“Cause he’s down by the pond playing hockey with the kids…”

The book White Fragility by sociologist Robin DiAngelo has enjoyed a run on the New York Times Best Seller List for nearly nine months. I still can’t quite understand why honestly, many white people have told me it was a real tough-love kind of read for them. In it, DiAngelo submits that she and her fellow white people have been mostly insulated from the full brunt of racial stress. “We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense” [italics mine]. She adds, “white solidarity is the unspoken agreement among whites to…not cause another white person to feel racial discomfort by confronting them when they say or do something racially problematic.”  Thus we are all forced to take great pains to make it clear when discussing racism that we are not associating our white listener himself, per se, to the racism we are talking about. That whites expect and feel entitled to this kind of mollycoddling is the essence of white fragility.

Let’s dissect the case that’s been playing out in my local Buffalo news media recently of a black youth hockey player jeered with monkey sounds by white opponents during a January 2019 game. As you can probably guess, he was the only black kid on the ice. It’s no secret hockey isn’t terribly popular among African Americans. The incident  was immediately reported to the local and state league bodies, bolstered by video posted to YouTube by another parent who was present. Then the entire matter languished (eh-hem, “was being investigated”) on the desk of David Braunstein, regional president of the N.Y. State Amateur Hockey Association. The aggrieved kid was, after all, a senior about to graduate from high school and age out of the league in a few months anyway. Braunstein and the State Hockey Association, loathe to break the unspoken agreement with white parents, chose to gamble on running out the clock. He might make parents (gasp!) uncomfortable. They may misconstrue an inquiry as him questioning the very moral identity of their families. Two months later, and the day before the matter was to be reported on the pages of the Buffalo News, the league cancelled their playoff games all together.

Braunstein’s reward for his steadfast allegiance to the white fragility rules of engagement? His head presented on a platter. After nineteen years, he announced his resignation to the press giving no reason. It was easier for Braunstein to step down, easier to cancel the playoffs all together, than to call one specific team of white kids to task for their actions and categorically disturb the racial status quo.

Think about that.

No, really, think about that for a minute.

And what of the referees on the ice while the jeering was happening in the moment? If you so much as yell “yo’ mama!” at another player, that’s grounds enough for an unsportsmanlike conduct sit in the penalty box. The referees even had the power to call the entire game had they deemed the jeering egregious enough (and upon watching the video, you may agree that’s not too far flung in this instance).

—And risk future paying referee gigs against the parents’ entitlement to lives free of racial stress by accusing their kids of having done something racist? Oh, no. The referees, too, impelled the tacit white fragility rules of engagement.

40 year veteran hockey referee Ken Reinhard brings my point home in this 2014 Sports Illustrated Magazine interview. “Players control the game through the choices they make while playing. Coaches control players by granting or denying ice time…. Parents also control the player by approving or disapproving of the play of their child. If a player has [no concern for] his coach’s discipline or his parents’ approval, then something is wrong.” Reinhard serves up as an example a story from his own youth playing days. He’d delivered an illegal blow to an opponent that escaped the referees, but not his father in the stands. His father later reacted by breaking young Ken’s stick in half.

Racism isn’t just an act. It’s an entire system; from those kids’ dinner tables, to their socialization, all the way up to the league’s state offices, that closed looped system  that allowed for this whole situation to play out. And all anybody had to do to be a part of it is exactly what they did–nothing.

(Rest assured though, I’m not talking about you personally per se, kid who sat on the bench next to the instigators but refused to give their individual names up to the coaches….)

Those jeering kids weren’t afraid of racially embarrassing their white parents. Unfortunately, everyone else involved in this incident was. The lengths that the league went to, from the referees up, to protect white people’s racial comfort is the big picture lesson not to be missed here.

For the record, I pause a moment to give the media the recognition it deserves for being the valve that finally let the air out of that closed system.

Between the cancelling of the playoffs, Braunstein’s ouster, the extremely bad press for the offending team and the hockey league on the local and state level, this episode of racism ended up being at everybody’s expense anyway. That is what I ultimately want to communicate about racism through my work. Racism–and the white fragility that protects it–is everyone’s loss. Its dissolution is rightfully everyone’s undertaking.

Letter from a Williamsville Church

For nine days in 1963 the revered Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, charged with parading without a license. He had been called to the city by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to bring media attention to a sustained protest and business boycott being waged by the city’s black population. This is the one you see all the photos of with the fire hoses and police dogs being viciously turned on black people. A group of eight white clergymen of various denominations published a letter in the city’s daily paper urging blacks to be patient, to battle racism in the courts instead of on the streets, and to certainly not be mislead by agitating “outsiders.” King’s famous tome, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, was written as a response to these clergymen.

In the letter, King expressed surprise and great disappointment that the day’s white religious institutions weren’t emptying their pews to support the cause of fair treatment for America’s blacks. As part of that Birmingham movement, blacks went to segregated white churches and knelt in prayer until they were dragged away in handcuffs. A group of rabbis from New York City flew in to support the action, seeing the treatment of blacks as no less significant than the Holocaust itself. The Birmingham rabbinical community took issue, and let the New Yorkers know they were not welcome.

As a third generation preacher himself, King wrote “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership.

“When I was catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago….I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents… and all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

“In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again, I have been disappointed.”

