"we dont need you to do that"
my dad grew up on a farm in rural indiana. he went to a small college in rural ohio, and from there took a job as a middle manager at the ford truck plant in louisville. at first, he and my mom rented a cinder block house in a redneck neighborhood near the plant. my sister and i were born during this time. from there, they moved the family to the east end, far out into the burbs.
my dad had very limited exposure to non-white people throughout his life.
nevertheless, he expressed opinions about them. strong opinions, which i guess he gathered from the media or his white neighbors or his white colleagues at work.
mostly the opinions came out in the form of jokes, which is a pretty generous word for the kind of crap he used to repeat.
"how do you stop a gang of black guys from chasing you? ...toss them a basketball."
"a black guy goes to the doctor to find out why he can't get his wife pregnant. after the appointment, he bursts through the door with a big smile on his face. his wife asks why he's so happy. the guy beams, 'guess what, shugga! doctah says i's IMPOTENT!'"
see? get it? all black guys want to do is play basketball, see. and black guys, see, for all their potent sexual menace, see, they're too stupid to understand what the doctor tells them about their supposed prowess. and their amos-n-andy dialect leads to all sorts of hilarious hyjinx, to boot.
believe me, i know how offensive those "jokes" are. i only include them to demonstrate how searing they were. i am still able to set them down verbatim after thirty some odd years.
see, i didn't have the "privilege", despite my dad's best efforts, of growing up surrounded only by people of my own race. i went to public schools. and there were all sorts of kids in my classes. i fell in with a crew of black boys-- vincent, rodney and terrence-- who were bussed in from the west end. they were goofy and awkward, like me. they loved to read and act out the stuff they read, like me. they loved drawing complicated fantastical creations, like me. and as for basketball, it was one of many options, far from a single-minded pursuit-- and they weren't any better at it than me. (especially terrence, who looked like tayshawn prince but ran into major complications every time he tried to dribble and move at the same time. terrence made me look like tayshawn prince on the court, god bless him.)
and i just couldn't get my head around why anyone who wasn't playing Kill the Man with the Ball would ever find themselves being chased by vincent, rodney and terrence. i supposed that if you were playing Kill the Man with the Ball with a basketball (itself kind of an absurd proposition), you COULD toss the ball and abdicate, and vincent, rodney and terrence would peel off after it. but that sort of sissy move was universally frowned upon, and anyway if rodney got the ball, you'd spend the rest of recess chasing HIM, and even if you did catch him you had better have plenty of backup because rodney was built like a tree stump.
it took me a while to figure out the assumptions implicit in the joke.
and when i did, i realized why i knew instinctively that the joke just wasn't funny. it wasn't true, first of all. and furthermore, it was mean.
my dad's racist jokes had been making me squirm for a long time, but what could i do? he was my dad. i loved him. he had plenty of redeeming qualities. he was kind and generous, a firm kennedy democrat, a steady breadwinner, a patient coach, a fair disciplinarian, a kick-ass santa claus and the only times i ever saw him lose his temper were in response to something he perceived as bullying. i just could not make his appalling taste in jokes correspond with the guy i knew.
luckily this was the seventies, a period when schools received funding for programs beyond the most basic preparation for standardized testing. i recall a host of guests passing through our classrooms. they talked about hygiene. they talked about fluoride. they talked about drugs. they talked about peer pressure. they talked about energy conservation. they talked about race relations. mostly i took their visits as an opportunity to doodle and space out. but i remember miss schottenstein. she was the race relations emissary, and she sounded just like archie bunker, which was an accent more exotic to me at the time than that of the beatles. i perked up and listened. she could have been talking about flood preparedness and i would have been enthralled. i had heard the grumpy bastard on tv, but here was a real live new york type person, no mistaking it, in front of my class.
and i could translate most of what she said. surely this meant something.
i heard her clearly. she said, "and you know when someone tells you a joke that makes fun of someone else, someone different than you, maybe.
"you know you can do something. you can do something about that awful feeling that you get in your gut. you can make it go away..."
even if it involved eating liver or sauerkraut, i was willing to try it. i was all ears.
miss schottenstein continued, "even if it's your mother or your father telling the joke. even if it's your priest or your rabbi, or your sister or your cousin..."
my head was ringing. maybe it would require scrubbing toilets or doing laundry. i could handle that, i thought.
miss schottenstein said, "when they finish telling the joke, you just tell them calmly, 'i would rather you didn't tell me jokes like that anymore. i don't think they're funny.' that's all. i promise you it will work."
she went on to explain the theoretical underpinnings and the reasons for its efficacy, but i wasn't listening anymore. i was writing the phrase down before it slipped my mind. i was skeptical, so i wanted to make sure i got every nuance perfect. i thought the exact phrasing must've been a talisman of some sort, because the statement itself didn't seem all that potent.
my dad didn't make me wait long. we were riding in his car about a week later, just the two of us, on the way to a basketball practice. jokes at the expense of polish people, for whatever reason, were in vogue at the time. without taking his eyes off the road, he asked, "did you hear about the guy who made a fortune selling cheerios in poland?"
was this the time? i tensed and called up my totemic phrase. my palms began to sweat. i wondered if i had the balls to actually say it to my dad. probably not. maybe if i just kinda muttered it under my breath, the words would work their mysterious magic and he'd be none the wiser. maybe i could roll down the window and obscure the incantation.
