Did you ever hear someone say that they are color blind? In terms of people, I mean. Do you know what I’m talking about? That feigned liberal bullshit. “I don’t even see people’s color!” they will proclaim. “We’re all just part of the human rainbow. I don’t see a color. All I see is a person.” Really? That’s what you are selling? You don’t see color? So if I put a black person and a white person in front of you and told you I’d give you fifty bucks if you can pick out the black person, you think you might lose the bet? Jesus! It drives me crazy. It feels like the worst kind of denial. The idea that the most efficient way to deal with racial tension in this country is to pretend that it doesn’t exist. How does a person tell themselves that they can be part of the solution by trying to teach people to ignore what is right in front of them? Of course you see color. Unless you are a blind person, you see color. And you respond to it. You may think that your experience of looking at a white person or a black person are identical, but they aren’t. Neither is your experience of looking at a man or a woman or a tall person or a short person or a fat person or a thin person. What we see is always part of the equation. And we all have an endless array of experiences leading us to make certain prejudicial determinations based on initial observances. That is not a problem. That is as normal a part of humanity as breathing and blinking. The problem is when someone refuses to look beyond those initial reactions. Or when they respond to their fear around those initial reactions by pretending that they never happened in the first place. Color blind, indeed.
I’m so damned careful when I am around black people. I don’t like it. It really bothers me. It feels like a balancing act and I’m never entirely sure why this is. No doubt, there are multiple factors both individual and psychosocial. There are parts both overt and covert. It’s a fascinating subject and one that I have every intention of continuing to investigate in the most transparent way possible. So, in spite of the fact that I have no shot at sounding even minimally professorial and may once again get myself into hot water, I’m gonna take a shot at it anyway.
I wish to tell you about my own experience. And, as I said, my interactions with people of color (this includes Latinos but shows up far more prominently for me with black people) feel far less authentic, and require a far greater expenditure of energy, that my interactions with white folks. I am not, and have never been, even minimally racist (although I guess the definition of that word is understood in the eyes and ears of the beholder)- yet, when I’m around a black friend or acquaintance, I find myself watching and reviewing my word choices somewhat obsessively for fear that I’ll say or do the wrong thing. Of course, that opens up the door to fall headlong into the trap of white guilt. I understand this to be a far more pervasive issue than racism as it’s so much easier to fall victim to. What I mean is, nobody runs around saying nigger or porch monkey without realizing that they are doing it. It’s a very conscious choice. And, quite frankly, from my vantage point, the more overt the better. If I am talking with a person and they say, “The blacks are ruining this country,” they have given me a gift. I am entirely clear that I want no part of this individual and I can make a swift and clean break. The covert racist is a little trickier. I have often gotten to know people who I find quite fun and interesting and all of a sudden they say, “I’m not sure I like them bussing in all these black kids to the grammar school.” Oh shit. Really? Damn. Do I want to address this? Should I just stop talking to them? It’s so unnerving and disappointing. It’s like finding out someone is a covert Republican. If they’re blowing up abortion clinics it becomes simple. But what if they just think that George W. Bush is an American hero? Is that a deal breaker? Can I really keep knowing this person?
And this brings me back to white guilt. This refers to the ways in which I respond to racism “on behalf” of black people rather than on behalf of my own beliefs and code of morals. And, if I’m being honest, I’m not always sure of the difference. When someone makes a racist comment, my disgust certainly feels genuine, but I often wonder if some of the disgust revolves around what a black person would think if they were standing next to me and, perhaps more importantly, to what extent this white person speaks on behalf of me in that I, myself, am a white person.
Perhaps my favorite example of white guilt shows up in the first season of the television show, Maude, starring the great Bea Arthur. Maude likes to proclaim herself as an enlightened liberal … this despite the fact she has a black housekeeper. The episode where Maude hires Florida Evans (eventually to spin off as the matriarch on “Good Times,” which, ironically, I referenced two posts ago) is particularly brutal and cringe-worthy as Maude suffers greatly from what can be charitably be described as white guilt, condescending to Florida to an almost offensive degree. And when Florida has had enough, Maude has the utter audacity to slam her for not having a very high opinion of herself – after all, if she had a high opinion of herself as a strong black woman, then why would she be a maid – even one that Maude herself has hired?
Every time I see that episode, or any behavior reflective of the same issue, I find it utterly nauseating. I can’t even imagine how it would feel if I myself were black. And, there it is. Right there in what my fingers just typed. That very sentence was my own white guilt. It was not enough to tell you that the observation of white guilt made me feel nauseous. I needed to follow it up by saying that my own opinion could not be an informed one by virtue of my whiteness. I typed the period after the word “nauseating” and was immediately struck by the fantasy of a black person saying, “What do you know about being offended by white guilt, WHITEY?! Unless you know what it is to be abused or condescended to because of the color of your skin, keep your pale mouth shut!” What’s really interesting is that, other than in bad movies, I’ve never heard a black person say anything like that. Ever. So why is that shaming voice in my head? Where does it come from? And I think that is the insidiousness of white guilt. It is societal. It is covert. It’s the polar opposite of racism and yet somehow equally as offensive. Blacks were treated like animals for so long by white American men that it becomes really difficult to not continually attempt to balance it out.