He goes on to say the early Christians weren’t afraid to be labeled as rabble rousers. There was a time when the church set the trend instead of waiting to see which way the wind would blow before it took action. If the church didn’t take the lead and offer moral guidance in the face of this injustice, he admonished, “it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”

Notably, the Presbyterian churches of Birmingham welcomed black visitors through its doors during this historic action.

This past January, coinciding with the MLK holiday, North Presbyterian Church launched a three part study of King’s famous letter. The church is in Williamsville, a white suburb of Buffalo, New York. The Presbyterian church as a whole is considering adding this classic piece of writing to its Book Of Confessions, an anthology of historical papers that align with and in some cases outright define the Presbyterian faith. Adding anything new to this book is a six year steady, deliberate, measured process.

This is a big, honkin’ deal.

Adding Letter from a Birmingham Jail would be the church saying, in effect, “black lives matter. And if you can’t be down with that, you can’t in good conscience call yourself a Presbyterian.” That is indeed the bold kind of proclamation Dr. King was looking for in 1963.

I am not Presbyterian or religious at all, I have no dog in this fight either way. I attended the three-week study out of curiosity and met the church’s pastor, William T. Hennessy. He is a white man who, like many whites, is out in the weeds on exactly what needs to be done to inspire his congregation to think earnestly and actively about race relations in our country and their communities of influence. But he knows that it’s important, and a necessary query to engage with in order for one’s spirituality to be contemporary and practical, so he’s trying something. He’s teamed up with Pastor Tracy S. Daub of University Presbyterian Church in Buffalo proper, and formed a racial justice task force that is wobbling on its legs like a newly born foal. All these two ministers know for sure is that when the next some such letter is being written from whatever jail, their flock will not go down in history as white people of faith who sat anesthetized behind stained glass and strict adherence to ritual for its own sake. That’s an excellent start.

The Unitarian Universalists Church has also made their stand on racial justice public in no uncertain terms. The congregation on the west side of Buffalo emblazoned the “black lives matter” emblem in huge, dark colors along one of its outside walls. Workshops and discussions about race are regularly a part of their calendar. The UU Church in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst has also added “black lives matter” to its signage that sits by the road. The church in East Aurora, a half hour south of Buffalo, invited me to speak for MLK Day (we got snowed out, bummer!). One of that religion’s seven bedrock principles is “we…affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” As a religion, they have committed to “put your money where your mouth is.”

I would only add this to their efforts. Don’t be “the blind leading the blind.” I have observed events centered around race at all of the churches I’ve mentioned (with the exception of E. Aurora–snowed out, bummer!) and it is often my experience that no other black people are in attendance but me. You wouldn’t convene a group of lay people with Gray’s Anatomy and try to figure out among yourselves how to remove a spleen. No. You’d get a couple board certified surgeons in there to explain to you what they live every day and you’d listen to them as your experts, even if it doesn’t jibe with what you think you already know as progressive, “woke” white people.

(For what it’s worth, I officially lay to rest the term “woke.” But I digress…)

I wish to encourage spiritual/religious bodies, and all individuals, out there stumbling around trying to find your authenticity and relevance in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement. I know it can be a challenge. You don’t have to go at it alone though, there are black folks out here who would be glad to engage with sincere white people who truly are willing to listen. I will end with simply asking you to honor me with your comments and thoughts below, and to pass this essay along to someone you think could be encouraged by it.

Getting Your Hands Dirty

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.

Comfortably Numb

The following YouTube clip is from the movie Kindergarten Cop, where Arnold

Schwarzenegger plays a detective who goes undercover as a school teacher. The little boy’s statement is of course wildly inappropriate. Yet the teacher is foist into having to draft an adroit response that avoids embarrassing the tot, while seamlessly maintaining control of the class. Black people recognize that look on Schwarzenegger’s face. The one where you’re pretending to be completely unfazed by an inappropriate comment, but your brain is actually running several doomsday scenarios at the speed of a supercomputer trying to figure out how to best keep the peace.

When I look for examples to share of how racism has been evidenced in my life, I don’t have a bevy of flagrant stories to titillate people with. Mine are more about how I’ve had to learn to effectively manage day-to-day in order to let white people know they needn’t feel uncomfortable or threatened  by me. It’s as mindless a navigation for me as driving a manual transmission (which I also do with great ease), so I haven’t really spent time cataloguing these instances.

A white girlfriend of mine explained the other day that “white people are absolutely ill-equipped to being uncomfortable. Everything about our upbringing is centered around making sure we are not making other people uncomfortable. Other people making us uncomfortable is considered incredibly rude and inconsiderate. Comfort is placed at such a high priority that anything else literally feels like an attack.”

I worked off and on as a live-in nanny for some years. I once lived with  a white, Harvard educated doctor. I was teaching her kids a new card game and I was way ahead. This prompted her oldest son to say “this must be some kind of affirmative action game and that explains why you’re winning.” I knew without having to look that the doctor, just a few feet behind me, was probably mortified. My reflex concern was how embarrassing this must be for her. I let it go without so much as a raised eyebrow. This leader of the pig-head tribe from Lord Of The Flies just made a race joke at my expense and the onus was on me not to discomfit the room.

And I knew that. That’s daily life in black America.

Without realizing it, that’s something I figured out on my own very early on. All successful black people have to. The 1994 book The Rage Of A Privileged Class: Why Are Middle Class Blacks Angry?, is all stories of high achieving black professionals whose satisfaction with their prosperity is tempered with frustration from the extra labor of not making white people too uncomfortable in order to get, and stay, where they are.

