Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Black Guy's White Privilege

I was twelve or thirteen when I first heard my grandfather use the word "nigger".

I was raised by my mother. When I speak of anyone in my family I'm refering to my maternal origins - my white family. I was born with my mother's maiden name, not my father's. My first memory of my paternal (black) family was when I was nine years old, and a few cousins and uncles came to visit (along with my father) during the Christmas holidays.

So my grandfather...the man who bought me my first Batman action figure when I was four. The man who took me hunting every year from ages ten to seventeen. The man who helped me make my first knife when I was in third grade. The man who taught me to shoot, taught me the value of silence, and who instilled in me the values that only old, white, bumpkin-turned-blue-collar men can...was hanging out, drinking beers with his buddies at the gun range, and casually used the word "nigger" right in front of me.

I've always had a knack for non-verbal communication despite all the "talks too much" notes on every single report card (right next to the ones that said "pleasure to have in class").

Radiating emotion while remaining completely silent is a skill that I have only perfected over the years. I like to think it started that day when Pa said that word.

I didn't say anything else to anyone the rest of the afternoon.

On our drive home my Pa was visibly uncomfortable.

"What's the matter?"


"You wanna say something, say it."

"You already said it."

"Said what?"

*pointed silence* then..."You know what you said."

Pa sighed, "Now there are things you gotta understand. Nigger just ain't a word. There are black niggers and there are white niggers. Nigger isn't all black people. You're not a nigger. Ol' boy I worked with out at the state - he ain't a nigger. A nigger's one o'them that goes 'round with his pants around is ass talkin' like he don't know goddamn English. White niggers are just the same. Not workin', lazy, ain't doin any good in the world...."

I love my Pa, and right then thirteen year old me sitting in the passenger's seat of the truck believed him. I believed that justification. I still thought the word was ugly. I still thought he was wrong to use it, but even then I understood that he was "from a different time".

I never told Nanna what Pa said. I never told Mom. I never told anyone because in his own non-apologizing apologetic way he had explained himself to me, and I was the only person he owed an explanation to. I nodded my understanding which in the parlance of Pa I knew equated forgiveness, and by the time we were home all was right with the world.

I haven't heard him use the word since. I'm sure he has, but never in my presence; which I think is another way of him apologizing without actually doing so. He's my Pa, and I love him.

But unfortunately his words stuck with me.

Not because I ascribed to his reasoning - it's funny how even something you don't take to heart still makes its mark on you - but because I love him, because I sought to understand him and his heart I looked around and I saw the differences between myself and other black people.

I often joke because of my feminine demeanor, penchant for Celtic music, mood-swings, and overall moralistic worldview that I'm a menopausal, red-headed, Baptist woman trapped in a young, black guy's body.

"You're not black" is something so many of my friends, co-workers, and family say. I even say it sometimes. Less often now, because over the past year I've come to own and appreciate that part of myself. I've made (am making) a very personal journey to celebrate my own diversity, and reveling in it instead of joking about it. Though I still joke because...I'm me.

In light of the murder of Mike Brown-

Do not doubt for one instant that it was anything other than murder

I've started to cringe at the thought of who I am once again. Like my very being, namely my skin, is a raw open wound and every shot fired by a policeman that kills an innocent black man is like a jab at that wound.

I walk out of the house, and in the very back of my mind. Way back behind the stage where I'm performing showtunes, behind the veil where I create my stories, beyond the clouds of my daydreams; nearest to my soul is the fear that I'll be pulled over on my way to or from work and somehow I'll be killed.

Writing it down, and seeing it in front of me gives it a body that makes it bigger and perhaps more dramatic than the flea-sized fear that has latched onto my heart. But it's there.

What I mean when I say that a part of my grandfather's reasoning stuck with me is how I wear fashionable clothes, and wear them appropriately. My diction is perfect. I'm articulate...intelligent...calm...relatively quiet...

I'm not black.

I used to shy away from talking about race for a million different reasons.

I used to roll my eyes and shake my head when I saw black people crying about about the plight of the black American on whatever talk show.

"If you paint a target on your back don't think someone isn't going to take a shot."

I used to say that. Those words actually came out of my mouth.

I used to think that if black people just shut up, wore their clothes right, and spoke appropriately that it would all go away. All their problems would be solved. If they would just "quit making the rest of us look bad" they'd be amazed how their perceived persecution vanished.

