Forward: Right after the last presidential election, I wrote about racism in America. Predictably, I got more than a few negative reactions from certain constipated folks who choose to be offended, because they read my post and decided that I was calling them, personally, racists (I was). Because their angry racists comments denying their racism amused me, I then subsequently wrote a follow-up entitled Your Hate Warms My Flinty Black Heart. Last week, when I wrote an essay on a certain kind of racism in America, I knew I’d get the same type of reaction from the same type of pinch-faced unhappy people. And so I did (though not as many angry comments as I’m currently getting on the previous post about Jeff Fauxworthy). And I assumed from the start that I’d be writing another follow-up. And so I have and you’re now looking at it. This time, however, instead of holding the comments up to ridicule, I’m going to use their input to explore certain aspects of bigotry in America that I left out of the previous post for editorial reasons.
Oh, fine, fine. Sure, if it’ll make you happy, we’ll engage in a little ridicule. //Jim
Let’s see, where to start?
How about here:
stupid lib NO cents white man r u goin to covr us with white guilt. boohoo cri m a rvr. Peeplz hat their own peepz lik u make me sik fuq u
I know, I know, but let’s for the moment resist that urge and look instead at the actual question, to wit:
Hey, white guy, what the hell would you know about racism?
Where does a fairly well-off, middle-aged, straight white male, get off talking about racism in America?
What the hell would I know about racism (and sexism, and homophobia, and anti-Semitism, and etc.), seriously?
What would I know about fear and hatred and bigotry?
From personal experience, I mean.
I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, in a modest suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a place called Jenison. I wasn’t rich. I wasn’t poor. I lived in a decent house in a decent neighborhood. My folks were married, they loved each other, they worked hard, they didn’t abuse their kids or each other, and they were home for dinner every night. I had enough to eat. I had nice place to sleep in a room of my own. I went to a nice new school. I attended a nice Presbyterian church. And so on.
There weren’t a whole lot of black people around.
In other words, I was a typical white middle-class kid from the typical white Midwest who grew up in a typical white middle-class town.
Now, I do remember my first interaction with a black person. I was maybe five or six. Something like that. We were on a school fieldtrip to the Grand Rapids Public Museum (the old Art Deco GRPM on Jefferson). We were in the main hall, under the blue whale skeleton. As I recall, it was nearing time to leave, there were groups of children from many different schools running every which way, screaming and laughing and being kids, and adults attempting to herd them into some semblance of order. As I rounded a display case, a black man grabbed my arm and began hauling me in the direction of a group of black children. His grip was like iron, he moved like an irresistible force. He was yelling at the black children who stared back with wide white eyes. I remember being terrified. I remember confused shouting. I remember the look of shock and sudden fear on the man’s face when he looked down and realized that he’d grabbed the wrong kid. He let me go immediately and stood there, waiting. That’s what I remember, he stood there, with his hands carefully at his sides, waiting. I ran back to the teacher and said something like “that man grabbed me!” And he was just standing there, watching my accusing finger pointing at him, waiting. It’s nearly fifty years ago now, but I remember it clear as a bell, his resigned look. There was a pause, the teacher said something to me like, “That’s okay, he’s a teacher too, he’s just trying to gather up his class. He didn’t mean to scare you,” and I remember the look of relief that came over his face. He resumed his business and we went on about ours.
I’ve never forgotten that incident, though it was many, many years before I understood everything that occurred or why in 1967 a black man would have looked so frightened for grabbing a white kid.
But, for the most part, I didn’t know anybody who wasn’t white. By the time I got to high school, I was a nerd, an outcast. I didn’t exactly have a lot of friends. I vaguely recall a black kid in my high school, junior or senior year, I didn’t know him. We weren’t in any classes together. We weren’t friends. I remember he was really tall. That’s about it. He might have been an exchange student for all I know. Hell, he might even have been popular, I sure wasn’t and so I didn’t spend much time around the cool kids. There might have been an Asian kid or two. I remember I was sweet on a beautiful raven haired girl name Blanca – who I’m almost positive was some kind of Hispanic, but I have no idea beyond that. She sat in my Spanish class and spoke only marginally better Español than me, which is to say not much. She was about as Hispanic as I was Irish. I think that’s about it for diversity.
For me, for most of my childhood, race wasn’t a factor.
