Okay, so what would convince you that racism is real? White privilege is real.
One of the pleasures of getting older and making a living the way you want to is that your social circle becomes rarified and the people who enter have been vetted. When I was in my twenties, shady-ass characters routinely found their way into my life. With some regularity, friends revealed themselves as liars, or misogynists, or big Master P fans, and I stopped seeing them. Nowadays, that never happens. My whole crew is rock-solid, and anybody I meet through any of them comes pre-certified; I might not love them, but I can take for granted that they aren’t going to ransack my house or pop some foul shit.
A related fact is that I don’t really hang out with that many white people these days. And those I do hang out with tend to be (1) predominantly Jewish but totally secular, (2) hip-hop heads and practitioners since Bushwick Bill had depth perception, and (3) decades deep in their critical analysis of white privilege and structural racism, which was a process that was not optional if you were a white hip-hop kid growing up in the era of Brand Nubian and X-Clan and Boogie Down Productions. You probably know some of these people if you’re reading this, because they’re all writers and artists and musicians – Danny Hoch, Kevin Coval, Joe Schloss, J. Period, Dan Charnas, Blake Lethem, Jon Shecter. That type of dude.
This is a miniscule cohort, invisible on the national radar, but for all intents and purposes it’s the sum total of a white community. I don’t know any of the white people who keep showing up in all those incredibly depressing studies and statistics—the ones that reveal a typical white person’s “real life social network” is 1% black, or that a majority of whites in this country believe “anti-white bias” is a bigger problem than racism, or that less than half of whites believe the grand juries should have indicted the killer cops in Ferguson or Staten Island, or that Barack Obama lost the white vote in both 2008 and 2012.
I didn’t look any of that up just now; I keep facts like this handy because I’m a dude who speaks about race and whiteness and politics in public sometimes and I like to stay strapped. But I’ve constructed a life and a career that keeps me completely isolated from those white people—“real” white people. I don’t even have awkward Thanksgiving conversations with some crotchety old-fuck uncle who thinks the president is a secret Muslim.
I did, however, become single and start dating, for the first time since Bill Clinton was in office. I met a girl I really liked. I’ll call her Jessie. She was gorgeous, she was smart, and she liked to talk shit. She lived in Queens but I met her at a literary festival in Jamaica. We watched Prodigy from Mobb Deep get bumrushed onstage by a drunken local whom the crowd liked more, and then we stayed up all night, blah blah blah. It didn’t occur to me, not for one second, that her politics or her race consciousness or whatever might be different than mine, because I had met her. Even though she was from a tiny town in Oregon and had grown up in a mega-Christian family. After all, she’d renounced that shit and moved to New York and she liked me.
Then Mike Brown got murdered and Jessie couldn’t understand the rush to condemn Darren Wilson. This wasn’t part of a pandemic of police violence against black men to her; these were individuals and we didn’t know what had happened and we shouldn’t make assumptions and most cops weren’t necessarily racist, most cops just reacted to the situations they were in, the experiences they’d had, and if those experiences led them to assume that black men should be treated as threats, who were we to question that? She’d served two weeks on a grand jury and all the gun case defendants had been black, and what did that tell you? Those were facts. She’d been there.
We almost broke up that night. I stood on the street outside her crib, an incredibly heavy duffel bag on my shoulder, and argued my motherfucking ass off for two and half hours. I happen to be really good at arguing, for reasons I’m not necessarily proud of, reasons that date back to early childhood and contributed heavily to my nascent singleness. Though being really good at arguing is also how I got through high school and college without studying that much. Marshaling some shit KRS-ONE said in a song and using it to bludgeon a history teacher was my basic educational modus operandi for about six years.
I told Jessie she was ignoring the empirical in favor of the anecdotal, and what a fraught and dangerous path that was. I tried to get her to understand how intensely personal this was for me, how unjust policing and trials and sentencing had destroyed friends’ lives and compromised our entire generation. We did history and anthropology and philosophy. It was heated and intense and the angrier I get the better I argue. Eventually I felt good enough about where we’d gotten, the progress we’d made, to go upstairs and sleep with her.
But it wasn’t really okay. We kept talking about it. Jessie admitted that she’d never really grappled with this shit, and expressed a beautifully sincere desire to try. Pretty soon she was telling her father on the phone about the endemic racism of the police, and getting excited about engaging all the white people she knew back home—the kind she’d been herself a few weeks earlier. She felt like she knew how to get through to them, how to create empathy and understanding and break down fear and hatred.
