Sometimes I really do think that Ralph Ellison was talking about me sometimes- I sometimes really do feel like the Invisible Man. At work, in the store, or eating flapjacks in a restaurant, it seems that I get to hear people having conversations they clearly hope to be having privately.
Today was one of those days.
I decided that I wanted to get some breakfast. Ideally, I'd have hit off some Chicken and Waffles, but the only place that makes them in the area does not open until noon, and is only offering the buffet, which means the Bacon Waffle I was looking forward to wouldn't be happening. So I decide to head over to some place to get some breakfast, when I drive by a guy with a sign for a spot called The Bold Knight. It's a spot Carol and I had been to before, so I decided to give it a try. I walk in, get a table by the window and begin to read my book to fill the blank time you have at a restaurant alone. A couple of minutes later, two gentlemen dressed in workout clothes are seated behind me. Immediately, they seemingly continue what must have been an emotional conversation from the vehicle. As I sit there, the conversation increases in volume and intensity...as this conversation is happening, i'm just running my own internal dialogue to this conversation, hoping this can just be something entertaining to myself as opposed to me turning to this dude, who clearly has no idea i'm here, and having what they call in academia "a teachable moment"...
"Look, I'm not a racist..."
All of a sudden, my ears perk up. Almost all minorities understand that the phrase "look, i'm not a racist" has a couple of things that are generally true: 1) there's usually a "but" on the end of that phrase, and 2) what follows is something that could be seen as racist, and they really hope the "i'm not racist"caveat will absolve them of the implications of the toxicity of their language and thoughts.
"...but I just don't know how I feel about my sister marrying a black man."
Well, sir, you do know how you feel about your sister marrying a black man. it bothers you. but it bothers you more that it bothers you, because you like to fancy yourself as a progressive, free thinking individual. i can't possibly be racist: I voted for Obama!! Michael Jordan was my favorite basketball player, and I love Denzel Washington and 12 Years a Slave!! So clearly i have no problem with black people.
"I mean, he makes good money (he's an investment banker as the conversation would offer) he loves her unconditionally and it's clearly reciprocated, but I know she can do better."
Really? How much better can she have it? I've met many many married and divorced people that would tell you that the unconditional love part, minus the money part, is necessary and sufficient for a happy marriage.
But then that begs the question: what does he mean by better?
At one time I worked at a school where I was one of the few Black people, much less teachers. The entire time I was there, I could never help but to feel that they didn't dislike me being there, but that if they had their choice, and they could find someone who can do my job and was white and religiously affiliative with the school, that they would replace me as fast as they can, and that my job being hard to fill, and not the schools love for what I'm doing, was more tied to my job security than anything else, including my competence. Someone might ask why someone would think these kinds of things? It's because "I know she can do better" isn't just a comment he was making that only applied to his sister- but has applied across the board in this country: Jazz as a platform of music is one substantially dominated by Blacks, but even in the height of the Jazz age, it took two whites (Paul Whiteman- the proclaimed King of Jazz and Benny Goodman- the proclaimed King of Swing) to take the music and bring it to the masses (the degree of offense to make Whiteman the King of Jazz is only magnified by the absurdity of his name for this role- White-Man is the King of Jazz). Rap has been a genre of music for 40 years with a virtual cornucopia of styles and variations of incredible artists and Eminem and The Beastie Boys are among history's top sellers in the genre. The underlying premise is this:
Things that are black aren't legitimate until they have been granted legitimacy by whites.
The idea that Benny Goodman was the King of Swing pretends that many of Goodman's best songs were songs he got from Fletcher Henderson, the band leader at over the Roseland Ballroom in NYC, or Chick Webb over at the Savoy, and that they had been playing many of those same songs for years. If you doubt me, please feel free to run your own sample. We'll start with Benny Goodman's Stompin at the Savoy...
A nice little ditty. Smooth. Very together. And now, Chick Webb's version of the same song...
But we gravitate to that which is most comfortable to us- which is why when you look at hiring patterns, we notice that overall patterns of hiring look a lot like the administration thinks it should look, that's what it ends up looking like. It's the reason Salon and Slate can bang the drum about how racist FOX News is because of the stances they take, but then when you look at their editorial staffs, you notice their hiring patterns also are a mirror to this racism: minorities only account for 13% of editorial staffs in the country (when the total percentage of the US at 37% and the attempts to make newsrooms more reflective...). But at Slate, only 5/75 editors are minority (6.7% for those doing math at home) and Salon only has 2/25 (8% at home). Why does this work this way? I can tell you, as a black man that has to let people know that I'm the person in charge, it takes time for people who have never had to trust a black man with responsibilities they can't envision one handling, it's a harrowing and simultaneously enlightening experience. People will ask you questions with regard to your competence that, if you were to ask them a equal question about their work they would take offense, and they'd have the right to. I was asked if "am allowed to be left alone with students" by a parent before we leave for a field trip. It's similar to asking a teller if she intends to "steal from the till" or if a doctor was going to preform an unnecessary surgery. I've had parents ask my assistants, random parents and even students questions they should ask me, i'm standing there and they never think to ask. Occasionally I'll offer my help and they'll tell me they want to wait for "the person in charge"- only to be dumbfounded and embarrassed to find out that I AM the person in charge. I don't think the average person sees the racism in their actions-this belies the benefit of privilege...
But I sure get to...
So, to the guy behind me who thinks his sister can do better than the black guy: Why does she need to do better? What would make him better? Why is who he is insufficient?
This is the problem with a color blind society: we're not colorblind. So what happens is we act colorblind- until that blindness effects us in a way we find problematic. Then we're really conscious of it. Which magnifies the benefits of privilege an makes the gap between us larger than smaller. The only way to make change is to convince people who have no reasoning or impetus to make change to be the flag bearers for that change. And we can't get that if we think of ourselves as the same with different skin color until one of us impregnates your daughter.