It was cold by Oklahoma City standards. I was headed south to Norman for a recreational league basketball game. He needed a ride north.
But we were headed for the same highway. I sized him up and calculated it was better that he not startle someone else. So I told him how far I could take him, and he hopped in. He had a well-trimmed goatee and wore a brown coat and dark pants. I don't remember much about his story. Something I now regret.
I don't know if my suspicion was triggered by race or the situation. I experienced it like curiosity...and a self-congratulating sense of responsibility and helpfulness.
He asked me what I did.
His curiosity surprised me. We became two men, equals, talking.
I told him I wrote and edited. We only had a mile or so to drive.
Just as we reached the highway where our paths again diverged, he said I should write about affirmative action. I wasn't sure what influence he thought I had.
He said, “No, you have the people.”
I can't think of anyone who in so short a time challenged my perception of myself and others.
I have wrestled with the meaning of race and America's complicated history since Mom read us the story of George Washington Carver. As a kid, I checked out books of western art, first for the horses, then the stories.
Mom wouldn't let us pretend to shoot each other, so our friends' games of cowboys and Indians were out. It was the beginning of a different way of seeing, a way of seeing that grieved those killed and things lost or broken, a way of seeing that gradually opened my perspective to the wrongs others faced. Mom made others plausible.
At age 23, I met a friend who pointed out the whiteness of many home schoolers' lists of heroes. Her point was reinforced when my next job involved researching Sergeant William Carney and the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry and others...trying to find characters and stories that would bridge racial divides...recognizing for the first time the patronizing tone of some things I read...hearing offhand remarks that Martin Luther King Jr. was disqualified because he protested the Vietnam war.
There's cultural pressure on white people not to be racist—a word I've tended to associate with white supremacists. And we fear being called racists. So some of us scurry for the safe, logical idea of colorblindness.
This is also why a member of a minority who brings up racial issues—or who might have mixed feelings about #bluelivesmatter—seems “angry” or “racist” to a lot of whites.
That's why I felt so confused the night a bunch of us were at a steakhouse and a black friend and a Latino friend started joking about certain physical characteristics. What struck me then was that it wasn't fair. I couldn't make that kind of jokes, and I didn't have a category for my friends other than racist, since they drew distinctions based on race.
If I understand him, this is close to Robin DiAngelo's definition of “white fragility.”
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Cultural contexts and experiences lead all of us to have blind spots...and privileges. My German and Swedish immigrant ancestors had mostly economic obstacles to overcome. So their descendants tend not to have to think of race. We don't have to moderate our feelings when we express support for the police after five officers are murdered in Dallas, even though two black men died at the hands of two other police departments in the previous few days.
We have to think of money. I know what it is to feel economic limitations, like some things are not possible because we lack money or connections and lack the experiences required to relate to those who have them. The middle class friends I've discussed this with haven't understood.
But African Americans have traditionally had other and greater obstacles to overcome—slavery in the past...segregation...the threat of violence...and the sense the justice system is stacked against them. It isn't white lives that have systematically or historically been in danger from American institutions...and it hasn't been white middle class communities that feel deeply alienated from their police departments. So using statistics to say the rate of police brutality against blacks and whites is actually the same...completely misses the point.
At the same time, there's little thought about what whiteness means...which is a two-edged sword. Whiteness becomes simultaneously “normal” and also an invalid set. I don't say “empty” because it does have content that's ignored. And I say “normal” because this content gets smuggled into conversations in the shape of our assumptions.
Grandpa Paulsson immigrated from Sweden in 1928. My dad remembers his accent. Several aunts still go on about Swedish things, and one of my uncles initiated me by putting a piece of pickled herring on my plate at Christmas.
Mom's family's habit of opening presents on Christmas Eve turns out to be a German thing. And there was that time in Germany the buffet server greeted me in German instead of English, a moment more special for its rarity.
My point here is that whiteness is a range of things, that aren't universal. Many of them are wonderful to share, but we should understand when, as Lecrae recently pointed out, some of those things feel as foreign to others as...I don't know...the presence of Mexican flags at an immigration rally.
This is also where American individualism lets us down. We envision problems and solutions at the individual level. We want to treat other people as equals; so we imagine everyone is like ourselves...on the inside...where it matters. Unfortunately, that approach works about as well as thinking all the world speaks English.
Regardless of when our ancestors came to America, whether they were here before Columbus or whether they owned slaves or were slaves, we all inherit our shared history. But there are stories we won't know unless someone tells us.
In his Billboard essay, Lecrae called for humility...on all sides.
I write as a white guy. We need to listen...humbly...to let others interpret themselves.
There will come a time to talk together about what the stories mean. But first we listen.
That feeling of confusion, anger, even shame—tied to something unchangeable, interwoven with all our assumptions and experiences, separating us from others—can awaken us to a swath of human experience we only intermittently encounter.
Sometimes, I think, humility feels a lot like grief.