I just finished reading the book Love In The Driest Season by Washington Post writer Neely Tucker. Tucker, who is white, grew up in Holmes County, Mississippi, described in his book as “…the poorest, most predominantly black county in the poorest, most predominantly black state in America.” Despite his parents’ humble status, they found it important enough to scrape together what they could to send their son to the private, all-white school; a school created by the White Citizens’ Council in an effort to help locals side-step the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education court mandate that public schools no longer separate black and white children.
This is a guy who, at that time and place, I imagine would have described himself as not capable of having a racist bone in his body, given that he grew up around so-o-o-o many black people. Everyone kept to their place and that’s just the way it was. That wasn’t “racism”, right? Within just a few pages, Tucker tells this story of working at a grocery store in 1979.
I was stocking shelves with a guy named Theron Lawrence, a [black] student at the public high school. It turned out we had both seen the horror movie Alien the previous weekend. We were doing what teenage guys do, talking it up, laughing, retelling the scary stuff, when I brought up the part in which actor Yaphet Kotto slugged the creature.
“Boy, did the nigger knock the shit outta ‘im or what?” I chortled.
Theron’s laughter stopped.
I was aghast. You were supposed to use the N word only among white people. Jesus, but I knew that. Theron looked down for a minute, then glanced up at the clock. “Looks like break time about through,” he said, standing, and then he was gone.
Sitting in that chair, my blue store apron on and a stupid look on my face, I think I understood for the first time that the word I used had said nothing about Theron, about the actor, or even about black people in general. It said boatloads, however, about me. And I didn’t like what that said at all, because I liked Theron. I thought of him as my friend.
When theory yields to experience with real people that you care about, so many questions about race become clear and answer themselves.
Should I use the word nigger ever? Hmn, let’s see. I just did. And now my friend feels awful, and I feel pretty awful too. And I’m sure I’ll never feel the same even if I only use it around white people. I’m going to go with “no” is the answer to that question.
Can you see?
I am a fanatic lover of salsa dancing. When I’m out, you’ll always see me paying particular attention to those standing on the side intimidated by the spins, fancy footwork, and sexy tête-à-tête . “I’m not that good yet,” they say. “I’m just going to watch.” People, you can watch for years but you’ll never learn to dance salsa until you get in there, grab a partner, and interact with other people. You can ask questions, memorize timing and steps, debate with others about casino style, L.A. on1 or N.Y. on2, but you will never learn salsa until you get in the game with other salseros. Could you learn to swim by watching? Or reading book after book by Michael Phelps? Like dancing, and people different from you, there is no substitute for actual engagement.
(There are those of us who say you’ll never truly learn to dance salsa until you dance with authentic Latinos, but that’s another brawl for another time.)
I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.
In 2003 I was homeless for almost six months. Yeah, yeah, don’t cry for me, Argentina–Tyler Perry, Steve Jobs, and the founder and CEO of Patron tequila were all once homeless too. I bounced around from couch to couch, did a few nights in my SUV, and finally ended up in Atlanta’s homeless shelters. One afternoon I was walking near a facility where homeless women could find lunch and a place to sit during the day. A small luxury car seemed to be following me. I went up to the man’s car and asked him if he knew me, or was maybe lost or something.
He took me to dinner at a mid-market restaurant chain and we talked. It turned out he was hardly lost. He regularly trolled this area looking for desperate women willing to perform fantastical sex acts for very little money. He said he found homeless women to be “hungrier.” Over chardonnay, I told him my story of how I ended up here. I told him about my days at the University of Buffalo, that I used to sell for a big name company, how I put all my eggs in a basket named James, how James took my eggs and the basket with him on his way out the door, recession, car stolen, and so on. I told him I knew this wasn’t the last of it for me, that I had plans still to become a big deal writer.
He confessed that after listening to me he could only see me as a flesh-and-blood person, with a life not too dissimilar from his own and plenty of other people he knew. Now, as a fellow human with dimensions, history and subtext, the notion of taking advantage of my circumstance was unconscionable to him. When abstract is replaced by time invested with actual people, are you following me here?
(Then my luck changed, and my homeless adventure became my first paying writing gig for the Atlanta newspaper so, that happened…)
Have a talk with people outside of your socioeconomic comfort zone. Imagine that is your sister whose husband just left her and she was too embarrassed to come to all of you and say you were right about that bastard all along. Imagine she’s your niece trying to figure out how she’s going to buy books for this semester. How would you accept a stranger seeing her misfortune as a perverse opportunity for himself?
White people, I triple dog dare you to come out from behind your computer screens where you forward the latest urgent petition to your list; to put down the phone tree duties organizing rides for all your other white friends to the latest out of town march for justice; to stick a placeholder in that Ta-Nehisi Coates book for a minute and get out and actually befriend some real-for-real black people. When you’re with them and a white person wants to start some “devil’s advocate” fracas about the latest police shooting of an unarmed kid, the frustrated look on the faces of your friends as they try to explain what is anything to them but an acrobatic reasoning exercise over cocktails will give you a whole lot of unexpected clarity if you’ll let it. It can change the trajectory of your life, as it did for Neely Tucker (who ended up marrying a black woman, no less).
When inquest gives way to getting your hands dirty in the mire with actual black people that you know and care about, I promise you, you’ll find debates and questioning a vain waste of your time. You’ll find the only real question you have left about race is “how can I help my friend that I care about?”
So you don’t intimately know any black people. Where to begin? Anywhere. Literally.
I was sitting with my uncle inside a drive-through restaurant in Charlotte, N.C. We were in a crummy mood because we had to get out of our car and wait. Something about our order made it more toilsome than a simple drive past a window was set up for. A white man was also in the lobby with his wife and clamorous children. He made a stiff effort to say something friendly to us. My uncle was oblivious, while I replied with something innocuous and didn’t think much of it. He said something else, like “nice weather we’re having.” I smiled and said something just as banal.
A restaurant worker asked us something from behind the counter, we answered curtly and that was that.
The man made one more cumbersome attempt to strike up a repartee with me. That’s when it hit me. This white guy was—trying. Something had gone down in the city’s recent news cycle that put race at the center of everyone’s dinner table conversation. It became obvious to me the man had done some soul searching and was making a small but real attempt to reach beyond the abstract. To stretch himself by interacting with us as real people instead of some idea he’d seen on the six o’clock news. Maybe it was all the more important for him because his kids were there and he wanted to use this as an opportunity to set a good example for them too, imaginably even turn the tide of generations and his own upbringing. I was so moved by this effort, so aware of the potential ripple effect beyond this moment. I felt a glad responsibility to respond consciously and be a part of what was happening. The man and I only had one more exchange before my order was called. I made sure to make it bright, pleasant, and an experience that would leave him with a sense that this was worth trying again. And again, and again.
Also, revisit my earlier essay, How To Make Black Friends 101. Cheeky title, I know.
Blah, blah, blah, splashy ending, refer me to a book agent you know.