I remember the first—and only—time I used, the “N” word. I was five, living in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Miss Posey was our nanny.
She was a large black woman who always smelled like menthol cigarettes. The only other thing I remember about her was that she was my favorite person in the world.
“Ain’t Miss Posey a N___r?” I asked in a deep southern drawl.
My parents looked at me shocked. My dad cracked me in the mouth almost before my sentence was complete.
“Where did you learn that word?” my mother asked.
Confused I told her that one of my friend’s parents told me that was what you called black people.
“Don’t ever use that word,” she told me, “it’s the worst word there is.”
And I didn’t. I didn’t see the friend anymore either. I wasn’t allowed to.
And that was how I learned about racism, and generally, I learned that what makes you a racist is saying that word. Only racists say it, and if you don’t say it, you’re not a racist.
Maybe not literally, but that seemed to be the broad distinction.
Then, in high school, I met Nancy, who was a beautiful girl. And, for some reason she liked me. She was black, though, and that confused me. Was it okay for me to like a black girl? Was it okay for me to feel weird about liking a black girl?
I asked her to a dance, and she said yes. We went, but I had trouble reconciling it in my soul. It didn’t feel wrong; felt like I was defying social norms. What felt wrong the most was that it felt wrong at all.
There were a number of black kids in my school, and to challenge my discomfort, I started to get to know them, one by one. I grew close to a number of them. “Half my best friends” are black, I would joke.
In reality, the school I went to was incredibly diverse. Our high-school had 172 kids and represented 36 nations. Not only did we not care what race kids were, we often didn’t even know.
When I moved back to the States, I was living in Virginia and one of the girls I knew, Theresa, invited me to a family gathering in D.C. Sure, I said, not knowing what to expect.
I went out there, and there were at least 40 people there. I was the lone white guy. I had an outstanding time. I enjoyed it enough that 25 years later, I remember how great it was. I learned to eat crab legs. I joked and made friends, and after I’d been there 10 minutes I completely forgot I was the only white guy there.
Then I joined the Air Force, and while I was there my first roommate, Boris, was a black man with a tremendous amount of musical talent and a deep love of music. He broadened my music appreciation, not into hip-hop, but into classic rock, reggae, and jazz. He hated hip-hop as much as I did.
I remember driving to a party once with Boris, and the car got attacked by a pack of feral dogs. They were jumping at the doors, trying to bite through the windows. We peeled out, got away and pulled over. I pointed at the dog spit running down the passenger window and we laughed until we had to pee.
I got stationed to Italy, where I met Flo, who was the most awesome friend you can have. We had many a drunk talk about life, love (she was gay) and other things. Mark was my mentor, whom I admired everything about. I had literally dozens of friends who were black. I really didn’t give race a second thought.
I finished my tour in the Air Force and went to college in Minnesota. I had some friends over for dinner one night. The trial of Damian Williams, part of the Gang of Four who had beaten Reginald Denny nearly to death in the throes of the Rodney King riots, had just ended.
The topic came up and we started to debate it. Edgar was arguing the Gang of Four weren’t racist; I was saying they were.
It was in the middle of that argument that it occurred to me while I’d been around black people all my life, been in part raised by them, dated them, been friends with the, lived them, admired them, worked for them, and genuinely love many of them, I’d never really listened to them about race.
I won’t get into the details about the Denny beating vs. the King beating because it’s only relevant here in that it sparked a conversation which lasted for months. It continued with different people, including the speech writer for Paul Wellstone in different homes and in different contexts.
We started off arguing, but eventually we started talking—really talking—about racism.
I started to become aware that racism was not just about bigotry, using the N' word or arguing for racial supremacy.
But that is all superficial, the most important thing that occurred to us both came one day when I asked Edgar a straightforward question, “Do you think of yourself as a man or black man, Edgar?
“I think of myself as a black man,” he replied.
“Well, I just think of myself as a man” I countered, thinking my answer superior.
“That’s because you can,” he rebutted. Then he explained how that day he’d gone to a corner store that day.
Edgar earned a good living and lived in a well-off neighborhood. The shop owner watched him the whole time he was the store.
There were other people in the store too, but they didn’t get nearly the “attention” that Edgar did.
The owner wouldn’t say it, and he certainly wouldn’t admit if he were asked.
And that’s when it occurred to me, I was an unknowing racist.