In the documentary film The Blackness Project, Buffalo, N.Y. mayor Byron Brown tells the story of being at an event on the campaign trail attended by all whites. A man said to His Honor “I’ve never voted for a nigger before, but I’m voting for you.” You can imagine the tension in the room as everyone awaited Brown’s reply. Like Arnold in our movie clip, Brown was probably running all the scenarios knowing that his response could end up front page news the next morning and cost him the vote of all the other white people in the city who could call a man a nigger and still claim with a straight face they haven’t an ounce of racism in them. Instead of correcting that man-when there was no question from any angle you look at it he was out of line-Brown knew that he had to find a way to not embarrass the man, not demean himself as a black man, and shield the rest of the room from experiencing any further discomfort. As if  driving a 5-speed manual, Brown gracefully downshifted into neutral and said “well thank you, sir, for your vote.” That’s every day being black and getting what we need in a white world.

All  black people must confront the quandary of white people’s discomfort as a factor in their  lives. Some, like me, do our homework and become PhD level aficionados. Champion “code switchers.” Others choose to hang mainly with other black people during their lunch hour at work or at school. They’re not out-and-out rejecting the company of whites. They’re just declaring for themselves a period of time in their day where they do not have to expend the energy to manage white people’s discomfort in order to have a relaxing moment.

Some of you are reading this and thinking “what does she mean ‘manage white people’s discomfort’?” You know when you’re in the kitchen baking a cake and your kids come in because they want to “help”? You want to encourage that spirit of participation so you say yes. During the whole time you have to watch every move they make so you can’t actually get anything done yourself, be sure they don’t cut themselves, explain things to them three times over, settle an argument over whose turn it is to run the mixer, say “good job!” with enthusiasm while actually re-doing each task yourself, and send all your phone calls to voicemail to return later when you’d otherwise have been relaxing with a light glass of riesling. In the end you’re twice as worn out, you have twice the clean up in the kitchen, and you know that you could have baked three cakes in half the time if you’d done it yourself. But the little darlings wanted to help so…..

That’s what having conversations about race is like when white people insist that blacks must make their comfort a necessary part of the proceedings. Making white people less uncomfortable around us takes up a heady chunk of our time and energy already in our daily lives like you’ll never be able to understand. Look, race is an uncomfortable topic. A black person willing to talk with you about it has already completely forfeited their own comfort all together. White people, we need you to be more willing to put aside your investment in your individual identities as “good people” to shoulder a greater portion of that discomfort with us if we’re ever going to get beyond just talking. In conversations with white people about race, even our progressive friends, a good ⅔ of our energy is dispensed towards just making sure you’re not too uncomfortable. Making sure that you understand that no one’s talking about you personally, or listening to you disqualify yourself from all other white people [“I marched in the 60’s”, “my black co-worker confirmed this”….]. That means that in a ninety minute conversation, only thirty minutes of it was spent saying anything that would truly move things forward. The other sixty minutes is spent setting you up so you don’t feel too personally attacked. It is exhausting.

At one of my nanny gigs, I turned that discomfort on its ear and decided to have a little devilish fun with it. The white family was hosting Thanksgiving dinner. I was so fully at ease in my non-threatening black role that the uncle started running his mouth. You know which uncle, the one from a few generations ago who lacks an updated racial conversation filter. He talked on and on about this or that “colored boy” who worked for his family when he was growing up and….well, you get the picture. Feigning politeness, I affixed  my most penetrating gaze on him, nodded, and listened intently, which encouraged him to keep talking. In reality, I was enjoying watching everyone else look like they wanted to crawl under a rock and die. I figured since none of them had the wherewithal to put this man in check (a courtesy I deserved since I too was an invited guest at this table), I’d just let them stew for a change in the discomfort of his uncouthness. Now that’s some PhD level maneuvering right there.

“Growth and comfort do not coexist.”   Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM

Blame It On H.R.

At one of my previous jobs, there was one day when a bunch of us were talking and really cutting up about this, that, and the other thing. We were all feeling pretty chummy with one another when the guy next to me said something insensitive about gay people. Everyone else kept going like nothing had just happened. I was knocked for a loop and became very quiet in my shock.

The same guy noticed I’d gone silent and asked me about it. I exploded about how offensive I felt his statement about gay people was. People around us looked at me like I was suddenly “speaking in tongues.”  He asked if I was gay and if perhaps that was why I was so taken aback. I told him I didn’t see what being gay myself had to do with anything, what he said was still offensive under any circumstances. He came to me later and tried to smooth things over by explaining his pastor at church recently charged them with speaking out publicly about things they see that are wrong. Here’s the jewel, finally.

I said to him “I’m not here to challenge your beliefs about gays, but the bottom line is it is inappropriate and illegal to say something like that out loud at work.” He didn’t have a reply because he knew I was right.

White allies, I offer you this advice when confronted with a similar situation and you’re stuck for words. You feel like you don’t need to start a crusade, but you can’t let that insensitive comment stand and walk away from this conversation with your personal integrity. Remember you always have that in your back pocket—”it’s just not appropriate, and probably even illegal, for you to say that out loud here at work.”

Boom, you’ve just won on a technical knockout!

