Thursday, June 4, 2020

It's Time to Tell This Story

Today, my friend Phil shared a very difficult personal story. It was painful to read, and I won't reproduce it here because it isn't mine. But it showed me how important it is to post this, now.

Here’s my story. It isn’t great.

It’s an early summer evening in West Oakland in the mid 1990’s, in an old steel workers’ union building that was converted to living space, across the street from Acme Galvanizing and the Roadway truck yard.  The neighborhood is known for the abandoned and often burned-out cars that lined its streets, and the disused sports field where locals would gather to train pit bulls - to fight. Smash-and-grab theft was common. The house next door had a vicious german shepherd tied up, that would try it’s level best to get over, under, or through the fence to maul anyone who it didn’t know. 7-8 tenants in 3 households, all in their 20s and 30s and all of whom happen to be white, are having a cookout in the shared courtyard and parking lot, encircled by 9-foot cyclone fencing topped with razor wire.

The sun is just about setting, and a young man, same age as the tenants in the building, approaches the gate and rings the doorbell. Everyone looks up, and one guy - punk-rock wannabe kid in a flannel with a mohawk and Doc Maarten boots - turns to look. 

“No man, get lost - we don’t have any bottles, man!” 

The guy at the gate asks “What? what bottles are you talking about?” He looks confused, but somehow not completely surprised. 

“Whoah, Whoah, no…he’s cool! That’s our friend, Maurice!” says one of the other tenants, jumping up to clear up the confusion and let the other guy in. 

The guy at the gate is black. The punk kid…is…well, me. 

I could make a lot of excuses. Some of them would be kind of convincing. 

They Do Not Matter.

I saw a black face at my gate. And my first instinct was to drive them off. 

That Matters.

My bias drove my actions that evening - unconsciously, unthinkingly, and incredibly quickly. 2 seconds would have been enough to see from the guy’s clothes (shabby-but-fashionable for the time, honestly very much like what the rest of us were wearing) that he was not a homeless man looking for recyclables. One word would have been enough to make clear that this was not an intruder, but an invited guest - I think he had even brought a bottle of wine, for pete’s sake! 

“Get lost, we don’t have any bottles for you…”  Welcome to our home.

The fact that I felt like shit immediately doesn’t absolve my actions. The  rest of the evening during which Maurice and I got on fine and had a friendly conversation doesn’t mean it’s all okay. At the end of the night we shook hands, and smiled at each other, and each of us pretended it was no big deal…but yes, it was. It really was. 

Because I know this is the shit that causes racism to continue to hold power in our society. It’s not white-power torch-wavers, or goose-stepping neo-nazis, or idiots in hoods and robes or dicks in suits wearing pins of Pepe the Frog and flashing “WP” signs. Those things are bad - horrifyingly bad.  But they’re also very easy to point to and say “well, see, THAT’S a Racist - not me!” 

This kind of overt hate, in addition to the direct harm it causes, keeps white people like me blind to the harm that we do. It provides an easy piece of cover for the subtle biased attitudes that really do allow racism to flourish in safety. Being just a little more likely to call the cops when a black person is “hanging around the neighborhood,” or being just a little more “careful” when in a “black part of town,” putting up razor wire and bars on our windows, or saying things like “I don’t understand why they tear up their own neighborhoods whenever they get angry…” These are the kinds of things that perpetuate racism in our social systems and governments, and allow us to feel okay about it.  And a lot of us whites have these things in us, even if unconsciously, quietly influencing our actions and decisions. 

 I carry biases - they are mine, as are the actions they cause me to take. What I realize I need to do is to be aware of them, and be mindful and purposeful in choosing how to act, what decisions to make, what judgments to hold, and what actions to condone or condemn in others. Some of my automatic responses are, and always will be, influenced by racist biases. I know it, I own it, and I’m accountable for it.

I have never seen Maurice since. He’ll never see this, and even if he did I don’t imagine he’d feel any better. Because I acted like an asshole, and in my own small way added to whatever the system had been doing to him his whole life. My feeling bad about it is nothing - NOTHING - compared to what I imagine it must have been like for him living in this system his whole life. 

I’m sorry, Maurice. I know it doesn’t make up for it, but I’m trying to do better, and I’m hoping that others like me might see a bit of this story in themselves, and also try to do better. Because you shouldn’t have to put up with this anymore.