Everybody around me was just like me (only way cooler). I wasn’t entirely ignorant, well, not academically anyway, I’d been to Flint and Detroit, it’s not like I hadn’t seen a person of color but I didn’t interact with anybody other than white people on a day to day basis. I mean I knew about racism, theoretically. It was that time after all. I saw it on television. It was in the paper. We must have talked about race and racism and the civil rights movement in school, in social studies maybe, as I vaguely recall. But nobody was protesting outside my school. Nobody was marching in the streets of Jenison, Michigan.
So, given that, what would I know about fear and hatred and bigotry?
Let me tell you about my first experience with racism.
Let me tell you about it from my perspective.
I said I didn’t know any black people. That’s not entirely true. I spent a couple of summers working at a Boy Scout camp, first as a CIT and later as a Camp Counselor. I loved that job, for two glorious months each summer I wasn’t a dork. I was a guy other kids looked up to. I taught camping and orienteering and pioneer cooking. I taught other kids how to make rope and how to do wilderness engineering and general campcraft. I was the guy who helped them earn their camping merit badges.
It was the place where I first started to really believe in myself and shape the adult I would eventually become.
When I was about seventeen, the BSA had made an effort to become more inclusive (ironic that 30 years later the impulse is in the other direction, but I digress), and for the first time, there was a black troop in camp. And not just a black troop, but an inner city black troop from (I think) Muskegon Heights. The Troop leader was an enormous black guy that everybody called “Rock.” He didn’t smile very much and he wasn’t none too friendly and he didn’t mix with the other white scout leaders, not socially anyway. He spent most of his time with his scouts. And his scouts, well, they were fish out of water, poor underprivileged inner city black kids in the woods for the first time.
Alone, in the wilderness, surrounded by white people.
Nowadays that would be the premise for a funny Disney movie starring Damon Wayans and in the end they’d pull a Mighty Ducks and out scout all the privileged white kids in some final battle of Campcraft Olympics and the movie would end in a triumphant feel-good handshake.
Back then it wasn’t so funny, in retrospect, I think most of those kids were probably terrified.
Now, for scouts working on camping merit badges, come mid-week they had to cook dinner for their entire troop at their campsite. In other words, instead of eating in the dinning hall, the scouts would check out a chuck-wagon box (camp stove, utensils, pots and pans, etc) and would get a certain amount of food based on a menu they developed from the commissary. Usually, they’d cook your basic Scout menu, burger meat packed into an orange peel wrapped in tinfoil and roasted on the campfire coals, beans, chips, bug juice, that kind of thing.
The white Scouts had been doing this since they were Cubs, the black kids had no idea – they’d never done anything like this before. That’s when I began to get a vague grasp of just how big of a gap there was between us.
The kids working on their merit badge are supposed to coordinate with their troop, but these kids didn’t understand and there was a screw-up and they all showed up for lunch at the chow hall. But because they were supposed to cook for themselves that day, there wasn’t any food on their table. You can imagine the kids’ confusion. Once things were sorted out, Rock herded them together, checked out his food and chuck wagon and gamely set out back to his campsite to fix dinner for his hungry troop. Now, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure those kids thought some kind of flimflam was going on, white kids got to eat in the mess hall, they had to cook for themselves.
In retrospect, things could have been explained better (probably starting with me).
Now, I already felt bad because there had been a screw-up, which was at least partly my fault (and if I’d been older and more sure of myself, I’d have gone out to that campsite instead of eating my own lunch in the chowhall and helped by example. Hindsight, thirty-five years too late, but then I’ve had a long time to think about this). Plus, well, yes, I’d heard that there had been some racial issues with some of the white Scouts and maybe some of the staff, and I felt guilty about that, and I didn’t want those kids to think I was like that.
It was really, really important to me.
It was really important that those black Scouts not think I was a jerk. See, I was a dork, an outcast. I knew what it was like to be bullied and called names and to be an outsider. But in camp, I felt like I belonged. I loved that place. I wanted those kids to love it too. I wanted them to feel like they belonged.
So when an hour later one of the black Scouts came hurrying up the trail into Campcraft and approached me timidly, that’s what was on my mind.