I have experienced this often as a Jewish person. I don’t think I have ever had an entirely comfortable conversation with someone of German descent. Not because I hold resentment toward the nation of Germany (at least none that I am aware of) but because the German person with which I am speaking, once finding out that I am a Jew, clearly begins manifesting a level of caution that makes me feel like something of an invalid. Interestingly, I have a very similar experience with actual invalids. I don’t know how to treat them like regular people, which certainly seems to be what they want. But where’s the line? If I see someone in a wheel chair in the parking lot of Target attempting to unload their groceries into their car and I ask if I can be of some help, am I being offensive. I think the message that I am trying to send is, “I can see that unloading your groceries into the car might be a bit of a difficult task and I would like to lend a hand if that feels useful.” It’s the same message I would attempt to send to a little old lady or a pregnant woman in the same parking lot. But does the person in the wheelchair somehow hear me say, “Clearly you are a cripple and cannot successfully do what normal people do, so please let me take my perfectly working legs and come to your rescue?”
And it’s far worse for me with the black population. Because, while I am certainly not adverse to having disabled friends, I am not actively seeking them. But, to an extent, I do actively seek black friends. I really like black people. Not all black people, of course. You’d need to bring a little more to the table than dark skin for me to want to spend social time with you. Still, though, blackness carries a lot of weight with me. When I find myself in the midst of a black person that I do not know (especially at a work or social function), my first instinct is the mental calculation of how I can win them over.
Some of it I can understand. The surface stuff I get. Black culture, black expressions, black humor, black music- it all appeals to me. The Urban Dictionary would tell you that I am best described as a Whigger or a Negreaux or as Faux Ghetto. I am a wannabe.
Quite frankly, I have the same relationship with women and gay men. But it feels far trickier, if not treacherous with black people. I always find that once I befriend a black person, the first thing I want to do is give voice to this issue. I want to be able to say, “So, here’s the thing. I think one of the main reasons I want to be your friend is because you are black. I don’t entirely understand that. But I want to be genuine with you and, to do that, I feel like I need to be able to process my attraction t your skin color.” And I have said that. A few times. But mostly it feels far too dangerous. Race is such a hotbed of fear and rage and shame that I both want to flee from it and scream from the rooftops at the top of my lungs, “Black people! Hear me now! I love you and I fear you! I don’t understand this! Help me! How do I get you on my side!? I want to part of the solution! What do you need from me?!”
And that is really the more difficult side of the equation. Yes, I really like them. But, more than that, I desperately want them to like me. No, that’s not it. I want more than that. I want them to accept me. I want them to take me in as one of their own. I want this very much. And I tell myself that one of the key roadways toward accomplishing that goal is the disclosure of my Judaism. It’s sort of like the Discrimination Olympics. I figure that even if the blacks win gold, I don’t see how the Jews don’t get silver. The Holocaust vs. slavery. Tight race, right? Surely we are brothers in arms. Take me in. Let me play. C’mon, throw me the ball, black people. After all, Jews aren’t really white.
But we kind of are. And this presents yet another issue. The issue of “passing.” Most people generally hear this word used in reference to those black people who are lighter skinned or from racially mixed relationships. This is to say that they often find themselves resented by darker skinned blacks because they have an opportunity that those with darker skin do not have. They can pass. Pass as white people, that is. Or, at least pass as something other than black, be it Dominican or Indian or Mexican. Whether or not the illusion of begin one of those nationalities might feel preferable to a black person I do not know, but that is hardly the point- especially considering that, in my experience, very few of the lighter skinned blacks accused of “passing,” actually have any interest in passing. The resentment, I believe, stems not from what they “do” so much as what they have the opportunity to do should they so choose. And this is true of me as well. I am a Jew. I am a proud Jew. I have no shame about my Judaism. I have never, in my life, tried to pass as something else. But I could. Easily. In fact, I am generally perceived as being something other than Jewish. More often than not, I get Italian- sometimes even Latino. Whether or not, I choose to pass, the opportunity to do so is there. This is an undeniable difference between me and a dark-skinned black person. Someone with dark brown skin, gets up every single day of their lives, and has absolutely no choice in going out into the world and being understood by society as a black person. I’m not saying that they wish to be perceived as something else or that they ought to be. Either way, though, they can’t. I can. I can “pass.” This produces a strange sense of “in-betweenness” in me. I don’t understand myself as a white man and I am clearly not a black man.
