In a few days, everyone will have moved on from the recent story about a pair of African-American men who were arrested for the crime of hanging out at a popular national coffee franchise. The two men were quietly waiting for a third friend when the store manager called 911 within two minutes of them arriving. There have been resignations, and apologies, and protests. Oh, and opinions too, like gnats in the summer.
This will all be forgotten, soon, until the next time a white person panics for no good reason. The national debate about racism resembles a conversation between two goldfish in a bowl who are constantly meeting each other, for the first time, every three minutes.
I sympathize with the store manager and the men who freaked her out. I can pull off this magic trick because I have an imagination but, also, because I’m a white man who was born to a Catholic Mexican-American woman. I call myself a white man because that’s what people see when they meet me: a white man. The lord, in his wisdom, decided that I should resemble my white Southern Baptist father and I have benefited from that gift my whole life.
I don’t think it’s said enough, or at all, but being white can be great fun. Sure, there are disadvantages to being a member of the ruling caste. For one, it can be really annoying when someone points out that—whoopee!— you won the racial lottery. It is hard to understand privilege if you’re broke and have to claw, tooth and nail, for all the things you were promised were yours in the first place. Sharing may be caring, but it is also scary. But, otherwise, and the whole burden of the human condition aside, being white is pretty great. I feel lucky. It’s not called “privilege” for nothing. I’m practically escorted to tables at chain restaurants. Cops nod at me and I nod back. When I go to the airport I get to act like I own the place.
Of, course, this fun is routinely ruined for me. I have seen my family denied respect that society has told me is my birthright. I have seen, with mine own eyes, privileges granted and privileges revoked.
Once, when I was a teen, I confronted a security guard wearing a security blazer who had been following my mother and I as we shopped for school clothes. She told me to ignore him but I walked up to him anyway and demanded to know why he was following us. He was shocked that I saw through his disguise and, then, apologized before slowly walking away. I was impressed with my display of raw power but my mother was not. She did not need a hero and, besides, she had often shopped at that store by herself, and she had been planning to shop there again, alone, in the future.
That security guard was an older, white man and he was just doing his job. My mother wanted to buy me shirts that fit because my preference was, always, roomy extra-large sizes. This life sorts us into classes, and genders, and races, and whatnots, and it’s all random, who gets born with a wooden spoon, or a silver one, or who gets to cup their hands and plead. I watched a movie when I was in college about two prisoners of war who were forced to play a game of Russian roulette with a revolver. It was a harrowing scene. I think life can be a little bit like that game, only instead of five empty chambers and one bullet, it’s five empty chambers and one ‘get born in a wealthy zip code’. I still believe that hard work can pay off but there is no substitute for luck.
I don’t usually bring up the fact that I am only half-white with my white friends. Sometimes, when I do, they react like I just pulled off a white rubber mask to reveal Speedy Gonzales, the fastest mouse in all Mexico. Or they immediately dust off their high school Spanish and I have to respond, “Um, I don’t speak Spanish.” I don’t. My parents are proud Texans who raised me in Virginia, one of the crown jewels of the Confederacy, and the closest thing to a Mexican in my neighborhood was a Persian family down the street.
Usually, I just make jokes about being biracial. I went to my first Passover Seder a few weeks ago and called the chopped liver “Jewish guacamole.” I love telling HR that I can’t come to work on Cinco De Mayo because it is a sacred holiday to my people. I tell a dad joke with the punchline “José, can you see?” This is my way of saying “I am like you, kinda.”
Emphasis on the “kinda.” I look white, but I am neither fully white nor fully brown. Like most mixed-race babies I am beautiful but born to two worlds. In a race war, I’m a turncoat no matter who wins.
My friends are, mostly, liberal. They mean well. But they’re racists. I mean, we’re all racists. Right? We can’t help it. We didn’t start the fire, to paraphrase the ancient saying, but we’re cooking our marshmallows over it anyway.
My therapist tells me not to use the word “we” so much. I don’t speak for anyone except myself. This is a bad habit. I do it all the time on social media. So, forgive me. I am a racist. There’s a good chance you are, too? Think about it. This is an essay about race, so it is the least you can do. Especially if you’re a white liberal.