The thing was, her impulses were still her impulses; her frame was still her frame. Even now that she was righteously indignant and eager to proselytize, every discussion began with her eliding the ubiquity of structural racism, refusing to see how it undergirded whatever situation we were parsing. She focused on anything and everything else, with a fervor I knew all too well, and I’d bombard her with statistics, or point out that the very categories she chose to create were grounded in the normalization of whiteness. Or I’d have to create elaborate hypothetical scenarios to illustrate the limitations of, say, a black person’s ability to prevent himself from being profiled by police. She hadn’t read anything. She didn’t know who Emmett Till was. Or James Baldwin. She listened to a lot of hip-hop, but—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—that means nothing in 2014.
I felt confused and compromised, being with her. On one hand, I was introducing Jessie to all this radical race shit (radical only on the spectrum of white American politics, but still) and seeing her get a decent amount of it—even if the process wore me out. On the other hand, I was with somebody who didn’t get radical race shit, somebody who never would have made her way past the gatekeepers and into my little precious elitist smartypants cool white kid circles. And on the third hand, I had become (as my friend Sheila Heti writes) one of those insufferable men who want to teach a woman something.
Jessie kept telling me how much good I could do by talking to the kind of people she grew up with, and I kept saying I wasn’t interested in chopping it up with any hunkered-down white racists, that I’d had my fill of that ten years earlier when I published Angry Black White Boy. She kept being disappointed in my refusal, my weariness, my cynicism in thinking those people wouldn’t change based on anything I said, my arrogance in acting like I had better shit to do.
It was a summer of fucking and civic unrest, and of thinking about 1981. I was researching Obama’s time at Columbia University for a screenplay I’d been hired to write, reading everything I could get my hands on about that relatively opaque and unsettled period of his life. One of the jewels— the kind of line you can’t even use, because it’s too on-the-nose—was that his white girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, had broken up with young Barry by telling him that what he needed was a “strong black woman.” There was a strange duality for me, in watching the strained, embattled man calling for calm on my television screen—the soon-to-be lame duck president whose tenure, whose very being, had kicked the hornets’ nest of American racism far harder than any of us had come close to anticipating—and trying to project myself backward in time and understand who Obama had been when he was only slightly older than Mike Brown.
Jessie and I never really recovered from that first Ferguson fight, but I kept trying to make it work, for good reasons and bad. Fall rolled around, and my schedule of gigs picked up. She’d fly out and meet me in various cities and we’d spend a few days together and I’d tell myself it was probably the last time and I should enjoy the parts that were enjoyable.
In one of those cities, we ended up going to a bar with another woman, somebody I didn’t know well but had known not-well for years. She was Puerto Rican, from New York. The two of them hit it off at first, but then I started to notice that actually, New York was probing and testing and fucking with Jessie in all these slick, subtle, devastating ways that Jessie didn’t notice and that I appreciated far more than I should have.
After two rounds of bourbon I went to the bathroom. I returned to a full-blown shitstorm. New York had tried to buy Jessie a shot, and Jessie had declined because she’d already had enough to drink. New York tried to buy it anyway, but the bartender, a white dude, wouldn’t let her. New York got on some “Oh, a brown woman can’t buy a drink? My money’s no good here?” type shit, and Jessie took it at face value and tried to explain to her that the bartender was not legally allowed to sell a drink if the person the drink was intended for expressed unwillingness to imbibe it.
I walked back into the room just in time to hear Jessie say, with deep conviction and obvious frustration, “It’s not about race!”
They both looked at me like I was that dude Paris and they were the goddesses laying claim to the golden apple that started the Trojan War. I had no idea what had happened while I was taking a piss, but I said, “It’s never a good look to be the white girl claiming it’s not about race.”
Fast forward to three in the morning, the two of us lying in a hotel bed, half-drunk, Jessie railing against New York for trying to make it about race when it clearly was not, when there was no way her race had anything to do with that bartender doing his job and it is unforgiveable that she pulled that bullshit and you didn’t take my side.
I listened until she had nothing more to say, and then I took a deep breath and told her that race always has something to do with it. That even if the bartender wasn’t consciously acting based on the color of New York’s skin, that didn’t mean she hadn’t experienced a long day, a long week, a long lifetime of interactions, slights, injustices, assumptions predicated on how she looked. That neither Jessie nor I nor the bartender himself was in a position to say whether this had indeed been one of them, or why it felt like it to New York, or whether she was wrong. That the very essence of white privilege was getting to walk around unraced, never assuming that/wondering if/fretting over whether the color of your skin was going to determine your fate. And that ironically, Jessie’s own skin did just that, but in ways she never had to notice, just as a bicyclist doesn’t notice the wind at her back, speeding her along.