There's truth in that.

But you know what else is in there? Cultural genocide.

In my mind I expected an entire race and culture to abdicate their own values and way of life in favor of what I believed to be superior. My otherness was so ingrained in me that I couldn't look in the mirror and see what a stranger - what a police officer - sees. I am black, my intelligence, enunciated  and extensive vocabulary, my fashion's black because I'm black. I know that now, but I didn't then. I need to make sure you know it, too. There are no "white niggers and black niggers". A person's differing culture doesn't make them any less valuable. I always knew that, but it was only recently that I truly began to believe it. I was born brown, and into a family of immense white privilege.

It has taken the murder of Mike Brown, and talking about it with my mother, and talking about it with my spouse, and talking about it with my best friend, Kim, to understand what I expected of black people in terms of behavior was racism.

Not only was I a menopausal, redheaded, Baptist woman, I was a menopausal, redheaded, Baptist woman from the 1940's. "Let them be, but let them be this way"


I was raised to believe, and in my soul still believe that race does not matter.

To me it does not matter...
In a sense of "can we be friends", "would I work with you/sit next to you/share a meal with you". I, personally, live a colorblind life. I've shared my thoughts on that in terms of writing and storytelling before.

I think a lot of you, my friends and peers, feel that way as well. The color of a person's skin doesn't matter (in the most well-meaning way possible) to you.

I naively championed that method of thinking, and way of life.

But the murder of Mike Brown taught me that way will never work. Not in our lifetime at least.

We need to see color.

Because in being colorblind we have become simply blind.

I was shocked in August when Mike Brown was murdered. Shocked, but foolishly certain that justice would prevail and that there would be one more dirty police officer off the streets.

Then things started to get ugly.

I started following Shaun King on Twitter.

I was tempted to stop following him; he was saying some things that made me uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable in the hitting-too-close-to-home way, but in the ugh-another-black-guy-making-us-all-victims way.

But the wheat was greater than what I then thought was chaff. He was the most reliable and convenient source of news on what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri (for me).

As things escalated and became so amazing, ground-breaking, and horrifying I was sincerely shocked at what I wasn't seeing.

As a writer who hopes one day to be an author I follow a number of literary agents on Twitter. All of them are champions of diversity with hundreds (if not thousands) of followers, almost all of them represent what I write, all of them are funny, intelligent people that I would love to have a drink with; all but three of them are white.

I follow authors who have written amazing stories that I thoroughly enjoy. I'm even actual internet-friends with some! All of them are white.

I follow my peers who are in the query/drafting trenches just like me, and we support/read for/encourage one another...all but a handful of them are white.

No one was talking about Ferguson.

Not until tonight.

The outrage nearly broke the twitterverse. Which made me happy-sad.

Happy-sad why?

Happy-sad (we need a better word for this emotion in English) because though I realize that having nothing original or of value to contribute to the conversation often means it's best to not say anything...but these people who I genuinely respect, love, or admire had no problems articulately conveying disgust tonight when we learned Darren Wilson would receive no punishment for his crime.

Where were the retweets, the alerts, the support for Ferguson before tonight? I feel like so many advocates for diversity were waiting in the wings when all of our voices combined might have been heard.

I feel like the white people who take other white people to task for white privilege were waiting for the (obviously inevitable) injustice to cry out instead of crying out for justice.

Feminism, We Need Diverse Books - both causes near and dear to my heart, and those are battlegrounds that we're still fighting on, but we forgot the history that went down in Missouri until tonight. We ignored the monster even after it killed one who we claim to advocate for, we didn't join in the hunt for the creature, we didn't rally and make our voices heard to warn others. We watched as so very few others did it for us.

I'm guilty, too.

I retweeted links about falsified police reports, crime scene analyses, witness reports. I tried to get it out there. I re-blogged, and tweeted begging for everyone to remember Ferguson. To keep up with Shaun King and his quest for knowledge about the murder of Mike Brown.

But I know I didn't do enough.

The decision not to indict Darren Wilson was proof that none of us did enough. Our President's admonition for the people - NOT the police - to refrain from violence proves that we weren't talking enough. We weren't engaging enough. We were not heard. Even the President only hears what he wants to hear. Those who cared enough to mention anything about Mike Brown called for peace. They politely and peacefully called for justice.

But black people begging for justice is a tune America has been hearing for 400 years.