Again, this sense of not fitting shows up for me in other ways. I am very female. Not girly, but quite female. I understand women better than I do men. I like women better than I do men. With men (white heterosexual men anyway) my initial instincts tends to veer toward antagonism. With women, it is an immediate desire to be loved and accepted. So I have the experience of being less than male while clearly not being a female. Don’t worry, I have no desire to dress up in woman’s clothes or exchange my junk. It’s just the sense of not having a compartment.
My sexuality is the same. In terms of my sexual preference, I have no history of anything other than heterosexuality. I have never felt flushed or shaky or erect in response to an attractive man. Sexually, I am all about women. And for the last fourteen years and for the rest of my days, one woman in particular. Other than that, though, I feel far more gay than straight. I love gay men and gay men love me. As with black people, I love gay culture and gay humor. The way gay men tend to live in the world almost always makes more sense to me than the way most straight men live in the world. So, yet again, I don’t feel straight, but I am certainly not gay.
I can openly express that in many ways I feel like a woman, and people both understand and accept that. Similarly, I can say that in many ways I feel like a gay man, and people (well, some people) will understand and accept that. But if I were to say that in many ways I feel like a member of the black community, how does that sound? It sounds bizarre to me, so I can’t imagine it would be digested well by others, especially black others.
Further, when I am amongst women, I am prone to acting kind of female. Not that I raise the pitch of my voice and swing my hips back and forth. I just mean that my softer, female side feels far more liberated to emerge when I am amongst females. Same with gay men. When hanging out with a gay friend, I tend to become a lot more- well, it’s the mostly the same side that comes out with the girls, but you get the point. It’s no different with black people, but I feel a lot less comfortable as a result of it. In most cases, when hanging out with black people, I become far more prone to use language reminiscent of certain black culture. I have always sensed that I do this in a way that doesn’t register as inauthentic or needy, and, for the most part, I don’t think that it is. But, unlike, with the women and the gay men, I almost always fear being called on it. I inevitably have the fear that a black person will tell me to stop acting black. I think the shame of that imagined moment would be absolutely crippling.
And I suppose the fear of that moment is, in its own right, a bit crippling.
I am recalling a seminar I gave about five years ago. My sister lives in Rhode Island and we discussed my coming up there to put on a workshop as it would serve the dual purpose of allowing us to see each other and allowing her to see the kind of work I do. She helped me get word out and the turnout was pretty solid. The workshop was called “Building Boundaries” and was to involve a Power Point presentation and workshopping with the membership. There were exactly (near as I could tell) three non-white people in the room. One of them was my good friend Jonathan who is Puerto Rican, and the other two were a black father and son who were friends of my sister. At some point during the workshop, I was speaking about boundaries and limits when it comes to encountering racism. I said something along the lines of, “Let’s say for example one finds themselves being called a Kike or a Spic or a Ni…..”
And then I stopped cold. I felt the eyes of two black men boring into me from the their seats in the back and I halted. I asked them directly, “I feel like I want to ask if your are comfortable with me using the ‘N’ word.” Even as I am writing this, I feel nauseous about it. The father said that he had no problem with it but followed the permission with a question: “I’m curious. Why did you ask my son and I if you could say nigger but did not ask permission to say Kike or Spic?” I was horrified. The truth was that I felt okay with Kike because I am a Jew and I tell myself that I therefore have innate permission. And I believed that the only Hispanic person in the room was Jonathan and our friendship was such that I knew that he would have room for me to process using that word. I told the man in the back as such. He responded, “Are you not aware that there could be other people of color in this room that just don’t appear to you as such?” Fuck. Of course I knew that. But my white guilt got the best of me. This gaffe led to a wonderful conversation among the membership and the workshop was quite successful. But that moment impacted me enormously. I’ll never forget it.
I grew up in a family that regularly used the word “Schvartze.” The term technically means “black” in Yiddish, but is undoubtedly used by almost all as a racial epithet. I hated when I would hear my parents or grandparents use it. I had plenty of friends in my youth who would regularly use the word nigger. What’s worse, they would claim innocence using the psychotic excuse that there are black people and there are niggers. Wow. It’s like saying that there are woman and there are cunts; or there are gay men and there are faggots; or there are Italians and there are wops. And then I heard Chris Rock say that there are black people and there are niggers. And it was funny as hell. And I know that comedy was his main purpose. But what do I glean from that? Do most black people believe that there are black people and there are niggers? If they do, are white people now licensed to get on board with that notion? How can we know?
After all, we are not supposed to talk about such things. They are too hot. Too dangerous. They are unspeakable.
Well, now I’ve spoken them.