A while ago, a black friend of mine — the second-longest friend I’ve ever had in my life; I’ve known him since sixth grade — posted a picture of himself with a mutual white classmate of ours. The white classmate was someone I knew of but didn’t know well.
The warmth in the photo between them was obvious — and also a little jarring, to me.
It had only been a couple of years since our last class reunion — a somewhat impromptu 25-year shindig (I’m old and can say “shindig”) held at an alumnus’ family farm. The white classmate and I had arrived somewhat early. And when my black friend arrived and was still at a distance, I very distinctly recall the white classmate saying, “Whoops. Here comes [black friend’s name], I’d better clean up my language.”
My black friend has no problem with anyone’s using blue language at parties. It’s pretty obvious what “language” our white classmate thought he should conceal.
My own history with that “language” is pretty brief. I have never used the n-word to refer individually to any real-life black person, or collectively to any number of real-life black people. Never.
My worst offense involving that word occurred in high school. At lunch I was telling a joke starring a white supremacist caricature called “Ku Klux Knievel”, whose daredevil stunts never turned out well for his black assistants. I told the joke, which included the n-word, within the hearing of a black student sitting a little downways at the same lunch table. I have never forgotten the hurt look on his face as he turned and faced the other way. I have never stopped wishing I’d had the courage to approach him and apologize for my offense. I did resolve then and there to never tell those particular jokes again, and I never have.
(One might ask why I found those jokes funny in the first place. The answer is that those jokes took racism to such ludicrous extremes I found them funny — kind of like I find violence funny once it goes beyond a certain over-the-top threshold. Take this scene from the vampire horror movie Daybreakers. I can’t imagine what the other theatergoers thought of my uproarious laughter during the final gruesome sequence in this clip. NOTE: HEAVY SPOILERS.)
Other than that, my language has been n-word free, except for those moments when I’m in the car with all the soundproof windows tightly secured and I’m singing along with Kanye or The Weeknd. Catch me if you can.
Obviously, our white classmate had not subjected his vocabulary to the same restrictions I had placed on mine (or only did so temporarily, depending on the company he presently kept). But what did that mean, if anything? Did it mean that the warmth he felt toward our mutual black friend was something insincere? Or did it instead offer some insight into the way all of us see and treat people who occupy different spheres relative to our lives?
This was an important question to me, because of my father.
Nobody who knew my father would’ve called him a racist. His language was always as guarded as mine. He never spoke ill of black people. We had black neighbors whom he was very fond of. He went out of his way to reconnect with black friends he had served with in the military. There was absolutely nothing I saw in his behavior during the first seventeen years of my life that would’ve indicated to me that he saw black people in general as any different from white people.
Until the day I wanted to date a black girl.
If you live long enough, chances are you’ll experience one or more occasions in your life when you realize, “Everything I know is wrong.” This was my first, and it was savage.
It wasn’t that he suddenly morphed into a hate-spewing maniac. The n-word didn’t suddenly launch forth from his mouth in a stream of toxic bile that nearly drowned me. The main result was that my father’s anger level — which was already naturally an 8 out of 10 — soared to about 15. He just could not handle the fact that his white son wanted to date a black girl. I do not believe there was any reasoning or rationality behind it — it just wasn’t to be done.
To this day I don’t know what factors contributed to his feeling that way. I’ve been told that as a child he was regularly beaten up by black kids for his lunch money. Whoop-dee-doo. Perhaps he didn’t want to make waves with the extended family, although we’d lived largely independent of them — was he afraid we’d be disowned by the grandparents? Hard to say.
Whatever his reasons, what I found nearly impossible to reconcile was how he could be so fond of the black people he knew.
But that was just it, wasn’t it? He knew them. And you can make excuses for the people you know without applying those same excuses to everyone else in the same group as them. You can, essentially, extract them out of that group in your mind and think of them and treat them as you would “anyone else” — that is, anyone of your own group. You mark your friends the exceptions while keeping the rule — the rule that says, “You don’t mix with their kind.”
My father actually knew the girl I wanted to date and knew her parents, too — her father had been a teacher of mine, in fact, and had given me aid when I had a problem with a couple of bullies. But that wasn’t the point. In crossing the racial dating barrier I would be bringing my father’s world into contact with a whole other world of black people he didn’t know. And that was intolerable to him. So he made things intolerable enough for me that I backed down from my dating plans.
(Quick note: Over a decade later, after my father had died of lung cancer, the girl and I did reconnect and date for about four months before encountering irreconcilable differences having nothing to do with race.)
Another hypothesis I would posit is one of “group trumping group” — that is, you can prioritize the groups to whom people belong such that a group to which you both belong provides a bond that supersedes the divisiveness of belonging to different groups otherwise. Our black neighbors belonged to the group “neighbors”, and that bond was more important than the divisiveness of their being black and our being white. Same with my father’s black military friends: “military” trumped “black”.
Is it the same with my white classmate? Does “classmate” trump “black” when it comes to our mutual friend?
…Is it the same with me?
I’ve had it pointed out to me that I have no black friends, with the one obvious exception. For a long while that’s really never bothered me, as I have few friends, period. (I know a lot of people, generally speaking, but the people who I’d count as actual friends are a scant few.) I don’t make friends easily, so the idea that I should have more black friends is only slightly more ridiculous than the idea that I should have more friends at all.
But my mind does drift back to a day during my college years. I was visiting my black friend at his apartment. His cousin, also black, was there — they may have been roommates at the time, I don’t remember. My friend and I were supposed to see a movie or something. I sat in the living room waiting for him to get ready. His cousin, to whom I’d never been properly introduced, sat in the kitchen eating. At one point his cousin asked, “Want some fried chicken?” I said, “Oh, no thanks.” And that was it. He sat in the kitchen. I sat in the living room.
