Tired of suppressing my whiteness

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Salon ran a stupid race-baiting article by Priscilla Ward, but I know, I repeat myself: it was Salon. Still, her racist polarizing diatribe, made me want to retaliate in kind, re-living a few true tales of woe and racism in my past, in a parody of her article. Not to cry "poor me" or to pretend my victimhood is the only one that matters (as she is doing), just to point out there's a whole lot of backstory in others lives that we may not know. From my working in South Central L.A., having multiple black roommates, to having a black step Dad, or from despite looking white now, I was an Arabic looking kid, that dealt with racist bullshit from whites (or Asians or Latinos)... but far more from blacks (despite far fewer interactions).

Parody of a parody

Here's the authors original article:

You can read it, or not. But using her tone, and flipping her stories to a few true ones from my past, here's a little parody of her epic whine:

It was a warm evening in September, a couple of weeks after Michael Brown was shot, and somewhere in the mix I brought up Ferguson, hoping to spark a “conscious conversation.” Then it happened. The nightmarish response. “Can you believe a cop shot that innocent young kid in the back, with his hands up, just because he was black?” one of my black roommates responded.

The words clamored in my ears. How could he not know? Didn't he read? Didn't he have common sense? Why would anyone do that? We’re all ill-informed from time to time. But as I stood there, awkwardly not saying a word — while hundreds of words ran through my head — it was a reminder of how much I would have to suppress in order to get along with my black roommates.

It has always been like this for me. I’m a guy that live in Inglewood, and worked in South Central L.A. Watts actually, for a summer doing construction. And I'd done social work. The depths of paranoia and suspicion towards anyone non-black runs deep in those communities.

Racism Mom

One of my black roommates Mom's once telling me, "I could never trust a white person, because of slavery".

I quipped, "interesting. Did you know your ancestors couldn't have been slaves if other blacks hadn't rounded them up, and sold them? Or that free blacks in the south had more slaves per capita than whites did? Since my family came over long after slavery, I know my family's hands are clean as far as anything to do with the slave trade. But have you checked out your roots to see if your family and your friends are as well? And do you weep for the half a million white lives sacrificed to end slavery? What kind of debt do you think you owe them?"

She was indignant and never spoke to me again. Turns out she was too coupled to her black privilege to fathom the truth, that no matter our color, we're not responsible for what our ancestors did. And if we were, blacks may have more to answer for than most whites. Remember, slavery is still rampant today in Africa, while America is the only country where a people of one color (whites) fought to free a people of another color (black).

I longed to crawl back to my tiny white universe. A place where I could create a sense of peace, identity and acceptance, a place where I could sit there, trying to remember the real history of what happened, and not worry about offending overly sensitive ignoramuses. But life happens, and most of us can’t stay in our own utopias forever.

Past attacks

Now I faced a new reality. The brief conversation lasted much longer in my head. I sent myself into a 50-year-old tizzy, remembering the ignorant bigotries I faced with black people attacking me for my whiteness.

  • "Wooo... you so white, it's scarry"
  • "Hey there casper, you're lucky it doesn't snow in LA, or I wouldn't be able to see you"

And other cat calls and intimidation that were common when I (a white kid) was working construction in Watts. Good thing only whites are racists, or I might have been intimidated.

Facts don't matter as much as feels

I started to worry about all the other things I might have to explain, like "You do know that....":

  • "forensics showed that he was shot in the front, while charging, and since he'd been shot in the arm, it's unlikely his hands were up"
  • "multiple witnesses said that he hit the cop, went for his gun, after committing a strong-arm robbery?"
  • "cops don't shoot people for no reasons, it's a lot of paperwork and annoyance, even if it's just a black thug".

Maybe I should have considered it a teaching opportunity. But I wasn’t feeling generous. I hoped he wouldn’t say something really ignorant, causing me to just snap and go off on an angry rant. Then I’d have to make my living situation salvageable by pocketing my rage, putting on my best smile and telling him, it’s all love.

Full frontal stereotyping

I wanted my home to be a refuge, a place where people cared about the facts, more than racial dynamics and blaming every criminal getting shot on color. I could walk around in my wife beater sleeveless T-shit, with a Confederate Battle flag on my wall, and listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd sing Sweet Home Alabama.

Suppressing my whiteness every day is exhausting. Back at Southern Living in the loud environment, we used “marine hand signals,” but since then, I’d faced tougher environments.

