I Grew Up and Racism Still Doesn’t Make Sense

I found a note from twenty years ago the other day. I was going through my books when a tiny scrap of paper fluttered out and landed at my feet. In tidy draftman’s pencil, someone had written a date from way back in the 1990s, and five words: “Remember when you are thirty”.

The note was written to me back when I was a teenager, during the time I worked an easy afterschool job sweeping floors, emptying wastebaskets, and scrubbing the one toilet at a little office just up the road from my house. I was not terribly ambitious, but my parents pressed me into a little bit of a job, wanting to instill in me their assiduous protestant work ethic, and some of its better lessons: How there is always unglamorous work to do, and how we should never see ourselves as above doing it. I made then-minimum wage of $5.50 an hour, and my family was comfortable enough that I was able to spend my paycheck on books, cassette tapes, and bargain-bin computer games. It was a safe, self-contained world.

One day it came up in the news that someone had detonated truck bombs at two U.S. embassies in East Africa, killing over 200 people. The evening news flashed pictures of a tall, bearded man with a hauntingly placid smile. I began to recognize him as someone by the name of Osama Bin Laden. Most people, it seems, had never heard of him. Even to me, he was little more than a distant worry for some obscure national security analyst far away. There were a few voices around me, though, that whispered of him as the leading edge of a dark shadow falling over American life: the threat of Islamic terrorism.

I was sad, and poorly adjusted, and more than a little morbid, and the news helped to feed dark daydreams. My imagination spared nothing in its visions of places I knew reduced to ash, or people I cared about torn limb from limb by vicious strangers. It is easy to feel afraid, especially when you also feel alone. No matter how much I feared, though, none of those things ever became substantial realities for me. They were only ever things that people talked about.

We all talked about the news a lot at the little office where I cleaned. There were not very many of us: eight people, seven of whom were men, and all of whom were white like me. Everyone was friendly and open. I was lonely and desperate to talk about anything. Conversation was easy.

As I empted his wastebasket one day, one of the men of the office — I’ll call him ‘Melvin’ — said matter-of-factly that we were at war with Islam, and we should just kill them all, since they want to kill us all anyway. He said it the way one might say, “The city ought to fix the roads,” or maybe, “The mosquitos are bad this year.” He seemed animated, but not particularly angry. His face betrayed nothing of the emotion that I would have expected from someone contemplating mass murder. The words almost could have been a line of formulaic dialogue in a joke: Knock, knock. Who’s there?

But I guess I didn’t get the joke, because instead of reciting the next line in the litany, I responded earnestly: “That’s not true.”

It’s important to note at this juncture that my decision was not an enlightened one. This is not a story about how I acted with integrity and stood up against injustice. I was young, and insufferably self-important, and going through a difficult intellectual transition whose successes I wanted to show off. I had begun to break away from the strong religiously-toned conservatism of my parents, to notions that I was starting to pick up from books. My reading wasn’t terribly impressive, but the very existence of articulate, well-reasoned ideas felt cosmopolitan, erudite, and exciting compared to the formulaic snarling of Rush Limbaugh, or the toxically pious droning-on of James Dobson. The truth is that I wanted to demonstrate to an adult how smart I was.

So, when Melvin argued his point for total war against a sizable fraction of the world’s human population, I argued back. To be honest, my arguments were weak and rambling, and relied on obscurity as much as they did on reason. I do not think my thesis ever approached anything stronger than “there exist muslims who don’t want to kill us all.” I stuck to my point, though, and debated for at least an hour that there was no good, rational basis for us, as white Christian Americans, to kill all muslims.

When I refused to concede, Melvin, finally, got a little heated. With a great flourish, he tore a scrap of paper from something he was working on, and began to write. “In twenty years from today,” he declared sternly, “you’ll be in your thirties.”

He finished his inscription and handed the scrap of paper to me.

“A lot is going to happen in the world,” Melvin continued darkly. “When it does, I want you to look back on this conversation, and remember what we talked about. See if you still think it’s that simple. See if you still think the way you do today, after you’ve grown up.”

On the paper was written only the date, and the words: “Remember when you’re thirty.”

I took the paper, and put it in my pocket. Then I finished emptying the trash. I went home, put the paper into a book, and forgot about it, until the other day, when it fluttered out onto my floor.

I am thirty-four years old as of this writing. A lot has happened, and I do think differently. People I love have died, but they weren’t killed by terrorists. Things I care about have been taken from me, but not by guns or bombs. Nightmares have unfolded over the face of the country I live in, but they’ve been perpetrated all too often by Americans who look and talk just like I do. If there is a sense or an order to death and loss, growing up has yet to make it clear to me.

I do think differently. Arguments over race and class no longer feel like leisurely logic games. Racism kills people. We breathe its poison every day — some us in, some of us out, but all of us sick with it. We live entwined with historical forces fed by hatred, and they grow with our silent assent. The men of the little office where I worked were educated, and middle-class, but that did not stop them from casually dropping terms like “spear-chucker” or “jigaboo”. We had an embarrassingly long argument over whether it was ever okay for a white person to say “nigger”, as long as they held the intent that it referred not to all people who were black, but only those who were especially “stupid”. One day, Melvin enthused, with an easy smile and a chuckle, about his wish to go “hunting porch monkeys”.

Every time I think of that phrase, and the face that went with it, I feel sick. It wasn’t a joke, and it never could have been a joke. It’s the thought of a murderer. I’m ashamed I didn’t see that more clearly, and speak up more loudly when I was young and face-to-face with it. The problem with whiteness is that we always equivocate in the face of anything that might create a scene. It is easy to allow a speck of injustice against people you may never meet, in exchange for peace and order with the people right in front of you.

I don’t want to think of Melvin or the other folks of that office as hateful people. I don’t want to think of anyone that way. I remember Melvin as bright and friendly to me, at a time in my life when I was lonely. I remember how sometimes we would sit and play Minesweeper or Hearts on the office’s then-fabulously high-tech local area network. I remember how, one time, he was gracious enough to take me up in a borrowed single-engine plane. It was the first time I had ever ridden in an airplane. We flew over my house. He let me hold the controls. He spoke warmly and poetically of how he loved flying, and how he wished he’d become a full-time pilot. He offered, with the seriousness of someone sharing a heart-felt passion, to start me on flying lessons. I never took him up on it. Sometimes I wonder where I might be if I had.

I also don’t want to delude myself, though. I genuinely liked Melvin. I still want to like him now. But I also look back on the things I heard him say, and I realize they were disgusting. They were not funny. They were not jokes. They were not okay. They betray hideous realities much larger than words, and for all too many people, those realities mark a line between life and death. Just thinking of that makes me feel old. It’s no wonder the people who actually have to actually live it are so tired and so angry.

For better or worse, I have grown up. I have more responsibilities than I would like, but I’ve also succeeded by all the old American middle-class standards that have become so scarce today. I have a family. I pay a mortgage. I work forty hours a week as a journeyman software developer. I have every material incentive to quietly agree to the status quo, even as it is structured by systemic violence against people who look different than I do.

I still don’t see how racism is morally complicated, or necessary. Maybe I missed something in the last twenty years, but, it looks like hatred, and hatred is always harmful. As I grew up and learned more about the world and the people in it, that became more, not less apparent.

It’s been about twenty years since I last saw Melvin. If we do meet again, I’d like to think we could even be friends. But I would hope that, in all that time, he’s learned that the world is not so simple that you can just tie up all your fears by hating and threatening people. I would wish him the best and hope that, after all that time, he has finally grown up.