"yeah, he told 'em they were doughnut seeds!"
i had to stifle a grin. it wasn't nice to polish people, but i had to admit the joke had a certain surrealist flair.
i couldn't look at my dad. but i said it calmly, just like miss schottenstein instructed. here we go. this is my one shot at it. into the great wide open:
"i would rather you didn't tell me jokes like that anymore. i don't think they're funny." i had been rehearsing, so i'm pretty sure i even affected the long nasal A in "rather" and my "don't" only had one clipped O in it, as to my customary three..
but it was out there now, hanging in the air between us. i moved my hand closer to the door handle, preparing for the worst.
my dad said nothing. didn't take his eyes off the road. kept driving.
i never heard another racist joke from him.
miss schottenstein was right.
i guess it worked.
i have my notions of why, but that's not what i'm getting at here.
i'm now a dad. i now have my own kid in public school in louisville. it's way out in the west end, kind of a huck to get to. i love the school: Dann C Byck Elementary, home of the Cougars, school colors green and gold. it's a diverse and dynamic environment, which is important to me. a guy got shot across from the Byck playground his first week of kindergarten, and i had to reconsider just how important that environment was to me. in the end, we stuck it out, and we've had few regrets.
my boy is a goofy, awkward third grader who loves to read and act out the stuff he reads. he loves drawing complicated fantastical creations. as for basketball (or any other organized team sport, for that matter) he could take it or leave it.
he's fallen in with a group of boys who happen to be black: Elli, Jacoi and Jathen. they're pretty sympatico, into the same things as him, except they're much better ballers than my boy. the four of them rotate home courts for sleepovers. somehow they're a pretty natural crew.
on their periphery is a kid from the neighborhood around Byck. he is mentioned occasionally in my son's reports on the school day and in the descriptions of playground happenings. by the inscrutable logic of third grade boys, this kid isn't in their core unit. he seems nice enough, though i don't know him well. i mention him now only because of his name: Treighvion.
when the media erupted with the story of Trayvon Martin's killing, my head kept going back to this boy, little Treighvion. at first it was nothing more than a clang association-- the names were similar. as i learned more about the circumstances of Trayvon's death, i was forced to recognize more connections.
i made the mistake of listening to the 911 dispatch tapes on NPR. the radio host was kind enough to warn his audience up front that the recording of the call that captures the gunshot would be disturbing. i'm pretty hard to shake, i told myself. i've seen and heard some pretty grisly shit in my day. i didn't even consider not listening.
kinda wish i hadn't.
that recording fucked me all the way up.
on it, you hear a high-pitched voice screaming in mortal terror, "help me! help me!" there's the report of a gun, and instant silence.
that anyone for whatever reason would ever have to endure a horror that would make them howl with such mortal abandon pains me as a sentient being.
that the person howling was involved in a struggle with another human being-- that a thinking, feeling, reasoning human could make another of its kind wail so-- hurts my heart and shakes my faith in our species.
as a parent, that my son would ever come to such an awful and horrifying end literally and figuratively makes me weep.
thing is, my boy-- even in his hoodie, beat boxing (he's getting better, really) and slinging the slang of the Russell neighborhood that surrounds Byck Elementary-- doesn't have much to worry about.
shaggy skater hair. blue eyes. fair skin. recognizable from even a block away on a springtime florida night as a white boy.
i plug my son into Trayvon's last walk, and most likely it ends differently. the "something in his hands" suddenly is seen for what it really is: skittles and an iced tea. his attempts to shake the mysterious stalker are no longer an admission of some sort of guilt. he makes it home.
