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Saturday, December 13, 2014

Dear Friends: One Guy's Offering of Perspective

[This piece was written during the week after it was announced that no trial would occur regarding the questionable use of police force in Ferguson, MO that resulted in the death of a teen. I've added and subtracted, read and re-read. I thank my friends who have been waiting patiently for me to finally finish it and post it.]


Well, Monday happened. Not that the result was a surprise, but it was definitely a disappointment.

In the first waves of disgust, betrayal, worry, anger, and fear I took to Facebook and essentially invited all of my friends who are not brown-skinned to contact me if they did not understand something or sought to understand something better. I received some responses and I learned that although I wanted to respond to all of them individually, it was a bit too big.

So I'm typing this as a start, and aim to specifically address people individually if this isn't sufficient.

I just don't know where to start.

Actually, that is the start of it. Dear friends, when something like this happens — again — it's difficult to know where to start with feelings and words. Things swirl around and your brain and soul are now the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes. You learn again how much some people don't get it. And they don't get it because they never had to. And they can live their lives forward never having to get it. These are not bad people, but they are clueless and they don't like to hear how they don't get it or how they should get it. They cannot handle even the slightest bit of cognitive dissonance that happens when an otherwise good person harbors such ideas and actions that do not paint them in that light. It drives them crazy and they lash out. Now you no longer have to stand up only against forces of a system that has not changed as much as people think, but against people who have lived a life never having to examine how they contribute to it through words and actions. And those people can sometimes be resistant to that change in our national culture. It's like people and agents in The Matrix. It's a regular part of being black in America. And it sucks.

Events like this and the discussions that surround it become reminders of things your grandparents fought against, that your parents fought against, that you still fight against in spite of what people did before you. You get accused of being entitled when someone who has not been and never will be black does not understand that every day of your life — especially as a youth — you are more likely to have been reminded by your elders in one way or another that you owe everything to the people who fought the struggle before you. I am well accustomed to examining my privilege. Spending much of my life doing so means that I don't take it as a guilt trip when someone says to examine privilege. I am proud that I am the product of people's dreams and work. I am thankful that they sacrificed for me. And I am disgusted that people still spout the tired "self-made man" and "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" lines. You didn't get anywhere you are today without the combined acts of people before and around you, whether they are related to you or not. My raising and my privilege tells me that I have a social responsibility on large and small scales. That means knowing where I have privilege, doing my best not to use it to step on others, recognizing when I do and listening to those who call me out on it, and also to urge others to be aware of theirs. I try not to wield it as a tool of guilt, but explanation and understanding. I'm sure sometimes I fall short of that.

You are reminded that people don't understand why "The Talk" isn't as simple as "Don't break the law." They think that's it, because that's all it ever has to be or ever has been in their experience. They have never experienced being stopped or just followed for looking like you're not supposed to be there. Clothes can be changed. Piercings can be removed. Hair can be covered. Even gay can be modified to pass. But Black cannot. "The Talk" is a painful necessary reminder that you have to not only be lawful, but you still have to go out of your way to make someone else comfortable with you. You have to be the one to do the work because chances are they may not live a life experience where it even occurs to them that they should also do that work. You need to be polite even when they are not. Do not talk back. Do not assert your rights. You must take the indignity and grit your teeth and bite your tongue because the officer you are talking to may not be one of the good ones who protect and serve, but who bullies and compensates instead. One bit of sass could get you detained, cuffed, or beaten. It is difficult to take the "common right" of civil defiance for granted when standing up for yourself can get you inconvenienced at best or beaten/dead at worst.

"The Talk" isn't about "Don't break the law."; that's another talk and of course black kids get it the same as white kids. To think they don't is when someone's thinking makes them part of the problem. "The Talk" is about "I know it hurts. I know you will have done nothing wrong. But do everything you can to make sure you get home safe."

You have to deal with and counter assumptions and proclamations that because you are from a Midwestern suburb and went to college that you are removed from or immune to the indignities of systemic racism. People who make such statements again have no idea of how frequently young black children are usually reminded that no matter how well they talk, no matter how well they dress, no matter how well they act, they must still be prepared to be treated as a suspect. The reminders are preparation for the life experiences that sooner or later will follow. As soon as someone decides that you're lingering around an item in a store too long, or you're in an area that you look like might not belong they can call the authorities. And then you're back to situations addressed in "The Talk". Socioeconomic and educational privilege are not armor. At best, they are insulation, but never armor.

