The truth is, there are happier stories in my notebook. I just don’t feel like telling them right now. I feel like talking about anything other than the racism being confronted in our nation is tantamount to capitulation.
I’m an anxiety-riddled, middle-aged white man who desperately wants the world to calm down. But I hear my fellow humans’ outcry. And I worry that when I say I want things to settle, that I’m being heard as saying that their cause is less important than my comfort.
White silence is white violence, goes one chant.
I am not remaining silent. I just don’t know what to say or do.
I feel like everything I might say will come off as a white guy trying to make it about himself.
That’s how I felt about a group of celebrities who circulated a black-and-white video talking about how they won’t tolerate racism anymore. They meant well. Their cause was just. But they looked silly. The whole thing felt, at best, overacted and, at worst, attention-seeking.
Gee, Kristen Bell, I never once thought you were a Confederate Battle Flag waving member of the KKK even though you are a white woman who is a successful actress.
I kid, but I’m sympathetic to a point. For whites in America at the moment, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The white privilege here being, of course, that for too many black and brown Americans, it’s too often just damned.
I believe it’s good that white people are uncomfortable. Black and brown people are uncomfortable all the time.
When I was a freshman at Drake University, my roommate was a black guy from Milwaukee. He came from urban-Midwest. I came from small- and midsize-Midwest. Our perspectives were very different.
The Drake men’s basketball team got into trouble for paying for a recruit to stay in a hotel off campus. The recruit was black. An assistant coach, also black, got fired. I was a newsman in training. I thought it was a story about corruption in basketball recruiting.
My roommate thought it was about a poor kid who didn’t have the grades to get into Drake and an assistant coach trying to make sure he had lodging and food.
I think we were both right, but it always bothered me that I never thought about the recruit, a guy the same age as my roommate and I, not having food or a place to stay. I wish I could say that the lesson my roommate taught me stuck and informed my reporting for the rest of my career, but it didn’t.
Journalism is a blood sport and the lust to chase a story and beat the competition often overwhelms even the most disciplined practitioners of the trade. There’s a sign in the newsroom of my former employer that reads “Every second counts.”
There’s probably some truth to that in the digital world, but these days we should all take a few seconds to infuse what we do with more empathy.
I learned a lot from my roommate that freshman year. He was the barber in his group of friends. Often our room had four or five black students hanging out and talking while they waited for my roommate’s clippers. I played video games, mostly Madden football, with the guys. We were friendly.
I was fool enough to think I was “down” with black people because we’d played some video games and shared a few pops.
But one day at lunch, I decided to sit at the table with some of the guys who played video games in our room. Things got quiet. Nobody said I couldn’t sit there, but clearly my presence screwed up the vibe. I realized this was a time and space where black students felt they could unwind and be themselves.
I may be a guy they’d play video games with, but I was still white. I did not understand their path through this world. And me being there was taking away one of the few spaces they had to let loose on a mostly white campus in the middle of a mostly white town in a mostly white state.
I remember supervising interns at my previous employer. One was a Drake student who said he wanted to go to a black barbershop near campus on a dare before he graduated. I asked him why. He said he thought it would be funny.
I didn’t think it would be funny. The barber would welcome the business, but my roommate had taught me that the barbershop plays a different role in the black community than it does in the white community. I told the intern my story about sitting with the black guys I knew from Madden. I suggested maybe it was OK that black people had something to call their own in a country where few venues allowed such things.
I thought about calling up my old roommate. I haven’t talked to him in a good 15 years. There’s no hard feelings there. He went back to Milwaukee. I stayed in Des Moines. People grow. They drift apart.
But I asked myself why I was calling. I didn’t like the answer. I think I was calling him because I wanted him to absolve me from being a racist. I wanted him to tell me that I wasn’t a part of the problem. I wanted to be certified as a good guy.
But he can’t do that. No one can do that.
The hardest part of Black Lives Matter for white Americans, I think, is that we’ve read history books and seen stories that present us, meaning whites, as the heroes. We’ve seen images of our heroics so much, it’s easy to believe we are the greatest people who ever lived.
We won World War II. (We didn’t, actually. It was a team effort, but all that Russian blood spilled on the Eastern front didn’t fit our Cold War narrative that the commies were in every corner.)
We learned history through the lens of white colonialists. Columbus, they told us, discovered America. How one discovers something that has been there since continents divided and already had a people and a culture was not discussed, nor were the various atrocities committed by Columbus and his crew against natives.
For centuries, white people have travelled the globe, showed up in someone else’s land and said, “All this stuff is ours now. You will worship our God and work for us or we will kill you.”
And many times the white people killed a lot of the native people anyway, sometimes all of them.
There’s a pretty good case to be made that white people, as a race, are among the greatest villains in history.
Am I saying you, as an individual, dear reader, are a racist villain?
No, I am not. Neither are the people who support Black Lives Matter.
What they are saying is things are fouled up and they have been fouled up for a long time.
At the risk of trivializing this with a nerdy pop culture reference, white people are the Empire from the “Star Wars” universe.
We are at the moment in “The Empire Strikes Back” where Luke learns his father is Darth Vader, the most evil man in the galaxy — a man who murdered children and played enforcer for a brutal dictator.
Vader revealed his parentage to Luke and offered him a place by his side. Luke rejected it.
Will white Americans accept the sins of our Founding Fathers and choose to reject the racism that is built into the fabric of the country?
It starts simply enough. Acknowledge and accept history. White people weren’t always good guys.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t be and do good now. To risk another pop culture references by amending my favorite Billy Joel song: “We didn’t start the fire, but we can fight it.”
Cut loose and cashiered by corporate media, lone paragraph stacker Daniel P. Finney makes his way telling stories about his city, state and nation. No more metrics or Google trends, he writes stories about people and life ignored by the oligarchy.
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