Three years ago I was in a triathlon. I fear that it will be my only triathlon in part because I went 65 miles per hour down a steep hill on a bicycle—a happenstance that felt, even to my daredevil self, unsafe—and, in part (embarrassingly), because I got lost. I was flat out confused, during the running course, which way to go. As if an insult added to the injury of my sore and aching limbs, I wound up running an extra kilometer.
But that is not the confusion about race, to which this blog refers, nor is the famous case of a woman who recently claimed to be African American (and still does, so it seems) even though she is genetically Caucasian. That’s just weird. No, rather, I refer to an event in my life that occurred recently when I was confused (and apparently looked quite so) when I came upon a certain train platform in St. Louis, Missouri. That train platform is known as Delmar Station, and it is partially subterranean. One descends a series of comely, tiered steps to a lower level where one can buy a ticket and then cross the tracks on a walkway to get to trains running westward, toward the airport, on the other side from the machine and the eastbound track.
Being unfamiliar with this system, I began my descent down the comely flight of steps, pausing as another person clearly more familiar with that transit station pushed briskly by me. As I hesitated, a gentleman dressed in a semi-official looking St. Louis transit authority outfit, possibly beyond retirement age who had gone back to work to supplement his pension, inquired about my obviously hesitating gate. “Can I help you? You look lost.”
“I am,” I said, “as I am not familiar with this station. How does one get across the track to go westbound? Oh, and is that the ticket machine there?”
“Yes,” he said, “It is. And the passageway over the tracks is over there, to the right.” He gestured.
After a proper thank you, I continued my descent toward the ticket machine. Yet before I could even fumble through my wallet to find the cash to purchase the ticket, an emotional eruption broke forth from the woman who had briskly passed me.
“Why did you not ask me if I needed any help?” She asked the man in a highly accusing tone. “It’s because he is white. And it’s because he’s a man.” She answered her own question before the unsuspecting Information Assistant (for I think he had some such title) could even say a word.
“No, mam,” he responded, “It’s because he looked lost.”
At this point I tried to affirm the man’s correct assessment about my befuddlement but the woman shouted loudly over my statement.
“No,” she proclaimed, “It’s because he is white. A white male. And I am a black female. I was overlooked because of my race. He was catered to because of his race. You are a (insert-expletive-here) racist. Go expletive yourself, you expletive racist.”
The information assistant seemed taken aback. Perhaps he was so because he, like the woman, was African American. He continued to show a gentleness that befit the wisdom of his years. “No mam,” he said decorously, “It is simply because this man looked lost.”
Not accepting his explanation, she offered several more expletives before she purchased her ticket; I had already bought mine by now. I then crossed to the westbound track, she took a seat on the eastbound side, directly, as it happened, across from me. Heated from the previous exchange, she now directed her antagonism towards me. “You and your expletive-ing people held mine in chains. Here, right here,” she said pointed to her ankle, slashing at it with the side of her hand, “is where you put your expletive-ing shackles. You beat me, you raped me. You made me your possession. You will burn in hell. God, my God, will punish you and all of your kind.” Now I was taken aback, even to a greater extent, I imagine, than the kindly retiree assistant whom she had accosted moments before.
A friend of mine, who is in fact of a racial minority, insists that white people like me have no real understanding of white privilege. Whites cannot, he says, understand what it is like to be from a minority group. He believes, as I suppose all who subscribe to the notion of white privilege do, that folks from minority backgrounds carry around with them an invisible backpack of weights that pull them down, weights that are the constructs of disadvantages that society has imposed on them. This woman, my friend likely would argue, was merely showing me a small portion of the contents of her backpack, the extreme pain that I and other Caucasians have caused in her life. In any case, my friend once told me, I and nearly all white people are virtually asleep in our own dreamlike state when it comes to this issue. You might as well leave them asleep, he says, because they don’t want to be woken up.
Now I’ve given this issue a lot of thought, in no small part because I have such high regard for my friend. I think he has some valid points. People, I would argue, all people, are fallen and anyone, I would also argue, in the “right” (really wrong) environment will seek the path of least resistance, will try to take the most comfortable way, ignoring those in need, ever taking more and more for themselves. They will do this no matter what race they are. Becoming aware that some folks feel very put upon because they have been maltreated owing to their heritage is one way of disrupting that comfort, and that is good, for that comfort needs to be disrupted or it will likely be unhesitatingly grasped after. But that might be where the period in the white privilege sentence needs to go. And maybe the term itself needs to be rethought.
The reason for that is it is a term that divides. It divides Caucasians from African Americans and other minorities. It takes a racial term and puts it front and center in the same manner that Black Lives Matter does. It says, racial division is important to me. In other words, whether it wants to hear or admit as much or not, it does the very thing that segregated bathrooms did until the extraordinarily noble, fantastically unifying and stupendously dignifying efforts of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I have a feeling that that good, noble and courageous soul would not want to celebrate the contents of the invisible backpack that that woman on the train platform did. He would, I think, were he alive today, encourage all folks, white and black, to discard their backpacks and love each other.
My friend about whom I wrote above would doubtless be quick to reprove me. What can I possibly know about this? Thus, I imagine, he would more than obliquely criticize. And who am I to say? After all, I’m a white guy with a backpack full of advantages. But I know of two people whose backpacks are not yet filled. These are two kid who have been in the news lately, and I think they can answer very well to the woman on the platform or even to my idealistic friend better than I can. One’s name is Jax, and he got his hair cut so that he could look just like his best friend. That friend, Reddy, is African American; Jax is white. By getting a matching haircut, Jax wants to be a twin of Reddy playfully to confuse his teacher so that she can’t tell them apart. While someone might say that celebrating our differences is a beautiful thing, perhaps confusion, like Jax’ and Reddy’s, about race that celebrates our shared humanity is beautiful, too—far more beautiful.