I didn’t know him. Is that (aside from not being big on fried chicken) why I stayed away?
Do I have a rule, too?
Self-doubt like this is especially plaguing in light of the Trump Era — what you might call “Days of Whine and Racists”. The mantra of the Democratic Party has essentially become, “Vote Democrat Because Voting Republican Means You’re Racist”. Liberal pundits inform us on multiple cable channels that racism has deep roots in America’s bones. If the constant numbing barrage of accusations of racism hasn’t made you stop caring whether you’re racist, you’re wondering whether you’re racist.
What does it say about me that I have only one black friend whom I’ve known since sixth grade?
Well…who are the rest of my friends? Sure, they’re white, but who are they on top of that?
Turns out they’re:
- People I know from early school days.
- People I know from college.
- People I know from work experience.
- People I know from stores I’ve frequented.
- People I know from Mensa.
In summary, all my white friends come from other discernible groups, too.
I don’t have black friends because they’re black any more than I have white friends because they’re white. All my friends are the result of connections I’ve made in the circles I’ve found myself in from time to time. I’m not friends with every white person I see — I’m generally very distrusting of people. So one could argue that my white friends are also those individuals who, on account of personal knowledge and/or other group affiliation, I’ve exempted from my general rule of, “Don’t trust anyone.”
And this makes sense because everyone is a threat until they’re not. You don’t get comfortable around strangers until they’re not strangers anymore, and you don’t stop being strangers until you’ve been introduced and/or jammed together in some situation that lends to building familiarity, whether it’s attending the same school, being at the same party, working at the same business, shopping at the same store, or being in the same club. Until that barrier of unfamiliarity has been broken, people are naturally suspicious. Until then, you go with your default assumptions.
And “default assumptions” is where the real threat of racism comes into play. If your general rule is, “Don’t mix with those people,” that’s fine when your aversion pertains to the entirety of the human species. It’s not so good when it applies just to people of a particular race. In fact, “having different default assumptions about people according to their race” might be a great definition of racism itself.
So I could tell myself, “I stayed in the living room instead of joining my friend’s cousin in the kitchen simply out of the default suspicion I hold toward all human beings.” And that may be true. But that still wouldn’t rule out the possibility of my having default assumptions about black people that differ from those I have about whites, or latinos, or asians, etc.
So, projecting myself back into my memories and making myself sit in my black friend’s living room again while his cousin eats chicken in the kitchen, I have to ask myself, “Are there any default assumptions about black people in play here that are keeping me from entering the kitchen and introducing myself?”
I think there was one, and I think it’s this:
He probably hates me.
You see, even back in the early 1990s, when this living room/kitchen scene took place, there was no escaping the implications of race relations down through America’s early history — implications that Democrats today have no problem slapping down face-up on the table like dominoes. My own high school was by no means free from racial controversy. In 1990 its black students staged a walkout when attending the school’s Black History Month presentation was made optional. The school reversed policy, and all students attended — but a backlash resulted when one of the presenters made uncomfortable remarks about whites. (“You ever see a chimp raise its arm and there’s white in the armpit? Now you know where white people come from.”)
It turns out that sitting in a room and feeling despised merely for your skin color is not just a minority thing. And when it happens to you, you make generalizations for your own protection, same as anyone else. Maybe you’ll be perfectly okay around that person who doesn’t look like you…but maybe you won’t be. Play the odds. Play it safe. Don’t take chances.
Never did this lesson hit home harder than when I was in the workplace speaking with a black co-worker who I knew was on the same page as me on a lot of issues. I thought nothing of telling him something so obviously true as, “Most black Democrats voted for Obama over Clinton because he looked like them.” He flinched so hard in his seat I thought maybe he’d sat on a tack. I remember thinking, “Uh, oh. I’d better link him to an article before I get a call from HR.” (Thankfully I found a suitable article from a liberal magazine arguing that Hillary could’ve expected 25% of the black vote at best.) I never did get that call from HR, but I’d already learned my lesson: You’re not safe. You have to watch yourself. You’re not safe. Those lessons stay with you. And now they’re being taught openly. As the old line from Menace II Society (ad) goes, “The HUNT is on! And YOU’RE the prey!”
But it’s not just black kids hearing the message now. And, honestly, it never was. As a white person, you can’t watch that video from “Menace II Society” without thinking, “Is that what black people think of me? That I’m a ‘devil’ on their back? That I’m a ‘hunter’ out to hunt them?”
Default assumptions all around. Suspicion all around. Racism all around.
So if I am racist, it’s hard for me to get upset about that. Because the kind of racism that makes me cautious around people who could do me serious harm if I say the wrong thing or act the wrong way is the same kind of racism everyone else has to deal with, too. And it’s not a proclamation of any one race’s superiority, just a recognition that everyone has their own deck from which they’re drawing, and you have to know when to keep your cards hidden.
What would bother me is if I were exhibiting the boundary-establishing racism of my father, which would prevent me from crossing into other worlds and other experiences. Or even if I were exhibiting the casual derogatory racism of my white classmate, who must consign a sliver of his vocabulary to the back of the bus in the presence of certain company.
But the kind of racism that lets me:
- fall in (and, sadly, out of) love with a black girl?
- make and keep a lifelong black friend?
- admire and emulate black entertainers?
- learn from black role models and historical figures?
- join in common endeavors with black people from various walks of life whenever their interests coincide with mine?
- live in community with black people without any thought of oppressing them?
That racism I can live with.
If only mine were the worst kind.
- “Chicken on the Road” from https://www.insider.com/14-strange-laws-from-around-the-world-2016-7