An Open Letter to Urban White Liberals — On Our Implicit Bias and Explicit Privilege

In the aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s shocking defeat of Hillary Clinton, facilitated by his very narrow wins in the “blue” states of Wisconsin and Michigan, the liberal blogosphere and opinion journalists in the nation’s power centers began pointing fingers — at the first female candidate and her campaign, at sub-groups of the Obama coalition who didn’t turn out, and at rural and working class Whites who fear the gradual “browning” of America.

Among my network of friends and colleagues in Washington and on social media, this last rationale — about a growing divide between a largely White rural America and a more diverse urban America — seemed to gain the largest base of support. Indeed, I “liked” and “shared” a post or two about the growing divide. As a young man who left his home in rural southern Illinois at age 18 and has spent the next 18 years exploring America’s cultural capitals as well as those of Asia, Africa and Europe, my life story spans that metaphorical divide, and I can assure you that there are real differences between these two Americas.

But I’m also here to tell you that invoking the divide and pointing a finger at the people that I grew up with, faulting them for their lack of exposure to people unlike them or simply labeling them as racists and xenophobes is too convenient and extraordinarily dangerous. Not because these claims are without basis. But rather because this type of finger-pointing allows urban White elites to avoid a deep examination of their own attitudes and behaviors toward people who look, live, love and worship differently than they do.

About My Liberal White Neighbors

I arrived at this conclusion only recently when my partner, a Black man of Caribbean descent, and I were confronted by an older White neighbor in the lobby of our condo building in the Logan Circle neighborhood of DC. This big and tall, semi-retired professional (who supported Hillary) “greeted” us outside the door of our first-floor condo with a shrill shout and a banging of his open palm against the opposite wall. His eyes and his grin were wide as he told me that he was going to pass some bit of Association business against my very public opposition.

As we stepped around him, the White man followed us into the lobby. After a few moments of tense exchange in which he was clearly trying to gaslight me about my commitment to the building’s future, he turned to my partner. Having experienced repeated disrespect from this man’s White wife, my partner told the White man that he would not engage him for that very reason. The White man then maneuvered to within a foot of my partner’s face and began shouting down at him: “You just insulted my wife! You will not insult my wife like that! You will not! You will apologize now! I will not accept your insults to my wife! You will apologize!”

As my partner held his position, arms to his side and feet firmly planted, the White man continued to yell at him, and my partner calmly asked, “Are you trying to threaten me? I’m not going to apologize, so are you going to hit me or not? Please go ahead, and I will file charges against you in both criminal and civil courts.” The White man leaned forward, now within inches of my partner’s face; he pointed at him and yelled, “You don’t deserve to have an opinion!”

America in Black and White

I will never really know what it means to live as a Black man in America, nor would I ever claim that this incident has or will affect me in the same way it affected my partner. But in the 5 minutes or less that these events proceeded and in the hours and days that have followed, I’ve obtained a glimpse into new dimensions of White privilege and the vulnerability of Blackness in this country, even (or perhaps especially) in the heart of liberal DC’s fully-gentrified Logan Circle neighborhood.

Briefly, here’s what I’ve learned from this experience so far:

  • Black people make easy scapegoats for any perceived slight or injustice that a White person feels: In our situation, the White man’s original argument — about a pending vote to finance our building’s maintenance — was with me, but when he failed to elicit a reaction from me, he readily shifted his focus to a competitor who he perceived to have less agency. The behavior resembles that of a certain Presidential candidate who avoided serious discussion of complex policy issues in favor of rhetoric attributed the economic decline of rural White communities to a cast of mythical “others,” including Hispanics, immigrants, Muslims, and Black criminals.
  • Black men are perceived as a threat to sacred Whiteness — and especially to White femininity: Sixty-one years after Emmett Till was maimed and murdered for looking at a White woman in Mississippi, our White neighbor attempted to pick a fight with my partner not over an ideological principle or some matter of fact, but for the honor that his wife earned by virtue of her Whiteness. The fact that I had many times before — and often in writing — accused the same woman of acting deceitfully and disrespectfully was not grounds for her White husband to confront me. Instead, it seems Black masculinity carries a special magic that elevates its threat to White femininity, and White masculinity mandates that threat be confronted directly and forcefully, even violently if necessary.
  • To be White in America is to know justice will serve your interests; to be Black in America is to live with no such expectation: White people are often quick to call the police. I’ve dialed 9–1–1 a half dozen times, particularly when I see (mostly White) people peeing or drug dealing or simply passed out in the alley behind our condo. So naturally, as my partner absorbed the White man’s barrage of threats, my first thought was to call the police. And then almost instinctually, I had a second thought — that involving the police could worsen the scenario for my partner. Given inequities in the American criminal justice system, I questioned the odds that anyone would believe a young Black professional over the word of a wealthy White man. And as I would later learn, the White man and his co-conspirators promptly coalesced around an alternative version of the events and have been actively spreading rumors and innuendo against my partner and me.
  • In America, White men are allowed to undertake violence as a means of resolving conflict, but Black men must try hard to avoid all appearance of violence: In the midst of the White man’s shouting for apologies and my partner’s calm denial of that request, another White man attempted to intervene. He directed his gaze at my partner, reached over the White man’s right shoulder in an effort to push my partner back and he invoked my partner’s name as he said, “Ok, let’s calm down now.” Nevermind that the White man initiated and escalated the situation or that my partner never raised his voice. The onus was on my partner to behave appropriately.
  • To succeed as a Black person in America requires a level of self-regulation that White people will never know: I used to give my partner grief about playing into respectability politics by dressing up his look just to walk the dog. But I’ve quickly recognized that his J.Crew wardrobe is something of an armor against a world in which he is routinely approached by White people who wonder, “Are you a dog walker? Because I’m looking for someone to care for my Oliver.” And in the face of that “insult,” social norms dictate his always-polite response: “No, I’m not. This is my dog. My partner and I adopted her 7 years ago — when we moved onto this block.” Personally, I don’t understand where he finds the strength, but then again, I don’t have to because no one asks me to walk their dog, and if they did, I could tell them where to shove that mutt. Those options are less available to my partner.
  • Black people in America live under the strain of relentless fear and anxiety: One of the biggest — and most devastating — realizations of this confrontation came to me only when my partner and I were talking about potential legal action. He said that the tapes from the lobby security camera would provide evidence to support our version of the story. “That’s a great idea,” I said. And his response still gives me chills: “I know it’s smart. I intentionally positioned myself so that the cameras would catch whatever happened.” Let that sit for a second and the consider: being Black in America means an unending fear that you might fall into harm and thus requires you to be vigilant not only of potential danger but also of means and evidence that you or your survivors can use to secure justice. And now for my partner, that fear has invaded our home.
  • The cumulative effect of Black people’s fears and anxieties is — and long has been — a public health epidemic: My partner sometimes chides me for how soundly I sleep, for how much I can eat without gaining a pound, and for my ability to tune out all distractions and focus on a task. I’ve often said that he could do the same if he wanted, but the confrontation with the White man challenged that assumption. That night I slept barely 3 hours as the event re-played in my head. The next day, I skipped breakfast and lunch, eating only at the point that I felt that I might vomit if I didn’t put something on my stomach. I was so distracted at work that colleagues asked what was wrong, and I immediately broke into tears on them. Suffice to say, I do not have what it takes to be Black in America. But if you consider the impact that this single incident had upon my physical and psychological health and then stretch it out over a lifespan, you’ll find the overwhelming share of factors that contribute to African Americans’ disproportionately high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and many other illnesses. (And given the relationship between anxiety and performance, the stress of being Black in America likely contributes to some share of both the educational achievement gap and higher under- and unemployment for Black Americans.)

I somehow doubt that any of these facts have weighed on the White man’s mind — or on the minds of our White neighbors who witnessed or heard about this incident. If any of them stumbled upon this post and read this far, I doubt that they’d recognize any part of themselves in the White man. And that is not only another realization for me, it is also a new source of fear.

Progress Starts at Home

When my partner and I go to visit my family in rural Illinois, it’s something of a “polite joke” we tell each other that the next town over has never repealed the race code that required Black people to leave the jurisdiction before sundown. It isn’t funny to either of us, but it reminds us that the people who live there have the “courtesy” to tell us how they feel about an inter-racial gay couple. Somehow, despite the tensions it creates between me and my family, I think I might prefer the direct and plainspoken “ignorance” of my rural aunts, uncles and cousins over the implicit bias that I now recognize as a daily artifact of living among “well-meaning liberal White people.”

[White people] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what the know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger , in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.”
— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 1963

Obviously, it would be better if both urban and rural White people could acknowledge both their privilege and their biases as well as the consequences of historical and contemporary injustices that Black people in America have and continue to endure. But in the meantime, I’d count it as progress if urban White liberals stopped pointing to the attitudes and behavior of rural White people as some signal of our moral superiority. There remains a long path to righteousness for even the most progressive of urban Whites. And to the extent that we’re truly committed to justice and equality, it is high time we started interrogating and calling out the aspects of the system that privilege our Whiteness at work and in our schools, on the street, in our government, and as it turns out, in the lobby of the buildings we call home.

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Thanks for reading!