You don’t have to debate the merits of that person’s viewpoint, you don’t have to get into a shouting match, none of that. Just remind that person that this is a place of business and this isn’t about you or them personally. You’ll want to skip the part where I exploded on the guy though. Definitely skip that part.

At another job (yeah, there have been a lot of them) we were in a group training class. The guy next to me was clumsily formulating a thought out loud. Then he said “O.K., I’m just going to say it, Mexicans, I’m talking about Mexicans…” and he went on to say something derogatory that he assumed would be an  agreed upon fact in this group of mostly black people. Again, I was stunned that no one in the room blinked an eye. I let him finish whatever he was saying and raised my hand. I said very calmly (this time) and matter-of-factly “I can’t let that go by, what you just said about Mexicans. It’s just not appropriate to make a generalization like that in a work setting. Besides, white people felt comfortable saying the same thing in public about us not too many years ago and we thought it was wrong then.”

“Ka-pow!” The employee handbook to the rescue again. After I said that, the guy leading the class came behind me and co-signed on what I’d just said.This was his inaugural group as a trainer and I believe he too was caught off guard by the brazenness of the statement. It’s a good thing for the company that I addressed it too. Think about it. I made a space for that inexperienced trainer to come in and clean that up. Had he not, he’d have left the company open to a potential liability.

Those of you who know me personally know that I am one sarcastic so-and-so by nature. At another job, I said something crazy about black people. This time it was a white woman who gave me a dressing down. She had a black husband and black son, and let me know in no uncertain terms that she was not having any part of what I’d just said. I explained that I was just being sarcastic and didn’t mean any real harm. That wasn’t good enough for her. We were at work, in mixed company, and it just wasn’t all right with her for me to say something like that out loud even if I was black myself. I apologized. She had me dead to rights, no matter how funny or harmless I perceived myself to be.

I remember another white friend of mine telling me that she overheard two young black guys casually trading the word “niggah” at work. She said something about it to the “powers that be”, and the young men were reprimanded. The central theme here again folks: just not appropriate at work. Use that. You don’t have to be a crusader, you don’t have to go to the legal department and sign a formal complaint, you don’t even have to be a part of the group the unsuitable comment was directed towards.

Go ‘head. Blame it on H.R.

“My daughter’s boyfriend’s roommate’s nephew is black, so I understand….”

In 2013, personal fitness trainer Drew Manning wrote the book Fit2Fat2Fit. Manning was an absolute wrecking ball of a physical specimen. As a fitness pro though, he found he was losing left and right the clients in the most desperate need of his help. Over and over he heard “you don’t know what it’s like to be fat, you don’t understand how hard it is,” and they’d just stop coming.

Manning came up with an idea that took “thinking outside the box” to another level. He spent six months away from the gym eating poorly and amassed seventy-five pounds in a quest to gain insight and empathy into the struggles of his clients. Then he spent another six months sculpting himself back into his original hulking form.

As a person who has battled with my weight all my adult life, I was glued to the screen when I first discovered him making the rounds on the talk show circuit. Now that this man had inside knowledge of both worlds, the fat and frustrated and the fanatically fit, I expected he’d be in a position to articulate some unique wisdom that would stand out in the realm of dieting advice.

His big take-away? Being fat really sucks and it’s hard.

Wow. Stop the presses.

His extreme experiment and the resulting notoriety garnered him a t.v. show on the A&E network where other trainers replicate his pound-packing experience and go about getting fit alongside their overweight clients. While eating a bag of Ruffles, I watched an episode online the other night where a trainer named Adonis (yeah, “Adonis”) was working with a school teacher, Alissa. Adonis put on weight so quickly, his doctor ordered an immediate halt to the experiment and put him on blood pressure meds.

When Adonis and Alissa began working out together, he rattled off all the standard trainer jargon. “You gotta’ want it, let’s go, it’s so simple, you gotta’ give it your all…” Alissa just looked into the camera with her head cocked to the side, indicating this was the same stuff she’d heard a hundred times from others who also thought they were helping. Adonis believed he was bringing something different because now, he too knew something of the experience of being fat–for four months. He reminded her that he’d risked his own life and health, and that she owed more to this process given his sacrifice. I thought “wait, wasn’t this whole experiment supposed to be about what knowledge you could bring back to help her? When did this become about you and your big sacrifice?”

That’s what was so unfulfilling about watching the talk show interviews with trainer Drew Manning. I wanted to know what he learned from his trip into the fat world that he could now bring back to help me in my weight struggle, given that I was undoubtedly his intended audience. His interviews only demonstrated he was finally comprehending that what his disappearing clients had been trying to tell him all along, that being fat sucks and is really hard, was true. This wasn’t news to anybody but him. His daring experiment had been reduced to no more than a self-serving attention grabber.

White people, I’m going to give it to you straight now. At every gathering about race I’ve been to, there are always white individuals standing up to tell about their adopted black son, their daughter’s children with her new black husband, the black woman he dated for years in his twenties and almost married, the black neighbors who come to their house and have dinner “just like any other people….” You get the picture. What you don’t see are the black people (and really clued-in whites) in the back of the room rolling their eyes, or politely resisting the desire to do so. We hear white people tell their story of some racially effected encounter they’ve had, some incident that is as commonplace for blacks as rain in April, like they’re Columbus discovering the Bahamian archipelago. We’re left thinking “…….and?”