Treighvion gets it in the back, though, same as Trayvon. as do Elli, Jacoi, Jathen and President Obama's hypothetical son.
it's just another facet in the diamond of white privilege.
and it makes me crazy. the response from the republican presidential hopefuls ignores it. the attempts by george zimmerman's supporters to insist that he isn't a racist ignore it. anyone who thinks florida's "stand your ground" law doesn't put youth like Trayvon Martin at risk ignores it as well.
newt says that President Obama was trying to drive a wedge between the american people with his comments. he was creating division when he should have been uniting.
only a cracker wholly ignorant of white privilege could say such a thing in public.
there is a wedge in our society, you assclown, and i think the president was right in so eloquently and poetically pointing at it.
i was looking for something to ease me out of my crying jags whenever the 911 tape replayed in my mind, which was often. i needed some reference point from which i could orient my sadness and rage and despair. NPR brought me into this state, and thankfully it showed me the way out.
i don't remember what program it was. the media, including NPR, was pretty saturated with every possible perspective on the killing, and i was pretty indiscriminate in my consumption. it was a panel show, a host facilitating discussion with a few different people. one guy on there was a professor of african-american studies at one of the quote-unquote "historically-black universities". he was knowledgeable and thoughtful, measured and careful with his words. by the context of his answers, i would say he was probably active in the civil rights movement of the sixties, probably a contemporary of the reverend jesse jackson.
he was asked for a final comment, for something to give meaning to the death of Trayvon Martin. he paused audibly, then said that if every person in america didn't stop for a moment and consider their attitudes about race, really inspect them in an intense light, then Trayvon will have died in vain. sold. i had my assignment. but what really motivated me was this guy's voice. his voice remained calm and erudite, but after the long pause, i could hear a distinct undertone of sadness, a weariness, a sense of opportunity lost, maybe even a hint of futility. it broke my heart. this guy, who had made a life and career trying to move this country toward the goal of equity and parity and all the other ideals set forth in our constitution, truly seemed set back by this travesty.
i figured i owed it to him to heed his advice.
i spent the last week analyzing my prejudices and reactions through a prism of racial awareness. i second-guessed every first impression, trying to identify any assumptions i made based on race. i am fortunate in that i live in a sort of border territory here in louisville. i am on the northwestern edge of a largely white working class neighborhood called schnitzelburg. it's a scruffy, proud neighborhood with a lot of dive bars, motorcycles and pickup trucks. they blow shit up on holidays. a few of the nicer houses have garages, some have places to park in the alleys behind, but most people here park on the street. i live three doors away from shelby street and a few blocks up from goss avenue, beyond which begins the shelby park/smoketown neighborhood, where the majority of inhabitants are african-americans. the folks on either side of shelby street are pretty much in the same socioeconomic situation, but there isn't a lot of co-mingling. to get to the places i regularly go, i usually pass through parts of both neighborhoods.
i kind of hoped i'd uncover some gross, unintentional racism in my psyche and i'd have my homework, but it didn't really pan out that way. mostly what i discovered is that i don't like assholes or bullies. and that assholism and bullyism surfaces in roughly the same statistical percentage among the two racial cohorts. pretty much for every instance of assholism or bullyism i witnessed where the perp was african-american, within an hour or two i would witness an equal or more egregious offense where the perp was white. i'd ask myself, "now, if i saw a white guy being a dick to his kids on the sidewalk, would i be equally incensed?" and usually within a few blocks i'd have my answer. yes.
assholes and bullies piss me off. in the field of social work, where i've spent some time, that's called a trigger. i own that i have a bully trigger. i admit to not being clear and impartial when dealing with assholes. i have an asshole trigger.
it's not race-based, i'm relieved to say.
but in this country, it seems the subtle forms of racial imbalance are what get us in trouble. not recognizing white privilege. race-baiting the welfare/medicaid debate when in fact the overwhelming majority of recipients of public assistance are poor white people. gerrymandering congressional districts after every census to neutralize the effect of the concentrated african-american vote. the simple absence of access to quality food in largely african-american neighborhoods. the observable fact that when the power goes out, the people on my side of shelby street are up and running long before their shelby park neighbors.... the list is long, so i dug deeper.
turns out, i really like the female butt. i really really really like the female butt. i don't know what evolutionary purpose it serves, but something primordial in my brain and body responds to the shape of a well-crafted butt. i take notice. on the other side of shelby street there are a lot of butts to notice. i notice them. i might even, on occasion, say to myself,"day-um!" as i pass by, noticing. i'm objectifying the women in possession of these butts, i admit. i am not considering their worth beyond their sexual attractiveness, based on the bootie they were blessed with. given the history of white masters and black slaves in this country, i'm guilty of scumbaggery with intent to commit racism.
ms darden is my son's principal at Dann C Byck Elementary. she's a large, stout black woman of incredible enthusiasm and enlarged intelligence. i adore her. i admire her. i don't know much about her, but when i talk to her, i make assumptions. i imagine that it's probably not that easy to ascend the ranks of any profession being a) african-american b) a woman and c) overweight. i assume that she has achieved a measure of success through grit and determination, that she's overcome incredible odds to be talking to me from this position. i give her great leeway and the benefit of the doubt in school matters. truth is, in this day and age, she might be the daughter of the superintendent of schools for connecticut and someone owes them a favor or something. she might be the principal of Dann C Byck simply because of who she knows. i'm guilty of hypersensitivity with intent to commit racism.