Here I had been, existing in my own little world where I’d always assumed that racism was just about how I perceived blacks. It never occurred to me that the other side of that is how blacks are perceived.
There are the ideas of racism, which I don’t hold. But then there is also the institution of racism. The ideas of it are within my power. I can control what goes on in my own mind. But the institution exists, whether I acknowledge it or not.
I can say I don’t see race—because I really don’t see race—but I’m not constantly evaluated based on my race. I don’t think of myself as a white man because I don’t have someone else looking at me that way every day or week of my life.
I’m not constantly told “You’re a white man” by the world I live in. The black man is. I was raised in a world to go to college, not trade school. It was on my TV. It was in my schools. Who I am as a white man is just a man. Who a black man is really is portrayed differently to him.
White people have a different kind of self-identity because they’re allowed to. Blacks can gain the view that they can grow up to be successful too, but they have to overcome the way society looks at them in order to do it. Whites don’t.
Blacks receive less education, less income, and get incarcerated at a higher rate. They don’t live in the same world. The institution exists. I won’t get into a big stat-filled explanation, but suffice to say, it does. If you want proof, start with Googling “institutional racism. My objective isn’t to prove it here, it’s merely to acknowledge it as something separate from the idea of racism.
The problem is that whites who aren’t racist very rarely stop to think about racism beyond their own experience. Many whites, be they Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and Tea Party are not “racist” in the sense that they think they are better than blacks. Sure, there might be some, but the vast majority aren’t.
Because we’re not racist we don’t think about our race. If we see racism in action, many of us—from all parties—would step in and say something. You can genuinely say, and mean, that if you saw a black person being denied service for being black, you would do something about it. But that’s just an incident of racism, not the institution.
The problem is that many of the same people who defend a black man in a racist incident will say things like, “how come Black Entertainment Television isn’t racist?” or “What about BlackPeopleMeet.com?” They ask “Why are black people allowed to use the N’ word, but not me?” They talk about affirmative action, calling it “reverse racism.” They’ll parse between black people and their “culture” of living off of welfare and food stamps.
Again, on each of these, I could go on a 2,000 word tangent, but I’m trying to restrain myself.
It all reveals a basic problem: All that shows a lack of understanding of institutional racism. And when we ignore the institution we perpetuate it. How else can you explain that in a society where most people agree that racism is wrong, the institution remains?
And this raises the truly insidious damage of Sterling’s remarks. I’m not worried about his use of the words dogs, or saying don’t bring blacks to me game. I’m worried about the larger context of his thoughts. He didn’t want those things to happen because the society he lives in judges it for him.
Sterling would tell you that he wasn’t being racist; he’s just being pragmatic. He didn’t say he didn’t like black people. He didn’t defend racism. He said just don’t embarrass me by posting pictures of yourself on Instagram with black people. Essentially he’s arguing, other people are racist, and they’ll think less of me.” That seems innocent, but it’s a far more insidious type of cancer.
He denies the existence of his racism while defending the institution of it. And that’s the problem we face today. We as white Americans are more lenient towards that because deep down, we understand we benefit from it, but to do something about it means giving up those benefits.
I heard a comparison in college. There are two men in a one mile race, one in a blue shirt and one in a red shirt. They must take four trips around the track. But, before things begin, one is required to wear an ankle weight.
The man in the blue shirt gallops to an easy lead, but halfway through the race someone says, “Wait, this isn’t right!” and the race is stopped. How do you finish the race fairly at that point?
You could put the weight on the man in the blue shirt, but it wasn’t his fault that the red-shirted man had to bear the extra weight. Why should you punish him for something he had nothing to do with? You could move Red Shirt up, and place him even with Blue Shirt, but he’s already spent more energy. If you move him ahead of Red Shirt, he has to run less distance.
The point is that we look at affirmative action and we talk about “fairness” but just as in the hypothetical race above, there is no fair solution. The institution exists. A chunk of the country has been wearing ankle weights.
If the guy in the blue shirt acknowledges what’s happened and says, “You know, the only fair thing is that I wear the ankle weight” that offers the only fair solution.
It’s unfair if you force him wear it. It’s fair if he offers to wear it. It’s time for white America to embrace letting go of the institution. Only white America can solve racism, not by not being racist, but by acknowledging and voluntarily surrendering the advantages that come with its institution.