And what? What did you learn from that experience that you can now bring back to the discussion of race that can help everyone listening see something new too? (Emphasis on new.) What generality did you learn that can help blacks who are listening learn something we didn’t understand before about whites? What did you learn about yourself that blacks can take with us and use as an example when we’re talking with others about race? What did you learn about black people that you didn’t know before and how has that lesson changed how you interact with non-white people? What did you glean from that encounter that you can bring toward aiding in the challenges of disenfranchised people? What useful information are you trying to convey to the other whites in the room, beyond listing the bona fides that have earned your thoughts more gravitas than theirs?

So you have an adopted black son. Great. When you’re telling me about that, I’m looking to hear what you understand differently now as a result of being that child’s mother that can help all black people. That can help all people.

Scenario #1) A black coworker is lamenting how her nephew got snatched up in a wide net stop-and-frisk scenario on the way home from a rap concert Friday night. He’s still in a cell downtown because the family can’t afford bail. White Woman adds to the conversation “you know, my adopted black son was at that concert too. When he got home safe and sound and told me about what happened to a lot of other black kids, I was so worried. So, yeah, I understand.”

Uh, no. All White Woman did was shift the focus to herself to no helpful end, and steal a minute and a half of everyone’s time and energy needed to imagine a real solution to the problem at hand.

Scenario #2)  A black coworker is lamenting how her nephew got snatched up in a wide net stop-and-frisk scenario on the way home from a rap concert Friday night. White Woman adds to the conversation “you know, we’ve adopted a black son and he was at that concert too. When I heard on the 11:00 news about the wide sweep arrests police were doing, I sat on pins and needles until my son walked into that front door safely. It occurred to me that when I was raising my first boy, I never had to worry like that. The only variable was race. No mother, black or white, should ever have to feel that kind of terror, and I realized I can’t sit on the sidelines anymore. What can I do to help?”

You see the difference?

No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

How To Make Black Friends 101

A 2013 study found that 75% of whites in America don’t have more than a passing acquaintance with any black people.

At the workshop I facilitated on 5/26/18, “Honest And Effective Conversations About Race”, my content was geared toward a white audience. I hoped to attract more curious white neophytes to the discussion of race. This crowd was mostly people involved to some degree in social justice endeavors of one kind or another. My closing point was making real and personal connections with actual black people, tempering that with time spent at marches and buying Black Panther tickets, could lead to answers many white people are seeking regarding blacks and race relations in general. People asked me “but how do we do that, meet more black people, given how divided our city is?” I wish I’d spent more time answering that. At the time I really didn’t get that it was a real question, I thought it no more than knee-jerk hyperbole. As I look back on the chats I’ve had in weeks past while inviting people to this workshop though, I recall the surprising number of white people among progressive racial justice activists who admitted to still not having any black friends.

In the movie Philadelphia, Denzel Washington, as lawyer Joe Miller, questioned witnesses on the courtroom stand with the preface “now, explain it to me like I’m a four-year old.” White people, I’m going to break it down for you.

First and foremost, do not fetishize black people. In an episode of the early 90’s sitcom Ellen, the lead character was dating  an “American Gladiator” named Nitro. Her friend Adam became smitten with the idea of having a television athlete among the ranks of people he could call friends. Adam and Nitro had nothing in common on which to build a friendship other than Adam’s fascination with being friends with a pro-athlete. Nitro was no more to Adam than a thing called “pro-athlete”, and Nitro found Adam’s attempts at connection understandably annoying. Nitro was a fetish object instead of a real, three-dimensional person.

In my younger (slimmer) days I was at a house party. The host, a white guy, started yammering in my ear about how he’d never been with a black girl and if I’d just go upstairs with him, I could change his whole world. Now, I’d had more than a few gin-and-tonics and if he’d approached me like any other attractive and interesting girl he wanted to spend time with, he could have probably had all this. But I knew this wasn’t about me at all, that I was no more to him than a story to tell his buddies later on. I was a thing, a “black girl”, a fetish, not a multidimensional person. How great could the experience be for me with someone who couldn’t even see me as a person? Pass, thanks.

Don’t go searching out a black person solely for your need to have black people in your life. We smell your need. And you know from your own experience that being around someone whose only real bond with you is their need becomes laborious. Race, then, isn’t the barrier here anymore.

Next, look for people you have common interests with who happen to be black. Black people don’t just sit around talking about police brutality, “microaggressions”, and “intersectionality” all day. We are as compound as anybody else.

Let’s imagine Tim’s a white guy who is a huge comic book fan from way back. Tim has seen the Marvel Studios blockbuster Black Panther on the big screen seven times. At the movie’s end, the fictional isolationist African nation of Wakanda decrees it will open its borders, sharing its advanced technology with the rest of the world. Most immediately viewers are prone to imagine a line of people linking hands singing the chorus of “We Are The World.” As a black person, my heart sank to the pit of my stomach at this ending. All I could see was Native Americans helping the Mayflower Pilgrims through that first winter at Plymouth Rock. We all know how that ended. In talking with black comic book aficionados, Tim may find another who interpreted the movie’s ending the same as I did. Without having to open an encyclopedia of “woke” racial justice terms, Tim is now learning something about how blacks experience the world differently than he does. Voilà.