The best I can do is stay vigilant and be aware that I am capable of judging someone who looks different than I do. I’m not saying I understand the experience of being African-American in this society. At least my ancestors got to kill everyone at the Alamo before they were crushed and occupied. I just know, for a fact, that America is divided by velvet ropes and chains. There are Americans who are followed, and those who can shop in peace.
There are white people who will disagree with me. That is fine with me. They are wrong, of course. There have always been white people who disagree. Hello there, people who think I’m wrong.
My mother taught me, long ago, that a noisy racist was preferable to a quiet one. I didn’t know what she meant by that until a white cub scout leader told me to run like a Mexican and I thought “like my uncles?”
It’s just better if we’re all honest about it. I know a popular liberal reaction to news about racial bias is to shout, “this is not normal!” But, my friends, it is normal. This is America from day one.
This country has spent the last two-hundred and forty-two years trying to work out how to live together peacefully while also murdering each other every chance we got.
The indigenous peoples of North America were butchered. Millions of Africans were the fresh produce of a global business based on human suffering. Protestants killed Catholics and vice versa. The Mormons were chased across the country at gunpoint. We threw Japanese-Americans into prison camps for the hell of it. When we’re not shooting each other, we’re blowing each other up with bombs. We’ve assassinated four of our presidents — the most powerful people in our history — a record that is positively Roman. In my mother’s lifetime, the racist warlords of Ku Klux Klan ran entire states and stories of young black men hanging from trees were greeted with shrugs by good church-going folks.
Fast forward to today and, you know, we’ve come along way, but the state is still busy shooting unarmed non-white people, so there’s still a long, long way to go.
So: That a S.W.A.T. team of bicycle helmet-wearing law enforcement officers showed up because a pair of black men parked themselves, momentarily, in a safe space designed to sell syrup and caffeine to the overeducated bourgeoisie is absolutely a normal occurrence.
Because I am a mighty white man, I know all of the negative responses to writing these truths. I usually just ignore most of them, though. My favorite is, of course, that I am “virtue signaling.” If you don’t know what that means then, please, enjoy your ignorance in this one instance. “Virtue signaling” is a popular form of folk rhetoric meant to protect the tender-hearted from having to accept responsibility for their moral choices. If you’re ever accused of it, I suggest you wave, and wink.
But here is one answer to a question I find especially silly. Are marginalized people racist? Absolutely. You think Latinos look at me and say “hermano!” Oh, no, no, no. Why would they? I look like the guy who gets snippy if the breakfast burrito I ordered was five minutes late. But until I start seeing people of color on the money I use to buy double caramel macchiatos, I think they should get a pass.
I’m just being honest. I’m reporting from another dimension where people are white on the outside, and brown on the inside, or the reverse. A twilight zone where no one is just one color. An alternate reality of outcasts. I have spent time on this planet of yours called Earth, and I think you should know, it is racist as fuck.
And there I go, again, making sweeping statements. I should speak from the “I.”
I believe racism is a sin. I probably think this way because of my Southern Baptist father. The Southern Baptist church doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to race relations. But the preacher I grew up with greeted my mother and I with respect and warmth. Yes, we were papists and, yes, I was a mutt, but he was kind. From the pulpit, I taught that we’re all sinners. Humans sin because that is what humans do. Sins are easy to commit. They are thoughtless actions. Racism is pride, and greed, and wrath. Envy. Racism lies. It is hate, given false dignity. I’ll skip the part about how forgiveness requires accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior. I don’t want to diminish that belief but I’m a firm believer in taking what works for me and leaving the rest. The only way for a sinner to not sin is to admit they are a sinner. And then it’s simple: try not to sin. Pray. Meditate. If you are weak and succumb to sin, try again. Ask for forgiveness. Forgive yourself. Be thoughtful. Fill your heart with love. Share.
I try but, still, to this day, if I’m walking home late at night and I see a black man walking towards me I get scared, and I have to remind myself that he’s probably scared, too. I will be racist until the day I die and until that moment I will try, oh I will try, my best to be fair, and open-hearted, and even though I will fail from time to time, I will repent, and try again, and again.