I was tired of catering to everyone else’s comforts. How much of my day-to-day experiences as a white guy do I have to filter? I replace “hey bro” with boring hellos. I eat my possum pot-pie outside the office. In order to have some common point of identifiable communication, I pretend to care about TLC or Beyonce, or black movie stars on their I’ve-lost-count remarriages and who beat up whom this week.

As summer turned to fall and then winter, I continued to be dumbfounded at the way, for some black people, the killing of Michael Brown just reaffirmed all the fictions they'd told themselves in life. That white cops really sat around thinking of ways to frame innocent black athletes for murders they didn't commit, and stuff like that.

They didn’t feel the need to pay attention. I guess some black people do act “real chocolate” and only understand the realities of their own universe. Like running around drunk in some “Millions March NYC” in response to the non-indictment, when if the guy had been white, latino or Asian, they wouldn't have given a shit. If Joe Montana killed his wife, or some big Samoan had gotten a beat-down for repeatedly charging at cops who told him to stay down, there wouldn't have been riots over a verdict of guilty, there would be parties.

In December, when the Eric Garner verdict came out, I became loaded down with more emotional baggage than I could conceal. I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t care if I wasn’t mixing with others. I found my little white planet at work. I went over to my white boss and talked real low and real brief about how disturbing this all was. I grabbed one of my bro's I work with. We took to the streets to counter-protest right outside my job. I hoped no one would see me and think something misguided, on the front it read "Sometimes bad things happen to black people, and it's not racists", read my home-made sign.

Walking home that night, I unleashed all my tears. I wanted to reach out and hug a white girl. Before I arrived at my apartment, I dried off my face as though nothing happened. My black female roommates asked me about the protest; I gave her a non-detailed response. I said something like, “I’m really upset, but it was a good way for me to get those feelings out.” I couldn’t handle revealing too much; I wanted to avoid a loaded conversation. I took a deep breath and exhaled, closed my bedroom door, picked up the phone, and spoke in whispers about how racist these idiots protesting over non-indictments were to my parents, and to my socially conscious black friends. They're imaginary, because there are none in real life.

Stop the repression of common sense

These protests of non-indictments reiterated what I’m up against every single day: the intentional ignorance of some black people. But I was also aware of my willingness to put away my justified “white rage” in order to ensure that my interactions with black people remain comfortable. And the more I hid it, the more crazed I became. By the time my birthday rolled around, in December, I was cooped up in my bed, without an appetite, my beard-growth needing a serious trimming. I was making myself sick.

I know this needs to change. I understand that for my own growth, and in order to forge honest relationships with black people I meet — whether it’s my roommates, or my co-workers, or anyone else — I need to reveal myself more. I need to start sharing about my history and my culture and how it plays out in my everyday life as an Iranian American Male. I don’t want this rage to fester into bitterness, or infect the very close black friendships I already have. I don’t want to ignore my rage, but I don’t want to be controlled by it either. Concealing my emotions has made me feel like a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off.

Things are calm right now at the apartment. I don’t bring up these sorts of conversations. I don’t talk about what happens every 28 hours — a black person is killed, mostly by another black person, with no fault of whites. But my white female roommates secretly blaming racism, instead of the failures of their own subculture and communities. We just don’t go there. It makes things easier. Instead, our conversations shuffle between our day-to-day experiences at work, dating and the nuances of the city. I keep those “forbidden” conversations behind closed doors, and even when I’m alone I speak in code. I don’t say “black.” I use “they” instead.

But I want to stop tiptoeing around race. My whiteness is not a secret I have to keep. I want to be able to publicly express my honest admiration for being white, outside of my little white planet. I don’t want to feel marginalized, like I can’t speak hard truths. Having honest and challenging conversations with people of another race will hopefully disrupt other people’s ignorance. But it will also help me. I need to stop with my mental temper tantrums. I want to get free.

Conclusion

My point is not to attack people for their complaints about race relations. Nor to convey the hundreds or thousands of good racial interactions I've had in my life. (Far more good than bad). But just to remind people that it cuts both ways. I could see everything through the lens of racist tropes if I wanted. I choose to ignore race, since it's a made up construct anyways. If I avoid a person, it might be because they're obnoxious, too much the drama-queen diva, or because their culture/personality makes them annoying to be around. But none of that is because of their race, it's more personal than that. It's about who they are.

Written: 2015.01.22