Tim’s new friend has an original 1938 Action Comics print edition of Superman from his grandfather’s attic and invites Tim over to see it. Tim meets his new friend’s wife Shanice, who happens to be in the same line of work as Tim. She mentions she got no reply when she sent her resume to the company he works for. Tim peruses Shanice’s impeccable resume, knows for a fact there are several openings at his company, and listens to Shanice’s tales of industry-wide rejection. While listening, maybe this is the first time Tim notices consciously that there are barely a smattering of people in his office named Shanice, Gurdeep or Alejandro.

Do you see where I’m going here people? Tim could spend thirty-eight dollars on the latest Ta-Nehisi Coates book, or take Shanice’s resume to HR and put in a compelling word on her behalf. Shanice would be sitting next to him every day, and he’d have two black friends he has something in common with. More importantly he’ll have done something concrete about pay equity, workplace discrimination, exercising his white privilege towards the good of others, health care disparities because Shanice has insurance through her job, education because Shanice can now afford a tutor for her son, and so much more. Heck, Shanice might have a black girlfriend who’s “down with the swirl” and has a liking for social justice-minded comic book nerds. You won’t get that kind of hook-up reading a T-Nehisi Coates’ tome.

You’re a white mom and your daughter has made friends with a black girl in ballet class. You also find out your daughter’s friend lives along the route you drive to class. You seek out the girl’s mother and offer to arrange carpooling. Carpooling turns into play dates, turns into an afternoon of you and the mom drinking mint tea talking about why you enrolled your daughters in ballet. The mom mentions what an inspiration Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre’s first black female principal dancer, was on her daughter and the two of you discuss body image, media norms, and what a struggle it can be to keep your daughters’ expectations realistic and foster healthy self esteem. The mom is taking her daughter to a performance of Giwayen Mata, an exceptional all woman African dance troupe visiting from Atlanta, and invites you to come…

Not one demonstrative Martin Luther King Jr. quote necessary on your part. As the two of you move from dance moms to real friends, you can discuss all the uncomfortable race related queries you have because inside of your friendship there is room for more candid talk.

Lastly my white friends, understand that blacks, in general, really do have a different relatedness with time than the white world. I was invited to a white co-worker’s house for Thanksgiving dinner one year. She said dinner is at 2:00. I arrived around 3:30, and was genuinely surprised everyone was done eating. When I was growing up, Thanksgiving dinner was the host’s house is open and there are various sets of people coming and going all afternoon into the evening. Come in, fix yourself a plate, and get comfortable wherever there’s room. To actually arrive at 2:00 meant to be stuck helping to peel sweet potatoes, who wants that? I also knew I wouldn’t know anyone else there. I didn’t want to arrive before (I thought) the dinner itself was the topic of conversation and have to struggle with small talk.

For us, getting together doesn’t mean pulling out your calendar to “see what we can move around.” It’s a lot more spontaneous and casual. We run on someone else’s schedule for forty hours a week, getting together with friends shouldn’t be work too. This past Memorial Day weekend, a friend told me he’d be grilling in the backyard Saturday or Sunday and I was invited. I didn’t hear from him Saturday. Sunday I called him around 2:00. “Yeah, everything’s almost done,” he told me. “Come on through whenever you’re ready.” That’s what we do, we “come through.” In the summer, people know if you drive by my house on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the screen door is visible and my car is parked out front, that’s an open invitation to “come on through.”

So when your black friend calls and says “my boy just called and we’re all going to his place to play pool, can I come pick you up?”, the incorrect answer is “gee, I’d love to but next time could you give me more of a heads up?” Incorrect answer,  if enriching your circle of non-white friends is truly a priority for you.

And there you have it. Black Friends 101, a crash course. I’ll be dying to hear feedback from people who have taken my suggestions so be sure to come back and leave me a note.

“Teach The Children Well”

When A-list actor Will Smith announced the end of his run as the star of the t.v. show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to pursue movies, I thought “that dude is done!” Typecast for years as a flaky teen, I just didn’t see him getting free from that. Now he owns Hollywood—who knew?

(I said the same thing about Billy Crystal,who played a gay character in the 70’s on Soap.)

In his movie I, Robot, Will is Del Spooner in a future world with a servant class of robots. In his backstory, we find Spooner was in a car accident. A robot ran the math and calculated he was more likely to survive than the little girl in the other car. The robot saved Spooner and left the girl to drown. He is forever haunted by the thought of humanity handing its well being over to machines who couldn’t see, as he believed a person would have, the yet unrealized potential of her life far outweighed any survivability analytics.

Torn Space Theater on Fillmore Ave. in Buffalo, N.Y. showed the documentary The Blackness Project this past weekend and hosted a hearty discussion about race afterwards. This was my third time attending a showing of this movie. Listening to people react to the film is low budget “market research” for my own fledgling book effort addressing cross-cultural conversations about race. On the panel afterwards was Buffalo octogenarian Willie Judson, who also appears in the film. Judson came up with a biblical analogy for a question I’ve long pondered.

In the story of Exodus, the Hebrews were liberated from Egyptian slavery and traveled for forty years before finally settling in the new land that had been promised them. That means at least one entire generation of people lived through their childhood, and became men and women, outside of the old ways of bondage. Theoretically, the people starting in the new land were free to create something even more expansive than just a reaction to the experience they’d left behind, something completely new. We are inside the 50th year since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated because white America was so afraid a black man earning a fair wage could topple all known to be holy and sacred to our commonwealth. That’s an entire generation, Judson pointed out, who have lived outside of the Reconstruction Era and Jim Crow laws. Judson conceded in our private discussion later with surprising humility that the folks from his time need to go sit down somewhere, and let today’s young leaders realize new archetypes on their own terms.

