“If you’re white and you don’t admit that it’s great, you’re an asshole. It IS great. And I’m a MAN. How many advantages can one person have? I am a white man. You can’t even hurt my feelings! What can you really call a white man that really digs deep–‘Hey, cracker.’ ‘Oh, ruined my day. Boy…. shouldn’t have called me a cracker–bringing me back to owning land and people…. What a drag.'” –Louis CK, Chewed Up
Tomorrow is the national holiday celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Those of you who know me (or have read THIS) know that this is not entirely out of character for me, but today I teared up while planning to have my kids watch the I Have A Dream speech tomorrow. It’s hard for me to put into words what MLK means to me–I love him. I love his life. I love his words. I love how he embodied, and still embodies, peace AND justice for a nation that equates justice with violence. When he was introduced at the steps of The Lincoln Memorial, he was introduced as “The moral leader of our nation,” and 44 years after his assassination, I can’t think of anyone who who deserves this title more than him. A man who died 7 years before I was born continues to inspire me, and he is still, for me, America’s greatest citizen.
It’s not always easy for a white guy to talk about race–especially when talking to people who have a different skin color than you. There is always that feeling of lacking credibility. It’s the feeling that compels people to back up their opinions by saying stupid things like “I have black friends.” Even the terms that are used continue to make me feel uncomfortable. Should I be saying African-American? Is saying “black” offensive? Even referring to myself as “white” pisses me off–I hate having to fill in a box on things that ask you to “check your race.” And then I feel guilty and stupid for being upset about it. “I’m a white guy who’s mad about having to check “white” on a form…. What do I really have to be upset about?” At least I don’t have to figure out whether I’m Hispanic, non-white or a white, non-hispanic–whatever that means.
It’s this big, confusing mish-mash of “race” and color and ethnicity and political correctness–it’s tiring.
If you want to make a white dude really uncomfortable, accuse him of being racist. Once, when I worked at a different restaurant, a girl I worked with was “in the weeds” and asked me for help. I walked out to her section, and immediately her table complained to me that their server wasn’t paying attention to them “because we are black.” I calmly explained that she had been double-sat with larger parties, she was one of the newer servers, and that her inattentiveness had nothing to do with the color of their skin. At which point they accused me of being racist too. “ME!?!?!?” My calmness was gone.
I don’t remember exactly what I said–I counted on my fingers through a jumble of examples of the credibility (“cred” if you will) of my racial enlightenment: “I have lots of black friends” (I don’t), “I’ve taken classes at TSU” (a historically black college at which I took two Spanish classes), “My in-laws go to church at Born Again” (a really cool local church where white skin is definitely in the minority–not that their attendance has anything to do with my street cred, but I was really frazzled), “I know every word to Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet” (I know a lot of the words on this album–not nearly the complete knowledge that a have with say Sex Packets by Digital Underground, but it sounded…. Blacker), “I played basketball in Muskegon Heights…. MUSKEGON HEIGHTS!!!!” I was a mess…. What I DO remember was that I ended my rant with the words “I love you people.” Crap. This was the wrong thing to say. “YOU PEOPLE!?!?!” Thankfully, someone at the table sensed some semblance of sincerity in me and settled everyone down (Alliteration–I learned that at my sheltered Christian school that had one black kid…. That I later figured out was actually Korean).
If I had been thinking, I would have told them about the time I was walking through TSU’s campus wearing khaki pants and a button-down shirt. I walked past a group of people, and after I passed by one of them yelled, “Why don’t you go back to Vanderbilt!” I turned around and no one was standing out. When I turned to continue on, the same voice yelled, “I said go back to Vanderbilt!!!” At first, I was kind of scared. Then, as I walked on (and realized I wasn’t going to get beat up) my fear turned to…. I guess it was pride. I was like, “YES! I just got discriminated against. Awesome” (On second thought, this might not have been the best story to share with that irate table. Though, the girls in my Spanish class loved it. I was the only white person AND the only guy in the class, so they all knew my name. They gave me hugs and reassured me that the person who yelled that was an idiot. Do they count as friends?).
In college, I went with some friends to go see the movie Higher Learning. We were in North Carolina, and I’d say that probably 80% of the people in the theater were people of color (African American? Of African descent? Black? Colored People?). There were quite a few riots surrounding the viewings of this movie. And for good reason–It made me mad too. Anyway, near the end of the movie, I crossed my legs and my big, Dutch foot bumped the chair in front of me. The guy sitting in that chair glanced at me, saw what I looked like, and turned around to say, “Do you mind?” I said, “I’m sorry?” He stood up and yelled, “I said DO YOU MIND NOT KICKING MY CHAIR, MOTHERF**KER!!” and threw a full cup of Coca Cola at me that hit me square in the chest. I was instantly furious. I stood up with my fists clenched and saw that I had about 8 inches on this guy. I looked at the concerned faces of the people in the theater, looked at the face of his friend next to him (who happened to be wearing sunglasses. In a theater.), took a shaky breath, and sat back down.
Race is a hard thing to talk about for most people, but it is especially hard for white guys to talk about. Interestingly enough, one of the real points of discrimination against a white man is the perception that he doesn’t have a whole lot of value to add to the conversation about racial discrimination. White women at least have a little something to add–they can empathize, having lived through sexist stereotypes and all that–but who wants to hear what some white guy has to say? Not me, that’s for sure. Does my wet shirt and humiliation in a movie theater give me a credible voice? Does my being singled out as a minority for about 10 seconds on a college campus let me know anything about anyone else’s struggles? How about the fact that I know who Chuck D is? MUSKEGON HEIGHTS!!!!!
Anyway, tomorrow I will sit at this computer with my kids and we will watch a video of a dead man speaking about a dream that is still alive. I will talk about how kids right here in Nashville whose skin was a different color used to have to go to different schools, and how people Like Martin Luther King Jr. worked very hard and sacrificed a whole lot in order to change silly things like that. We will talk about how it’s not what a person looks like on the outside that is important, but it’s who a person is on the inside that counts. I will tell them about how he stood up and told the truth when it was dangerous to say. I will tell them how, because of what he believed about Jesus, he believed it wasn’t okay to hit someone back–even when they were hurting you. I’ll tell them how he got thrown in jail for saying that things shouldn’t be this way, and how he wrote from that Birmingham jail that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.” I’ll tell them how one person can change the world. And I’ll cry my little eyes out.
Thank you, Dr. King. Let freedom ring!!!