catch me with unchecked privilege, call me out on it. Ignorance has been retired as an excuse. Mostly I want to hear from you. I want to understand Muslim Americans, Black Americans, or anyone else struggling in this country simply because they’re not white. I want to know as much about your American Dream as you’re willing to tell me. What keeps you going? What does this country mean to you? My American Dream has been pale and incomplete. I don’t want it anymore.

I haven’t been listening, but I am now. Or trying to at least.

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