The kid asked for something, I forget what exactly now. Some tool or camp item, matches maybe. He was quiet and (in retrospect) scared and intimidated. Whatever it was, I wasn’t supposed to give it to him, it was one of those items that were only supposed to be checked out by an adult.
I told him I couldn’t give it to him.
He asked why.
And my answer will always be etched on my memory like a scratch in diamond, I said, “Well because apparently we can’t trust you.”
Yeah. I know.
Sure. It’s obvious. Now.
But I was seventeen. I was trying to be funny, I was trying to make a connection in my own bumbling dorky way, ha ha the adults, see, they don’t trust us. Us. You and me, see? Us kids, they don’t trust us. It never, ever, ever, occurred to me that that underprivileged black kid from the inner city, maybe a only year or so younger than me, saw me as an adult, a white man in a position of authority. Nobody had ever looked at me that way and it just didn’t occur to me.
I had no context.
Humor is a cultural thing. We were from such widely different backgrounds that we had no mutual context, nothing to hang a joke on (a lesson that would stay with me decades later when I was leading Navy boarding teams onto Muslim ships in the Arabian Gulf and trying to find common ground).
What that kid heard was not what I meant.
Instead of laughing, he looked at me for a moment, shrugged, and walked away.
I knew I’d handled that badly, but back then I handled most interpersonal conversations with strangers badly.
I didn’t really know just how bad until until Rock came down that same trail ten minutes later.
Remember I said he was a large black man? I meant large, big, huge (he may have grown in my memory, but he was a big dude, seriously). They called him “Rock” for a reason. And he was furious. His hands were balled into fists and when he spoke his words came out like he was biting off 10ga wire and spitting out nails. We paid our money, same as the white kids, he thundered, and my scouts are as good as any of you any day. They know the Scout Oath and the Scout Law good as you. And they’re as trustworthy as any white kid! And when I send one of my boys down here to get something, I expect you to give it to him without any racial comments!
I was horrified! Appalled! Struck dumb! That kid thought I was saying that I didn’t trust him because he was black? Oh my God! Rock thought that’s what I’d said! I couldn’t even speak. I was making squeaking noises. I was facing a very large, very angry black man and I was a dorky seventeen year old teenager who had barely ever even seen a black person before – and I’d just given mortal insult. I didn’t know how to explain. I didn’t know how to say, Stop! Wait! It’s not like that! I didn’t mean. I’m sorry.
So, I stood there, ashamed, and let that man think I was a racist.
We never spoke again.
And to this day, to this very day thirty five years later, I want to find that kid and explain. I want to find Rock and explain. I want to tell them that I’m sorry for being stupid and ignorant, for being unaware, for being able to be unaware – for having that luxury.
That was my first experience with racism.
I’ve thought about that moment many, many times since. It shames me, thirty-five years later and it still shames me. That those people thought I was a racist. And it’s not that I was unfairly branded as a racist in their minds, it’s not that they misunderstood my clumsy seventeen year old self. It’s not that. I don’t resent that. It’s that they had every right to make that assumption, based on their experience. Hell, how many times had something exactly like that happened to that kid? How many battles had Rock fought just to be there with his Scouts? It’s not that he unfairly stereotyped me, rather it’s all the things have happened over the centuries of race in America that I saw in that man’s eyes that day. Behind his towering rage, there was that same tired look of pain, the same sad terrible look of pain as on that black man’s face in the museum while he waited to see what would happen next.
I’m not that dorky kid any more, I’ve travelled the world, I’ve led men in war, I walked through a hundred cities and set foot upon the shores of six continents. I’ve seen that look many times since, on far too many black faces.
And it shames me.
I doubt those people, Rock and that Scout, remember that event. I suspect that it’s just one more forgotten thing in a long list that shapes their lives. And that gnaws at me, that small thing, that Butterfly Effect.
It’s unlikely that that encounter changed them, but it changed me.
If I could speak to them today, I’d thank them. See, because before that moment, I’d never looked at the world from anybody else’s viewpoint except for my own. I was a racist, well of course I was. Oh not in the white sheets and burning crosses fashion, not even in the cheerful smiling sickening sweet Paula Deen fashion, but from ignorance, from being ignorant of another’s obvious pain and history and culture.
When you’re seventeen, well you know, ignorance isn’t much of a sin.
But if you grow up and don’t learn better, don’t learn to see, then that’s the problem.