So she’s always going to be right and I’m always going to be wrong, Jessie said. The facts don’t matter. I can never say anything.
I mumbled something like yeah, you’ve been silenced, it’s a real fucking injustice. I probably could have done better; I could have acknowledged that sometimes being white and not an asshole is tricky and will challenge your intuitive sense of fairness or equality or the value or your own opinion and that on the grand scale of problems all of that is ultimately fucking hilarious. That sometimes your opinion and perspective truly are less important, and asserting otherwise is an #AllLivesMatter-esque form of trolling, an attempt to level a playing field that’s already tilted in your direction, and such behavior could get you punched in the face if anybody had any energy for that shit, which they don’t because it’s so low on the list of things worth being irate about, such as the fact that black college graduates are less likely to be granted job interviews that white felons, or the fact that a police officer’s surest way to reap a six-figure financial windfall is to murder a black kid.
Just before we fell asleep, Jessie said, Why are you even with me? Why aren’t you with a black woman?
I don’t know if she realized she was paraphrasing Barry Obama’s college sweetheart; I’d certainly quoted the line that summer. But here were the parameters of Jessie’s racial self. The way I wanted her to see the world was irreconcilable with her conception of whiteness, and thus I must need a black woman.
Maybe we’d found my parameters as well. Maybe giving up, or letting her give up, meant I wasn’t trying hard enough. Watching the president on TV that summer, I found myself wondering if he’d given up, too.
And ultimately, the reason I’m writing all this anecdotal shit about Jessie and the conveniently smart-sounding shit I said to her (which sounds less smart to me now that I’m writing it down) is probably that I’ve got so few answers and things seem so desperate and retrograde out here right now. I mean, shit, the cops who beat Rodney King at least went to trial. Hell, the dudes who murdered Emmett Till went to trial, and that was half a century ago.
Mostly, I just want to sit white people down and say “Okay, so what WOULD convince you that racism is real, then?” But not really, because then I’d have to hear their answers.
I’d like to think that this particular moment—which seems like it must be to the next generation what the ’92 LA Riots were to mine—might eradicate the much-and deservedly-maligned White Liberal. That right now white people either have to double down on fear and denial, or they have to assess the facts before them and be radicalized by the clear evidence that a tremendous gulf exists in this country between black and white, a gulf maintained through institutionalized violence. But I don’t think I believe it. I have no evidence to suggest that it’s the case. And I sure as fuck do not have my fingers on the pulse of white America. If I did, I would squeeze.
I had lunch last week with Jeff Chang, fresh off his book tour for Who We Be: The Colorization of America, and we talked about this: the feeling of having no answers, of hitting middle age and looking back on two or three decades of artsy activism or activist artistry only to throw up our hands and hope things will improve once our parents’ generation, with its high voter turnout, dies off. We were eating burritos served by a six-year-old waiter, and as we watched the kid scamper back to the kitchen, Jeff said that the big question is what to tell white people, as they march inexorably toward minority status, 2042, all that shit.
He said he’s pretty sure the old answer, “go work in your own communities and organize your own people,” doesn’t make that much sense any more. I think he’s right; the white people who might want to do that don’t feel invested in those communities. They escaped them for some bastion of multiculturalism, or they have no idea what a white community even is, because if a community is an outgrowth of a culture, then you have to figure out what white culture is, and nobody wants to touch that except the bozos on Fox News screaming about taking back America, and people even worse than them. White identity doesn’t appeal to anybody on the left, except as something to complicate and dilute with ethnicity or politics or sexuality or class or anything else we can find, so as to feel marginally less complicit in a morally heinous system.
Sure, there are things white people can do to use that power, that privilege, for good: we can say shit about racism without fear of recrimination, say shit without being dismissed as speaking from some place of anger or narrow self-interest (though even better would be to explain why we are speaking from anger and narrow self-interest). We can stand between the cops and the little black kids, maybe. We can spend money, elect people, call for something besides grand juries to decide whether cops face trial. Is it enough? No. Have I got something better? Also no. Is this essay twice as long as it was supposed to be? Yes. So I guess I’m out of time.
This essay is part of the “Shifting Perceptions: Being Black in America” series commissioned by the Perception Institute. The entire series can be viewed at http://www.perception.org