That appears to be something candidate Barack Obama figured out on his own when he shunned the blessing of the old guard (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton) during his 2008 run for office.

One of my favorite euphemisms is “nothing is constant except change.” I’ve always  believed there is an inevitability to the demise of the stronghold of racial hierarchy (as it exists now, at least) and wrestled with the question of how proactive do I really need to be? Maybe it is enough to just let the old boy network die off on its own. When I was in school, learning Pascal was an advanced computer programming class. I remember voting for one of two white men (I picked Nixon, he looked “nice”) in my first mock election in grade school. Today, Pascal may as well be hieroglyphics. Today’s up and coming leaders have never known a time where there wasn’t a black president. Or when a top two contender couldn’t seriously be a woman.

A fireworks show is always at its most fearsome and spectacular just before the end. The public discourse seems particularly noisy right now because the old stronghold is pitching everything it’s got left in its last, desperate campaign. You can’t make sense with desperate people, don’t try. Do what we need to do to minimize the effects of their obstructionism, sure. Let them tire themselves out, but our most arduous efforts belong directed towards our young people caught up in this loud, crazy present day accident of history. We need to talk with young people about all the bluster they’re witnessing today, and do our mighty best to help them sort it out and make it through their formative years with the least possible bit of taint from our infighting on their yet unrealized potential. To see to it that when it is their turn to inherit the keys to the kingdom, they’re not moving in the same old couches and lamps of prejudice and uncontested hierarchy, and just calling them “valuable antiques.” To give them their own fighting chance to create something completely new and all their own when it comes to race relations.

I’m struggling for a witty, creative ending here but all I really have to say is–come to my workshop this Saturday the 26th at 1:00 at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmwood and W. Ferry in Buffalo, N.Y. Anyone who knows me knows it is going to be nothing like you’ve been to before, I feel certain I can promise you that. Hope to see you there.

When the holy man was asked, “How should we treat others?” His reply was, “There are no others.”

On the second Tuesday of May I finally made it to my first meeting of S.U.R.J. Buffalo. They are an organization of white folks showing up for racial justice. Since I first heard of them some months ago, I’ve wanted to make it to one of their meetings to find out who they are and what they’re about.

They are an organization of white people who acknowledge that while their experience may be completely different, they nonetheless have a place, an obligation, to be actively mobilized toward the cause of racial justice. I was greeted very warmly, as if I was a visiting ambassador. People just wanted to acknowledge that I was there, and see to it that I didn’t feel out of place as any good host would. I appreciated that, but didn’t want to attract too much attention to myself. Remembering one of the principals from my high school science classes; there is a certain amount of impact that being observed has on the observed in and of itself. I wanted my presence to minimize that impact as much as was possible to do so.

One of the first things they did was read the names we know about of unarmed blacks who have died at the hands of police or in police custody in the past few years, and allow a moment of reflection about them. Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Philando Castile, Buffalo’s Wardel Davis, and others. To my surprise, many of these white folks began openly sobbing and weeping. In that moment, I realized I’ve never allowed myself to cry openly for these people. And for the first time, I found myself wanting to cry.

When a loved one dies, those around the family left behind are expected to be strong to leave ample room for the most immediately impacted to experience their grief fully. Everyone can’t fall apart at the same time. At best, none of the practicalities would be seen to, at worst anarchy would ensue. So the rest of the black community holds it together while the deceased one’s mother, children, sister and wife are free to experience their full range of heartache.

I said surprised earlier because I expected to find among this group hippy white folks who saw racial injustice as scant more than an abstract, and these dead men as “cause celebre du jour” receptacles for their impotent white guilt. These people cried like any one of these men could have been their neighbor, their son’s best friend that they watched play in their yard when he was knee-high-to-a-grasshopper, their niece’s baby daddy. Seeing them truly shoulder the load of what’s going on today as if it is their own too finally gave me room to fully experience my own fear and sadness. Black folks need that so that we can get up everyday, continue seeing the injustices, and keep going without losing our minds all together. We need others to say “yes, we see you, and we suffer too. Your sorrow is our sorrow.”

To black folks, I want to say to you that  we have sincere white allies out here. Sometimes they don’t always know the right thing to say or to do, but they’re showing up. And they’re trying, they really are. These folks could have been at home helping their kids with their homework on a weeknight, ironing their clothes for work tomorrow, or just chillin’ on the couch watching reruns of Friends on tbs, but they were in the city braving the notoriously bad Elmwood Ave. parking trying to figure out what they need to know in order to do their share.

To white folks still wondering “what am I supposed to do?”, start with seeing that black struggles are American struggles, period. We are American citizens, we are your neighbors, your family, we are you. And if the state and the markets can find something as fickle as the color of our skin to justify denying us rights belonging to any and every citizen, begin to disengage yourself of the capricious fantasy that having the correct skin color and following all the rules just so keeps you categorically safe. During last decade’s mortgage crisis the banks and the entities that govern them didn’t care what color you were, but you mattered little enough for them to rob your house out from under you just the same.

Once you really, really see that we’re all in this together, what needs to be done next will show itself to you. I promise.

