The Black Experience, as Seen By a White Person

Posted on July 16, 2013

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I grew up overseas, in places where white people were a minority.  Sure, I saw people of color employed as maids or gardeners, but I also saw them employed as heads of state, city mayors, shop owners, teachers, my doctor.  Frankly, I didn’t think much about color until we settled down in the US.  Only then did race-consciousness start creeping in.  Still, having grown up the way I did, I thought myself fairly unprejudiced.

However, I went around with the notion that people were pretty much equal by then (mid 1970s).  We had been outside the US during a lot of the strife associated with civil rights; occasional racially-motivated incidents seemed far away.  High-profile legal fights over things like affirmative action – like the Bakke case – didn’t make much sense to me and I probably did not give them enough thought.  Shoot, I’m not sure I would have known how to think about them.  Sure, we discussed racial issues in school, or saw race discussed on the news; but I didn’t really grasp why black people still seemed to have a big chip on their shoulders, why they seemed so distrusting of whites in general, why I occasionally seemed to get an unjustified “attitude.”  I’d roll my eyes, miffed at being prejudged – what did I ever do to you? Isn’t this all ancient history?  – and then I wouldn’t think about it anymore.  I never discussed race issues with any of the black people I knew; the topic seemed too offensive to bring up at all.

You know what a black person might say about all this?  “She doesn’t get it.”  And you know what?  They would be right.

Then I joined the Army, which has a much higher percentage of minorities than the general population does, and everyone lives in much closer quarters than the general population does.  Let me tell you, for those whose ears would be opened, there are a lot of opportunities for honest discussion about race, and my ears were opened.  At least a little.

I think the pivotal conversation was the one I had with a fellow commander (let’s call him Don).  Don was black.  In my usual way, I did not focus much on that fact; I focused on his personality, his actions, his decision-making.  He was finishing up his command and I told him that I thought we were losing our most dignified commander in the unit, and we would be poorer for it.  I was going to miss his calming influence among us (me, I’m more of a hothead).  I’m not sure how we got onto the subject of race from there, but he said something about the disadvantage – the prejudice – that comes with being a black man.  I wondered aloud:  we were at the end of the 20th century, we were in the military, wasn’t the only color that mattered “camouflage?”

Um… no.

He described his college experience for me.  He went to a big-name university.  As he walked to chemistry class one day, a campus police officer trailed him in a vehicle (sound familiar?).  Eventually, he got out and asked Don where he was going.  “Chemistry class.”  The cop didn’t believe him, so he offered him a “ride to class.”  Don, young at the time and a little intimidated, got in.  They drove to the science building.  The officer accompanied Don to the lecture hall, marched up to the professor, and asked point-blank if Don was a student there.  “Yes, he is,” said the professor.  The officer didn’t use force, didn’t use profanity or racial slurs, never exactly said that he didn’t believe Don; he just… checked.  Thoroughly.  I’m sure you can see the problem here.  It might not have looked abusive, but it absolutely was.  Don was mortified, more than he was angry.  I could hardly believe it, but coming from Don, I did believe it.  But… no, no, there had to be some other explanation!

A lot of us in the military weren’t exactly clean-cut in our civilian lives; chortling at people’s old driver’s license photos was an occasional pastime.  What had Don looked like in college?  Preppy, as it turned out.  He wore khakis and polo shirts.  He kept his hair short.  He was carrying a backpack full of books when the campus cop decided to “just make sure” he belonged there.  There was nothing un-student-like about his appearance or activity at the time, except for that whole being black thing.

It wasn’t a fluke, either.  While the campus police incident was about the most embarrassing experience for Don, he went on to say that there were dozens of small things every day that betrayed the white attitude; one thing he found especially hurtful was the way that  – in broad daylight! – white women would cross the street to avoid passing too close to him, or move their purses to their opposite side as he approached, shrink away as he passed.  He saw it again and again. They were always on their guard as if they thought he was about to try something.  This quiet, well-spoken guy in the khakis and polo shirts with the short hair and the backpack full of books.  They didn’t see any of that; they saw his dark skin.

All my “hey we’re all equal, this was some kind of fluke” defenses were deflated in that moment.  If this guy – neat, respectful, quiet, conservatively dressed, well-spoken… our most dignified commander in the unit… if this guy could be profiled like that, over and over again, then… dang.  No wonder we still have issues.

I just sat there with my mouth hanging open.  “Don!”  I exclaimed.  “I would have been… so… pissed!”  (Did I mention I’m a hothead?) Imagine!  You do everything right: you dress neatly, you speak proper English, you go to class on time, you get good grades, and yet, through no action of yours, a large number of the people you meet and see act as if you don’t belong there, or you are about to pounce on them and do who-knows-what.  Or both.  Not just at school.  Everywhere.  All the time.  A window opened in my consciousness.

Do I “get it” now?  Without living this, day in, day out, I doubt it, but Don’s story did change how I see things.  Do some minorities and women sabotage themselves?  Yes.  But I couldn’t dismiss Don’s experience as a result of his clothing, his attitude, his education, his speech, his personal presentation, his history.   I really think that his experience was a white problem, not a black one, and it wasn’t fair.

That conversation took place about 17 years ago.  The experiences Don told me about were from about 30 years ago.  I think we have made progress since then, but we still have work to do.  Meanwhile, we might benefit from more conversations like this.

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