it's march and the kentucky teams are doing well in the ncaa men's basketball tournament, where we are half of the final four bracket, thank you very much. (wish you were here, north carolina! the weather is lovely in new orleans.) i watch as the university of kentucky's sixth man, wilzjer, makes a deft steal, dribbles to a smart position and initiates a fast break. i see the one white guy who starts for the UofL cards juke and drop a jumper from the top of the key, and i feel a measure of racial pride. can't deny it. for whatever reason, by whatever mechanism, the sports/entertainment complex is overrepresented by african-americans beginning at the high school level. the elite athletes that inspire team loyalty and move merchandise are almost exclusively african-american. when a white guy can do better than simply hold his own, i take notice and root for him. maybe it's personal. maybe it's my dogged determination to root for the underdog playing out in curious fashion. whatever, i am guilty of identification with intent to commit racism.
i have a curious relationship with hip hop, just as i have a curious relationship with contemporary pop music in general. most of it is crap. occasionally i run into some new hip hop or pop (or new to me, at least, as i live in a cave in kentucky) and it flips my wig. i can't say what it is, exactly, but the song has to hit in a sweet spot along the axes of freshness and authenticity. if it lands in that amorphous zone, i'm a goner. i devour it.
that just doesn't happen very often.
and it never happens in the sub-genre of hip hop where the subject of the record is what a badass the guy on the mic is. this usually takes one of two forms: i am so fucking hard or i am so fucking rich. i tire of it after a verse.
now, there's a comparable sub-genre in contemporary country music (which i despise as a rule; my loyalty to waylon and willie and hank and buck, et al won't let me do otherwise). toby keith shits out a pile of this type every year or so, for instance. it's usually something along the lines of: i'm a moron redneck with no use for education or erudition, but my buddies and me sure can drink beer and raise hell, and fuck all y'all who think being a moron redneck is something bad. i tire of it after a verse. but, what i have found is that i can dismiss this sub-genre much more easily than its hip hop counterpart.
with the i'm-so-hard or i'm-so-rich hip hop, it raises my hackles. i get testy after a verse.
is it because i feel threatened by a black man boasting about his success? does it bother me that this guy is universally feared or universally admired? what about this makes me so quick to dismiss it, even though i'm still upset after i turn it off?
i think it comes down to the terms or definition of success. toby keith and his ilk can boast about their success at being boneheaded swine. that doesn't bother me. that's my default setting. i could do that with no effort at all.
shooting people who crossed you, getting stabbed in a club, smacking bitches around? i don't think i will ever be successful at those or any similar enterprises. bathing in champagne, naming my bentleys, or buying diamonds by the gross for my ladyfriends? not in this lifetime.
and why would i want to be successful by this accounting? and what good does it do to hold up a ledger sheet like this in front of kids who, more than likely, don't stand a chance in hell of achieving similar success?
i guess to me, it seems like the artists who put this type of rap out have been co-opted by the dominant culture. if not co-opted, they are at least buying in to it. the culture says that black men are criminals, so they boast about their criminal exploits. the culture says conspicuous consumption declares your success, so they boast about their extravagance. it moves units.
and i guess that's what bothers me. the form of hip hop can be such a powerful, transformative tool. harnessed correctly it can make the powers that be quake, it can galvanize communities, it can broadcast justified pride and empowerment. it can change the world. it has, and it can continue doing so...
and that is where i go wrong.
just as hip hop is not a commodity that the dominant culture should exploit, i am not authorized to explain it or define it or say what it should or shouldn't do.
without being fully aware of it, i exercise my white privilege when i express my visions of hip hop. i cannot possibly hear the boasts and beats the same way as the kid across shelby street does. how i fit the genre into the broader social construct ignores the broader social construct in the mind of that kid across shelby street.
in this case, i'm just another wonky white guy telling black people what they should do.
i am guilty of patronization with intent to commit racism.
maybe this period of self-examination has helped me identify some places in my life where i'm not seeing the skittles for what they are.
maybe the next time i see a kid who "seems to be on something", i will consider Trayvon. he was definitely on something. he was 17 and talking to a girlfriend on the phone. if he's anything like me, you or the rest of the people on the planet, he was probably high as a kite. love will do that to you.
and if this little self-indulgent piece has any effect on the world, my dream is that it might help Treighvion or Elli or Jacoi or Jathen or President Obama's theoretical son keep talking to that girl until he gets back home.