Nuance and News

I interviewed revered African American newsman Roland Martin ahead of his February 27, 2018, Canisius College address. Martin put forth that mainstream news media only recognizes race as a factor when it is overt; “a hood, a burning cross, or mention of the ‘N’ word. They don’t even realize how nuanced it is. But black folks, we understand it quite well,” and as a result are able to provide more context where it is needed.

In the 80’s, when I still had the knees for it, I made my living selling door-to-door. In a South Buffalo neighborhood, a white kid bicycled past me and yelled “N—r!” His foot slipped off the pedal, stopping him within an arm’s length. “Oh, sorry,” he offered nervously while finding his balance, then rode on.

Buffalo business exec and politico Larry Quinn recently said “I don’t see the U.S. or our local governments having a built-in mission of discrimination… I think we have to get past the idea that there is a force in the country that wants to subjugate [blacks].” It isn’t too far-fetched to imagine that South Buffalo kid, today a middle management muckety-muck, when the agreed-upon diversity hiring goal between N.Y. and builders of South Buffalo’s SolarCity was lowered from 25% to 15%. No legislative edict here. Still, it takes a nuanced perspective to point out that blacks were used as a bargaining chip for a tax break, then that agreement was quietly abandoned. It would be disingenuous to insist my encounter with that young bicyclist was categorically unrelated.

In 1977, ABC premiered the series “Roots,” chronicling American slavery. Afterwards, WKBW asked “it’s eleven o’clock, do you know where your children are?”, and the opening news story was local reaction to the show. A white reporter sitting with a black family asked the very young son, “after watching this, if a white friend dropped his hat would you pick it up?” The boy thought for a moment, then hesitantly said, “… no.”

Really? That’s the story here? “Watch out Buffalo, it’s the 1965 Watts race riots all over again. Hide the forks and knives from your kitchen staff.” Did WKBW even have a black segment producer or reporter back then? What would that journalist have asked?

A memorial opened in Alabama in Spring 2018 making stark documentation of the lynchings of more than 4,000 blacks right here on American soil. Once again, the media coverage of this event was way too slanted towards how difficult and uncomfortable the installation is for the area’s white people. There is an unbroken line between slavery, lynchings, and the 2012 Florida episode where white Michael Dunn shot ten times into a car full of black teens for playing their music too loud and it takes black media to draw it. Playing their music would be today’s equivalent of the past’s go-to, “he looked at a white woman.” Not acquiescing to their obvious place in the power hierarchy at Dunn’s first command made the teens today’s equivalent of “troublesome negroes.” Minutes after the incident, resting assured in his impunity, Dunn was at home having pizza. Given that the first jury came back a hung jury, this installation is the very answer to people who still wonder out loud “what’s slavery got to do with me today?” That’s the story here.

I am acquainted with Sylvester Monroe, who was most recently an editor at The Washington Post. I did work for him at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Ebony magazine. He covered the O.J. Simpson trial for Time magazine, and appeared on ABC’s Nightline the night the verdict was announced. Years later he wrote a piece revisiting that infamous not guilty verdict explaining blacks weren’t unsympathetic about the loss of two lives. They were elated to witness the twist of a rich black man maneuvering the legal system to his own advantage.

Ethan Couch, 2013’s “affluenza teen” stole beer from Walmart, drove on a suspended license, killed four people and injured five others, and with the help of his rich parents was sentenced to only therapy and ten years probation. If whites could have stopped feeling so betrayed by the O.J. verdict for five minutes, they would have heard Monroe’s herald; “money trumps even the privilege of race. Unless you have lots of it, the legal system isn’t your friend either and black media has been trying to tell you that for decades.”

A (white) repo-man came for my very first new vehicle, a Suzuki Grand Vitara. I phoned the finance company to ask what happens next. “Report your car stolen,” they directed me, “whoever that guy was, he’s not with us.” Days later I was in a fog as police explained he was just some opportunistic independent car dealer who wrongly thought he could shake down the finance company for himself. They refused to acknowledge him so instead he traded my SUV to drug dealers for crack, no one knew where the car was, and the first thing out of my mouth was “wait, … white people do crack?”

Crack was being reported as an entirely black phenomenon then. My brain was stuck at that first seemingly fallacious premise, that my missing car had something to do with a white person smoking crack.

Fast forward to New York Senator Mark Golden’s January statement about today’s opioid epidemic. “It’s not a ghetto drug. It’s happening to doctors’ kids.” The governor of Maine opined in 2016 “these are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty – these types of guys – they come from Connecticut and New York, … they sell their heroin, they go back home … Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave …” You heard it. Blacks, predators, incarceration. Whites, victims, Narcan, and money for treatment programs. Were it not for Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and other critiques like it, those statements would have gone as unchecked as someone calling Dr. Ben Carson “a credit to his race” in the 1950’s.

Roland Martin said white people, without black media representation, don’t recognize the subtleties and nuances of racism. What I’m hoping to get across to white audiences is the nuanced ways that racism cheats you too. If instead of locking black people up left and right during crack’s heyday we were investing in understanding more about the science of addiction, imagine how differently the wheel of fortune would be spinning for thousands of white people dying today of opiates. Imagine the amount of revenue NY state lost to SolarCity’s minority hiring tax bamboozle.

Black writers like me aren’t just out here “preaching to the choir.” We are trying to show all that if black lives don’t matter, under the right circumstances nobody’s life matters.