I ignored it for a long time.

I think we all have been ignoring it because I think our white privelege has led us to believe that this is a battle that we've already fought and won.

After all, I can walk into your same restaurant, own a home, drive a car, vote; we are not separate but equal, but we're all thrown together in this diverse little quagmire where "race doesn't matter".

Then we give the side-eye to black people who cry out for justice.

"What more do you want?" We wonder.

"What color your skin is doesn't matter to me!" We say encouragingly.

So we turned our heads away from Ferguson. Kept it in our periphery because our white privelege allowed us to take for granted that in this day and age such a thing couldn't happen. Wouldn't happen. Not in our America.

I'm a black guy talking about racism. One of many. I'm now one of those people that used to make me roll my eyes and shake my head.

You're my friend. You're not racist, but statistically speaking you're probably white. This is a taboo thing for a black person to say, I think, but...I need your help. I need you to shout with me. Shout for me. I am not too proud to say that I need a white person's help, or that I need your voice.

But I'm singing a centuries-old song. It's time to add your voice, and write a new verse.

Racism isn't a Black, Asian, Indian, Native American issue. It is Our issue. It is a human issue. One group speaking out isn't enough. I need you. We need you.

Everyone needs to speak out against the oldest crime in America's history. It'll take all of us to seek out and destroy the monster that has killed too many already.

I was pulled over once when I was in college.

There are two roads leading out of Amarillo. I-27 branches off at the city limits. One way takes you to Dallas (near my hometown) and the other takes you to Oklahoma City. Watch carefully because if you blink you'll be in the wrong lane and headed in vastly different directions.
I was eighteen and it was my second semester in college. I wasn't paying attention, and I ended up on my way to Oklahoma City instead of home. I had no idea where I was; I'd only made the trip four times before that.
I had just gotten off work and jumped in the car after running home to grab a bite to eat. I was still wearing my work slacks, and a button-up, short-sleeve, garishly printed shirt (I know, gross. Don't judge). No one needs to look pretty when they're driving for more than four hours.

Anyway - trying to figure out how to get back on the road home I changed lanes a little erratically and was pulled over by a highway patrolman.
He approached my car and asked for my license and insurance like normal.
A few minutes later he returned to my window and asked me to step out of my vehicle.
I complied.

He asked me to follow him to his car.

He opened the passenger door of the police car and I got in.

I sat there while he ran my license with my heart pounding in my chest. It was a four lane highway in the early evening, in the middle of near nowhere. I had NEVER heard of a police officer inviting someone into the passenger's seat of their police car.

He asked me where I was headed, and I told him.

He asked me what I was doing in Amarillo. I explained that I was going to school at the University in the next town.

He asked me what my major was. I told him.

He asked me where I worked. I told him.

There was a brief moment of uncomfortable silence then he handed me my license and gave me directions on how to get back to the road home.

I was so shaken that it was literally months before I thought about the oddness of it.

Even now as I recall the incident my hands get a little shaky, and it's hard to type.

I think if I hadn't been so young. If I hadn't been so obviously wide-eyed and reeking of goody-two-shoes...that officer might have pushed the situation further into a very dark direction.

I think when we go on our roadtrip next summer that I'll be terrified when a cop pulls me over.

I think our justice system isn't safe for the innocent, or for people of color. I sincerely think that officer contemplated sexually assaulting me. Now I think that an officer will kill me (I'm older now and my looks are starting to go - Starting to go? HA! They're at home and in bed.)

What if I wasn't there to tweet the banal to ridiculous things that happen during my day?

What if I wasn't there to share silly Harry Potter links, and squeal and scream at you when amazing, or crazy things happen?

What if I am not able to share my worlds and stories?

What if I'm not able to come home to the man I love?

What if I'm not there for Thanksgiving or Christmas?

What if....

Because of a corrupt and despicable justice system so many stories aren't being told by people of color. Too many people of color aren't coming home to their loved ones. So many young black kids aren't going to be there this Thanksgiving and Christmas...or the next.

Raise your voices. All of you. Make them listen, make the truth the only the thing they can possibly hear.
We've been too silent for too long. We don't want there to be a problem so badly that we're ignoring its existence instead of conquering it. I'm done with my white privilege. Are you?

I'm embracing my diversity and yours, and from now on I'm fighting for both of us.

I love you.

Until we meet again...

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