So, what’s the moral of my story?
That white people should feel guilty and ashamed for something they didn’t, personally, do?
That’s what a number of commenters got from the previous post about Paula Deen and I’m positive that’s what they’ll get from my story here.
They’ll read it and they’ll scowl to themselves and they’ll say, “Oh whatever, Man, more liberal bullshit. More White Guilt. Screw you!”
That’s exactly what they’ll say.
From Facebook (regarding the Paula Deen essay):
I think this article is a bunch of 'white liberal guilt' mumbo jumbo. I also think white people have had enough of the double standard...I dont want no problems with you […], its just my opinion! Haha!
Yes. Ha ha.
Here’s a another one:
isn't this th' same dude's face who was Big Brother in "1984" with John Hurt??
That’s my personal favorite.
I looked it up, my Facebook profile picture does sort of resemble Big Brother from the movie 1984, except I have a much better hat.
Obviously that makes my entire essay invalid.
BLACK people owned SLAVES!
Blacks call each other nggr! Its in the “music! Whutsup niggaz!! But yeh its only racist when white people use it . double standard! LOL!
hATE WHITES MUCH RACIST BAITER???
read the obvious made up complaint. lies. there lazy butts just looking for an easy pay day and Puala is a easy target beause of who she it
I could go through a couple dozen of these comments, but I can already hear the complaints: It’s too long, it’s tooo looong ahhh tooo long (Yeah, I get that a lot), but this guy basically sums everything up in one ugly paragraph (again, from Facebook):
This whole article is utter and complete drivel, Typical left wing reactionary white guilt pandering. It wouldn't bother me so much except that the only people that this kind of nonsense is applied to are white folks, apparently only we can be racist. We must also for some reason take responsibility today and forever for things that happened long before any of us were born and truth be told was instigated by the African tribes themselves anyway. I'm sorry I will not be made to feel guilty about who i am or for something I had no hand in, and as for the so called cultural or hidden racism of today? If anything it is exactly the opposite of what the race bating politicians and looney left liberals would have us believe from my experience.
Right, that’s what I said: Only white people can be racists.
You may, if you like, imagine the Big Brother face from 1984 making an eyeroll here.
It’s the False Dichotomy Fallacy: If you admit slavery once existed in America, then all white people are racists, right? If you acknowledge that slavery was terrible and without a shred of moral justification and its horrible legacy is still with us today, you admit up front that all current white people are responsible for it and should hate themselves.
I mean, that’s what you got from my essay, right?
Yep, that’s what I said. Riiight.
That’s how it is with these people. They’re like truculent children. It’s all one or the other. Left or right. One or zero. Period.
It’s one thing to act like that when you’re five and your brain isn’t fully developed, but as an adult?
The world is many shades of gray, it’s not all black or all white. You can acknowledge the evil legacy of slavery and centuries of bondage and oppression without having to engage in self loathing as a white person. Acknowledging the toxic effects of racism and slavery does not mean that you have to hate white people. But you can’t convince people like the commenter above that that’s what you’re saying. No, for them, any acknowledgement of the mistakes our country has made, any admission that the United States isn’t perfect to ten decimals places, means that you’re telling them they have to hate themselves.
They are unable to accept criticism of history without making that criticism into a personal attack on themselves.
Again, it’s like arguing with an angry child.
I have no empirical proof, I’m not a brain doctor or psychologist, but I suspect that this petulant childish binary viewpoint is at least part of where racist comes from in the first place.
It’s a lack of empathy, a lack of being able to see the world from any viewpoint but for your own.
It’s the Bush Doctrine, you’re either with us or against us. Us and them. Black and white. Friends and enemies. Those are the only two choices with these people.
So they wash their hands of it: c’mon, slavery wasn’t that bad, besides it happened a long time ago in a galaxy far far away and also besides, yeah, what about black people started it! Yeah, that’s right, slavery was started by Africans, what about that? Huh? Huh?
Oh, well, then that makes it okay, I guess.
Based on that reasoning, I guess it’s okay when Palestinian extremists gun down Jews on the streets of Israel, I mean, hell, the Nazis were killing them first, right? Shit, all kinds of people have been killing Jews, all the way back to the Romans at Masada, must be ok. C’mon, the Holocaust wasn’t that bad, why do you guys have to keep bringing it up?
