‘Well, you just turn over your card, and then, you know.’
He says it casually. It’s out of step with anything we are familiar with, but it comes close. Charlie, who will be 6 soon, is trying out ‘ya know’. He’s approximating it’s use and misappropriating it. But he’s coming close and it’s pretty great. I won’t say it was adorable. I want to be respectful of his attempts at growth.
There will be more of this. Much more. I know because it’s how I came to be as well. I tried things on. I tried on jock. I tried on brooding teen. I tried on funny guy. I tried on ladies man. I tried on urban Joe or black Joe if you prefer. I tried on tragic Joe. I tried on social warrior. I tried on writer. I’m still trying it on. I put on these identities and parts of each were unearthed in me. I eventually rejected all of these as a whole person is way too big to fit inside something so narrow as an identity so narrowly and externally defined. There was a reason for each and that reason remains and lives on within me.
Watching Charlie start this I have to say, I don’t envy him. The journey to understanding who you are, determining who you are, leveling intent and native instinct as well as philosophy and temperament is arduous. It’s a journey I’m still struggling with. I’m still trying to figure it all out. I hope he navigates it okay. I’d say that I hope he navigates it better than me, but I wouldn't mean it. If he navigated it exactly like me, well, I’d buy that right now. I hope he finds his truest self faster than I did.
I had great freedom. Charlie, so far, knock on wood, appears that he will have similar opportunity. He will be able to be all the things, all the component emotional realities along the way as he grows from nearly six to man sized and ready to be freed of the tyranny of parents. It will seem like torture at times, as it certainly will for us as well but he’ll have that chance it appears. He should consider himself lucky. I should. Not every kid is afforded such a wide berth in which to experiment. Not every parent is afforded the confidence that the world will at the very least look the other way as kids growing up try on identities.
I had friends who were black when I was growing up. I have brothers whom I love who are and were black. Our dinner table had black people at it, black men. It had a young woman who was Vietnamese. Not to mention six tall, white, irish/finnish Medler’s as well. We were all fucked up in our own way. In the way that all good and happy families are. But at bottom we were well. We were loved and we were safe.
At least us white one’s were. Especially us boys. We could fail repeatedly. We could fall down and the world would be there, over and over to pick us up. We were given chances, seen for the good people that we were underneath our outwardly destructive behavior as we grew into fine men. We were forgiven our absences and absolved of wrongdoing. We got consequences, but just enough to make us better for it. Just enough to learn a lesson. Maybe it took a couple of times. Maybe more than a few. I can’t say that all my black friends we afforded the same liberty and leeway.
As I’ve gotten older and I’ve looked back on my youthful friendships I think that we were all playing with a cartoon. A racist cartoon at that. When I say all I mean myself, my white friends and the relatively few black guys who were our peers. I had three best friends in high school, all in separate contexts to some degree. Two redheads and a young man who was black. I essentially was drawn to each of them for their similar qualities. They were all funny, still are. They were all smart. Super smart actually, but like me they were largely smart in the room and not really caring about grades or accomplishment. They were and remain all guys you could sit in a car and split a six pack and talk about life with and you could learn and elucidate. Good guys. But when I was with certain collections of people, during times when I was trying on black joe, I have to say, it was pretty inherently and in hindsight, downright insidiously racist. There was no intent there, but that only makes it more dangerous. It was aping a culture to feel something. I don’t really know what that something was, but it was not ours, not come about honestly. We felt some kind of glow of hardship and reveled in it from a place of safety that wasn’t afforded the members of our groups who weren’t white. To some degree, perhaps they shared some of those safety nets, but we had more. I’d be sent home if caught doing the bad thing. He wouldn’t be. Wasn’t.
I take pride, shamefully, in being right racially. As if this is some honor. As if I should be given some special honorary brother status for merely acknowledging racism exists and saying it’s wrong. For a long time, 40+ years I thought that was enough. I don’t think that anymore. Now I think I need to acknowledge what biases I have. I need to respect the hardships of others and not usurp them. I have to stand alongside not only my my black friends and say we are in this together, I need to stand next to my white ones and own my reality as well.
What’s most painful for me is acknowledging my personal bias. I am scared to write what comes next and as much as I want to be brave and just say it and let it live. I can’t. I have to first say another truth. One that is honest and self serving. I am aware of my bias and whenever I catch it infecting my thinking of another human being I acknowledge it and put it aside and find out more about the person. In doing so I’ve met more wonderful people than a person my age has any right having known and I know that others who have had preconceived notions of me have done the same. I’m proud of that. Which is kind of sick. Because other times I’ve only found my bias in the rearview mirror. I can miss it and not recognize it until it is too late. I’ll always try to make amends if I can, but sometimes I can’t. I imagine there are times I don’t even see it. Ever. Me. Someone who grew up with black people. Who has written boldly on the ill of racism in America and who has spoken out at every turn decrying it’s outcomes, I can be overwhelmed by irrational and unfair bias against black men. Particularly young black men. I try always to counter it. I am disciplined about breaking through that feeling as swiftly as it is recognised. But I’m not immune. It breaks my heart that this is true.
I believe we all have biases. For much of my life these biases have put me ahead of most others in all pursuits, even before we’ve encountered one another. Even if we never encounter one another. That’s what being white and male is in my case. I have friends from homogenous areas of the world who will disagree with this, but I don’t think any of them honestly believes their lives would be easier if they were black. Or that any of the black guys they know wouldn’t think, on some level, the world wouldn’t be a safer place for them if they were white. It doesn’t mean life is easy for anyone. So many factors have lead to my life being what it is, not the least of which being my inherently good traits. But I also see a world where I was forgiven much, allowed a lot and not restricted because the world has been trained to see me as a threat. And I’m big. I’m 6’2″ 235 big. But I’m not big and black and in threat of being exterminated like a roach or a snake because my appearance inspires blind fear of a visceral nature that has caused young men of color to be shot essentially for being black men. Or even boys.
As disgusted as I am to live in a world where this happens I can no longer go forward without acknowledging that I know what those cops were feeling. It was fear. I can have the same response to black men in situations that feel risky. I hate everything I’m saying and I’m more the type of person that will cross the street to be on the same side of that person because I’m civilized, understand that it’s my obligation to actively counter this reaction when I feel it, but I’ve felt it. I can feel it.
I hate myself for feeling it. But nowadays, with racists running for and winning office while openly espousing the profiling of religious belief and questioning the very humanity of people of color, turning their backs on the poor and destitute ravaged by war and strife and hunger, I can’t afford to deny my bias in defense of my ideals. Honesty is the least I can do. I don’t want to ever live in a world where those who know say nothing. Where people who can speak don’t. Right now I feel like I live in a world, in a country that has lost sight of the founding principle that we are all created equal. A myth that was a lie knowingly told by men who hoped to be cured by it’s aspirational sentiment and the actions of those people who followed them. We are failing and we are approaching a point where we must exercise not only our rights, but our better selves and the first step for me is acknowledging my bias. By moving past the foolishness of ‘I don’t see color’ and owning our bias. Owning it and letting it out into the world so I know I’ve done everything in my power to be free of it. So that there can be any hope of ever getting past what is so inherently unjust. So others can see the insidiousness of hate and it’s effect on all of us.