Here’s to the white folks…

Posted on July 31, 2009

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I don’t envy white people.  First of all, being all lumped together into one crazy, gum-chewing and tobacco-spitting racist and imperialist punch bowl must be a bit hard on the chops. I mean, I can sympathize with Lucia Whalen, the woman who seemed to chafe more at being called white, than she did at being called a racist. The white label hurts. I’m not kidding, Lucia—I’ve been there, too.

In my case, its not like I get any of the so-called benefits of being white. I’m profiled as an Arab on a regular basis and I won’t even fly anymore! And most days I’m afraid to watch the news because some disgusting representation of Arabs or Latinos will make me want to throw my shoe through the television screen. Still, I do know that I get a lot of the privileges white folks get, and so I’ve got to live with that. And if living with that is living with guilt for me, imagine the guilt that the average white person feels on a daily basis. Like the kid who says, “I didn’t ask to be born”, white people didn’t ask to be born white. They didn’t ask for all these quotidian privileges. I mean, seriously, if you were going to specify some really awesome perks, would it really be hailing a cab, shopping at a supermarket without being hovered over, and never being the “randomly” chosen person at the airport?  No, its quite obvious that white privilege is no privilege if all you know is white privilege. All white people get to see are the burdens of their race.

Don’t laugh, but non-white people have actually got it easier in some sense. They don’t have to feel bad for hating anyone. My dad never felt bad about being racist against Black or Asian people. He married a Latina and he was still racist against Latinos. He won’t hire Mexicans to work at the Flea Market stand he runs because he thinks Latinos are all thieves. He hires Vietnamese people because he thinks they’re honest. And he thinks they’re honest, because he thinks they’re stupid.  He doesn’t even trust me, because my mom did most of the raising. And don’t even start in on my mom—she hates Arabs. And hates me even when I’m doing my best to be Latino. And don’t get her started on Mexicans. Or white people. And please, don’t ask me what I think about anyone, especially mixed-race people with their uppity claims to whitehood.

Do you think a person of color ever feels guilty about hating white people? Do you think its hard for a person of color to admit he/she is racially profiling a white cop? Or a white clerk? Or a white anything? No way. Admitting you hate white people is like taking a sip of ice water on a hot day.

But we all know, that for white people there’s nothing like the constant stress of being outed as a racist. Because white people, just like every other people, are racist. But unlike every other group of people on earth today, they’re not allowed to admit it! I grew up amongst them, in the previously 91% white Mecca named San Leandro, and I can assure you that I never met a white man, woman or child who didn’t at least once gleefully say or mouth the N-word. I’m almost positive that they said similar things about me when I wasn’t around.

Really, I pity white people. Imagine having this huge trunk of metaphorical, and almost lyrical verbiage compiled over four hundred years of culture made expressly to describe the imagined odiousness of non-white people. Especially Black people! Seriously, one could put together a pretty heavy thesaurus of English language racism. Or write whole b0oks made up exclusively of bigoted sonnets in iambic pentameter.  And imagine no longer being free to express all that—that which has been the root of European culture for half a millenia. Look at these works, ye whitey, and despair!

I begin with all of this to explain what this teachable moment really has to offer. In fact, let’s call it, instead, a learn-able moment, because the teacher in this case—dumb luck—has little or no faculties with which to impart any lessons. The learning is there, ambient and in whisps. You can breathe some of it in, or hold your breath and let it dissipate.

Gates probably learned something. He learned that its never a good idea to lose your temper, no matter how much you think you’ve earned the privilege. Gates tells the story of having been misdiagnosed as a child by a white doctor who doubted his injuries were real, and walking with a cane for life as a result. My mother claims that rather than go to the trouble of removing a tumor when she was diagnosed cancer right after my birth, the doctor simply gave her a hysterectomy. Whether that’s the way things happened or not—or even whether the truth of the matter is that the doctors didn’t like smart-ass kids or bitchy women, respectively—life becomes a narrative dictated by race, gender, class and a dozen appended etceteras. That narrative, like any other, has its climaxes. In Gates’ story, a dozen, hundred, thousand sub-plots converged at the moment he saw a white cop at his door. Crowley was simply a narrative device, like Chekov’s loaded shotgun, poised to go off in the third act.

But no one will ever know that narrative but Gates, and no one will ever really be able to understand what he saw when a white cop came to his front door asking him to identify himself. So he is doomed to be misunderstood, like so many people of color before him.

But what did Crowley learn? Or, should we say—what was Crowley allowed to learn? Being barraged with the title of “racist cop” didn’t help, that’s for sure. And he certainly can’t admit any wrong doing in public for legal reasons, that much is obvious. If anything the lesson Crowley learned is: when set aflame by accusations of racism, stop, drop and roll. But whatever you do, don’t think when you get called a racist. Don’t explore your genderism, your classicism; or your tendency to get annoyed at handicapped people, at short people, at old people, at gay people, or at people you think are gay. Don’t ask questions. Because who would it benefit? Certainly not Officer Crowley, who can be sued and vilified for being a dumb, racist cop if he admits that there was anything going on in front of that house but by the book policework—his non-white police friends agree. The first lesson of public interest work is cover your ass. The second is cover the ass of anyone you work with who does anything you might do in the future.

There is absolutely no incentive for Crowley to learn anything about this in terms of race, power or any of the other issues that stand at the core of our current societal crisis. And, in this role of risk-averse learner, he represents the acme 0f the double-ott new-millenium white-man. And perhaps, to many, he is a hero in that regard—standing strong under a confusing, heartless barrage of invective in a world and role pre-made for his benefit, but without his consent.

And that’s an important learnable moment for the rest of us.

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