Even my privileged life is a life of spending many times keeping quiet and biting my tongue. It is a life of having to figure out how to make new people comfortable with me — if you even have to — because as odd as it seems to me, this goofy six-footer still threatens people. And sometimes when I even open my mouth or get to writing and use words that show people how I'm not a threat, even when I show them that I usually — not always — take things from a place of philosophy and examination, I am still a threat. Be smart, but not too smart. Be smart enough that you're seen as equal, but not so smart that you can mop the floor with someone. Speak up about things, but only when you're asked. If you're too smart, you're compensating for an ego. You're not really that smart — it's just an act. It's difficult not to see that as a holdover from "Don't be smarter than the white folks, and if you are, you gotta play dumb and hide it. Otherwise, there's gonna be trouble."

And that touches on yet another mental gymnastic: wondering if  (or how much of) what you just experienced is because you're black or just because the person had a bad day or is simply an ass. Because you don't know. And you don't know not because you're paranoid, but because of accrued life experiences that tell you that it was in fact because you were black. You don't know because the existing racism is still ingrained enough in society — through media, through how people are raised, through various systems — that it is sneaky and can be near-invisible if you're not looking.

It's a life of keeping things down, finding out who you can talk to and who you can't. If they don't look like you, will they listen? Will they want to know or will they dismiss your concerns and experience? Will they gas light you and tell you you're just blaming someone else for your problems? All of this is just for any law-abiding citizen. I didn’t have a rebellious streak. I was not a kid who got into trouble or was ever up to no-good. I can’t imagine how much worse it would be for someone who was a rebellious teen or who liked to get into even harmless trouble every now and then. I cannot imagine what it would be like for someone who has been incarcerated and is invested in using their past as a lesson rather than a pattern. All of this is me talking strictly as a black guy from the suburbs. No priors. No red flags. Nice dress, nice manners, nice speech — still a part-time suspect for life at a moment’s notice.

People who won’t talk about about it or who don’t get it tend to think you’re blaming everyone else for your problems. Or that you want to get by on the fruit of the work of others without working. You will get blamed for building it all up in your mind and being addicted to living a victim mentality. They might think you walk through every day whining and blaming and not taking responsibility for your own actions. It gets tiring.

Some people react to a dialogue about race as if everything unsavory that happens in the life of black person gets blamed on racism. More often than not, this is not the case. However, being on the receiving side, it’s easier to see some of the more subtle things — the moving parts in society that contribute to or come from the idea that white is “normal” and “dominant”. These things may seem innocuous to someone who fits into this “norm”. They see it every day and they don’t think anything of it. To someone who is not of the “norm” it adds up — for example — to not seeing people “like you” very often. To the norm, of course, that wouldn’t matter, because you never really had to think about it — or rather, your life and society are structured so that you don’t really have to if you don’t want to. You never have to think too much about if what you said would be offensive to someone else because you’re surrounded by a bunch of people who look just like you almost all of the time. Not everything that happens gets blamed on racism — in my mind, anyway, and in the minds of family and friends. Many crappy experiences are just that, and I am/we are fortunate to live in a way in which that is the case. However, there are some things that I encounter where various elements lead to the question, “Is this because I’m black?” Even the much-reviled affirmative action brings this into question: “Do they really think I’m qualified, or am I fitting a quota?” I have to work harder to prove to potential detractors that I AM worthy. The presumption — either direct or implied — that affirmative action takes jobs from more qualified white workers and gives them to lesser qualified workers of color is a whole other can of worms and another fight/discussion/accusation to stay prepared for.


When you're black you are more likely to get painted as a thug, but when you're white you're a troubled teen acting out. When you're black you're painted as defiant and unreasonable; when you're white you're assertive. I am tall and goofy. I speak well and move well. I like to make people laugh and think and understand; I like to do those things, too. But every day of my life is balancing this with the fact that to other people, I am still potentially a threat, a suspect, a presence to be feared or to be seen as an affront to someone else's life. And I don't know where it will come from. Please don't take this as The Definitive Black Experience; it is only mine. But definitely please understand that my experience and others like it are commonplace.