See? See how stupid is sounds when you drag this kind of reasoning out into the light?
Folks, I’m gonna go right ahead and call Shenanigans. That whole “Black Africans practiced slavery way way before white people and besides it was black people who were selling black slaves to the white people” is a bullshit dodge. Sure, there were black slavers, sure Africans enslaved Africans, sure Black Slavers sold black slaves to white slave masters. Yep. It happened. So what? That doesn’t justify white enslavement of blacks in any fashion whatsoever. It doesn’t justify any kind of slavery, anywhere or any time. It just means that black people and white people are both assholes when the opportunity presents itself – something else we all have in common – and it’s still an atrocity.
Seriously, if you have to have this explained to you, you’re an idiot.
If you’re using this nonsense as a get out of jail free card, you may not be a racist per se, but you’re for damned sure a clueless jackass who’s using a racist argument dreamed up by racists and promulgated by racists to justify one of the most heinous acts of racism in history.
I’m sorry, but I will not be made to feel guilty about who I am or something I had no hand in…
Right. Because that’s what my essay was about, making this assclown feel guilty about himself.
You know who talks like this? Closet racists who know they’re racists and are afraid someone is going to call them out on their racist bullshit, that’s who.
You don’t have to feel guilty about being white. If you do, well then that’s on you. You deal with it. The rest of us don’t have to pretend that several hundred years of history didn’t happen just because you can’t put on your big boy pants and face the past.
No, slavery wasn’t your fault. Nobody’s blaming you for it, certainly not me.
Up above I said that these people would never understand the point of my story. And like Paula Deen, they simply don’t get it. I didn’t feel ashamed for being white, I felt ashamed for being ignorant.
If you can’t see the difference, I can’t explain it to you.
Look, here’s the thing, ignorance has consequences.
Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and we’ve seen exactly that over and over, haven’t we? The reason for acknowledging our history isn’t to make these silly goofs feel guilty about themselves (I doubt anything can do that), but so that we can all understand why those words hurt so much, so that we can be better human beings, so we don’t have to go through life being a jackass like the clod up above. So we can see the world from each other’s viewpoint. So we can find a common context. So we don’t make the same mistakes again. The reasons are endless.
Frankly, I wouldn’t think you’d have to explain that to people.
You don’t have to feel guilty about being white, no more than you should be made to feel less than a full citizen for being born brown. That’s the whole damned point, Dumbass.
It’s exactly the opposite, from my experience.
And what exactly is this guy’s experience? I mean, honestly, what’s this guy’s experience? No really? He can’t shout racial slurs in public any more? People of color should get a fair shake? Everybody gets a crack at self determination, not just the folks he approves of? Oh how terrible, political correctness has done run amuck, the country is doomed.
His Facebook page has a little rant about how he and his family were kicked out of a popular restaurant chain because he was carrying a concealed handgun (obviously not that concealed, if the wait staff could see it, I mean. Just saying). He was outraged at what he called a violation of his Constitutional rights … and completely, utterly, oblivious to the Constitutional property rights of any business to disallow armed patrons. Nor did he bother to check the restaurant’s policy first, he just assumed, because, hey, it’s all about him and his rights, isn’t it? And, of course, based on his response to my essay, he’s apparently fine with Paula Deen’s restaurant chain denying Constitutional rights to black people who happen to be her employees.
That, right there, is his “experience.”
It’s how he looks at the entire world.
These are the kind of people who think that freedom is a finite resource, e.g. that if others get more freedom they somehow get less. They look out at the world and glory in their democracy, their freedom, their liberty … and then bemoan the collapse of dictatorships in the Middle East and the rise of democracies. They talk about how it’s better for us, the United States, if Egypt and Libya and Iraq are ruled by strongmen. They’re willing to dismiss the brutal regimes of Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Murbarak as easily as they wave away slavery and oppression in their own country’s past.
They love self-determination, these patriots, they just don’t think anybody else should have it.
When these people talk about how white folks are losing their rights due to “political correctness,” that’s exactly what they’re afraid of.
This is why pundits like Glenn Beck claim white men are the most persecuted minority in America - and why he’s so popular with these people.
You wonder why there’s still racism in this country?
You’re looking right at it.
What would I know about racism? Only what I see around me.
Same as everybody else.